Grammy-winner Norman Brown leads trio BWB for City of Lights performance

There are music genres that, for whatever reason, seem to mesh particularly well with specific environments.

Heavy metal and monster truck rallies. Classical music and fancy dinner parties. And, of course, jazz, which if not heard in a smoky downtown club, seems perfectly happy to be heard at comfortable outdoor venues during warm-weather months.

Take, for instance, the Las Vegas City of Lights Jazz and R&B Festival, which kicks off Friday for a three-day run at the Clark County Government Center amphitheater. This year marks the 22nd edition of the festival, which will bring a roster of talented artists to a picnic-friendly outdoor venue complete with a shaded pavilion, a nearby vendors’ village and ample room for a few low-back lawn chairs or a blanket.

Friday’s show, from 7 to 11 p.m., will include KEM and Chrisette Michele. Saturday’s show, which will run from 1 to 10 p.m., is scheduled to include Boney James, BWB featuring Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown and Rick Braun, Nick Colionne, Everette Harp and Althea Rene.

Sunday’s show will represent the festival’s R&B portion. It will run from 2 to 10 p.m. and feature such performers as Chaka Khan, Raheem DeVaughn, Leela James and Eric Roberson.

Festival producer Michael Schivo says the event each year brings to the government center not just avid locals but visitors from more than 30 states who plan trips to Las Vegas around the event.

This year marks the festival’s fifth at the amphitheater, Schivo adds, where fans love the “very intimate setting” and a vibe akin to “a roving party.”

Grammy-winning guitarist Norman Brown, whom Southern Nevada jazz fans know not just from his appearances at the festival but also from shows at Station Casinos properties, will perform this weekend as one-third of BWB, an occasional musical partnership he formed in 2002 with trumpeter Rick Braun and tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum.

The trio initially made a record together and did a tour. “After that we went our separate ways and fans kept saying, ‘Give us some more music please,’ ” Brown recalls during a recent phone interview. “I’m telling you, it’s totally flattering.”

Last year, the trio reunited to tour on behalf of their second album, “Human Nature,” which featured their refashioning of several Michael Jackson tunes. While each member continues to pursue solo careers, Brown says BWB remains enjoyable mostly because “we love each other and respect each other.”

What makes BWB work so well? “It’s the level of mutual respect we have for each other as musicians and artists and the love we have for each other as gentlemen,” Brown says. “I think fans feel that.”

Brown adds that he, Whalum and Braun now know each others’ styles so well that performing together creates a sort of synergistic fusion onstage.

“Definitely, our playing styles influence each other. Kirk will play something and Rick and I feed off of it and vice versa,” he says. “I really think that’s what makes it work. And we all, as musicians, are constantly looking for new inspiration.”

Brown’s music often is described as “smooth jazz.” How would he describe it?

“I call it good music,” he answers with a laugh. “I’m with Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington said there’s two kinds of music, good music and bad music, and I love that idea because I like all styles as long as it’s something that moves me.”

Brown says his early influences in music were “all over the place,” thanks to an older sister who not only encouraged him to listen to an eclectic menu of music but “had an enormous record collection. I’d lie on the floor, my ear to the speakers, and it was everything. It was Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, George Benson, Chicago, it was all over the place. I just loved good music.”

Similarly, Brown’s big brother had a guitar, and “I would sneak in to play the guitar in his room,” Brown says. Fortunately, his brother not only was cool about it, but encouraged Brown to play.

“He was my champion,” Brown says, and even bought Brown his first pawn shop guitar. It was also his brother who encouraged Brown to leave Kansas City and move to California to pursue a career in music.

“Unfortunately, he passed away his senior year in high school,” Brown says. “But even in death he was still on the case. I was his (insurance) beneficiary, and with the money he left me I was able to move to California to study.”

Schivo says part of the charm of the Las Vegas City of Lights Jazz and R&B Festival is that “it’s a very relaxed groove.”

Patrons may bring low-backed lawn chairs — that is, no chair more than 31 inches tall — into the venue, and they’re also permitted to pack picnic baskets, although no glass containers are allowed. Food and crafts will be available in the nearby Jazz Village vendor area.

Tickets are available at www.yourjazz.com and for cash only at Mr. Bill’s Pipe and Tobacco stores. General admission tickets start at $95. For more information, visit www.yourjazz.com.

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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