Best known as the keyboardist and musical director for Dave Koz, there is much more to the quiet, but very creative, Brian Simpson. Coming from humble beginnings in Gurnee, Illinois, a town on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, Brian's introduction to jazz came from his father. “My dad was a great fan of jazz guitar, so I grew up listening to a lot of the greats, including a terrific piano player named Oscar Peterson, who was my idol.” This exposure from his dad was the foundation for what was to come.
Brian's parents made sure that he and his siblings each played an instrument. Before the piano, Brian had (as he puts it) a very unsuccessful attempt at the tenor sax in fifth grade. “To a 9- or 10-year-old, a tenor sax is enormous! It's like carrying around a tuba, and I had a really long walk from the bus stop. I'd be in tears carrying that thing… so it didn't last very long.” It was after that that his Dad got him a piano. “I started piano lessons at the age of 10. I started and then stopped. I was kind of embarrassed to be a piano player, you know. It was kind of sissy! You didn't tell anybody you took piano lessons. Plus, I liked playing football and baseball and playing with the kids in my neighborhood. I didn't want to practice, especially during the summer. It was a love/hate relationship. Mostly hate! But the love part was fun. I loved jazz and I loved instrumental music. That's a part that has never left me.” Since that time, Brian has also learned to play bass.
Three or four different piano teachers have given Brian direction over the years, but Frank Mantooth, his teacher while attending college at Northern Illinois University near Chicago, was probably the most influential. He was a very accomplished arranger in big band and jazz, and very well known in high school and college bands. Brian notes, “I took an arranging class and private lessons with him. That was a tremendous experience. Brian Culbertson also studied with him and he was a friend of Brian Culbertson's dad.” While living near Chicago, Brian was also exposed to so many different kinds of music and started in jazz fusion. His roommate was a trumpet player, so every night he was listening to Miles Davis and others.
It was later on while touring with Teena Marie in the early 80s that gave Brian his real start. “That was my first big tour. I remember the first huge audience. We were part of a festival in 1986 and were on the bill with Earth, Wind & Fire, Gladys Knight, and Freddie Jackson. I knew it was going to be in front of about 18,000 people. I had only played in jazz clubs before and thought I would freak out. That was my biggest fear. But it was exhilarating and I did fine. After that night, I was okay.” From there, Brian went on to tour with Sheena Easton, Janet Jackson, Jonathan Butler, Rick Braun, and Norman Brown. Now as keyboardist and musical director for Dave Koz, Brian works at keeping the sound checks going well, or preparing a special arrangement when needed. “Ultimately, I am a sideman,” says Brian. “Every job you have, you have to understand what your position is. It's like being in the Army. Sometimes you are commanding the troops, and other times you're taking orders. My job is to make the artists look good… whoever that is. That's what I do and that's why I have always worked!”
Now Brian is working on his solo career. His Rendezvous Music debut CD, It's All Good, was released on July 26th. The CD features all original music and has some terrific artists, including Tony Moore (drums), Alex Al (bass), and Tony Maiden (guitar). It also showcases some of his new label mates Michael Lington, Marc Antoine and, “Oh, yeah… that sax guy, Dave!” Brian is most proud of his soloing and his ability to improvise. “I hear a lot of great production and great musicians, but not necessarily great solos that speak to me… that speak to my heart. This goes back to my upbringing. My dad had very specific tastes and would criticize musicians. The one thing I really like about my playing is the solos. That I can speak to someone and not just have a catchy riff or phrase in a song, is most important.”
Between all that he does musically, Brian takes great pride in his other production work… his five-year-old son, and 9- and 14-year-old daughters. "Any free moment I have is occupied by my three kids. I love spending time with them. I have a very special relationship with each of them."
So, even though Brian Simpson is tucked behind his keyboards, his creativity is heard and felt through the music of all the artists he works alongside. And now his heartfelt love of jazz and instrumental music can be heard in his solo work. So the next time you head out to a Dave Koz show, pay close attention to the pianist/keyboardist/musical director. You'll come away wanting to hear more of those solos he is so proud of.
- Bonnie Schendell