In 2002, trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and guitarist Norman Brown, all major smooth-jazz stars, came together under the name BWB and recorded a collaborative album called Groovin’. Eleven years later, they’ve reunited for the follow-up, Human Nature, on which they delve into the Michael Jackson songbook.
The trio explores the inventive possibilities within these well-known songs, using the melodies as starting points and then developing them in interesting and sometimes dramatically different ways. Human Nature also serves as a reminder of just how solid a body of work Jackson produced: The songs hold up when recast as instrumentals and lend themselves well to exploration.
Braun, Whalum and Brown take the Jackson Five hit “Who’s Lovin’ You” somewhere entirely new, retaining the song’s blues core and expanding on it, the trio coalescing for a potent blues jam that really catches fire.
Their take on “Beat It” softens the original’s rock-guitar opening line, building it from a funk tune into a jazz-rock number. The trademark sinuous bassline of “Billie Jean” prowls beneath a lively jam on the melody that includes a George Benson-style play-and-scat from Brown. BWB turns “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” into a vivacious Latin dance number and delivers a wistful take on “She’s Out of My Life” that captures the melancholy of the original.
On the title track (once covered by Miles Davis), singer Sheléa takes the lead, with BWB offering understated accompaniment. Sheléa has a pretty voice, but she does nothing particularly new with the melody. It would have been more in keeping with the spirit of this album to allow the three leaders, all of whom know their way around a lyrical tune, to find something fresh to say.