Norman Brown had all the makings of a sterling summer at his fingertips.
First, the celebrated smooth jazz guitarist and vocalist had recorded a duet with George Benson, whose sleek blend of pop, jazz and R&B has often been seen as a precursor to Brown's music. The song, a celebratory cover of the 2000 United We Funk pop-funk hit Nuthin But a Party, is scheduled for release this summer on Benson's next album.
"This is my hero we're talking about," said Brown, who performs Saturday at the Lexington Opera House as part of the African American Forum's annual summer series of smooth jazz concerts. "This is the guy I set out to learn from by listening to his records. And he calls me up on the phone and asks me to be part of his new project? I was totally honored."
Then there was continued work on Brown's next recording, a project that will continue a string of sleek guitar and vocals- dominated albums that dates back to the early '90s. The fifth of seven Brown recordings, 2002's Just Chillin' won a Grammy for best pop instrumental album.
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"Everything's at a beautiful place, man. I feel really inspired to go to work on this new album," Brown says. "We're going to keep this thing moving forward and the smiles on people's faces."
Finally, there were final preparations for Brown's fifth annual Summer Storm Tour, a seasonal trek in which the guitarist enlists one or two musical pals to fill out the concert bill. This summer, the tour had tapped Wayman Tisdale, the Olympic basketball gold medalist and NBA all-star who, even before his retirement from sports, forged a second career as a top-selling smooth jazz bass guitarist.
Brown and Tisdale were friends for nearly two decades, having begun their recording careers with a Motown-distributed label called Mojazz. After Tisdale broke his leg at home in 2007, doctors found a cancerous tumor behind his knee. Tisdale's leg was amputated last year. True to what Brown calls a "beautiful" attitude, Tisdale released a new album last summer titled Rebound.
But the Summer Storm reunion for the two players was not to be. Tisdale died at age 44 on May 15.
"Wayman was so looking forward to this," Brown. "He was so excited about doing this tour. It just hurts my heart.
"Back in the Mojazz days, he was already a fan of mine. And that was so cool. It really was. I wasn't a guy who really followed sports and all that, so I didn't know much about the players. But we did a lot of concert dates together, a lot of promotional things for our records and, man, we just became really good friends.
"He was just a cool guy. Huge smile. He had a smile as huge as my body. I never saw him treat anybody bad. I never saw him mean. I never saw him mad or upset. I've seen him disappointed, but never mad. He was just a beautiful cat."
The Summer Storm Tour kicked off last weekend without postponement in Seattle with saxophonists Candy Dulfer and Eric Darius as guests. But there is still a summer's worth of concerts to contend with. Saturday's Lexington performance was never part of the Summer Storm Tour, so it will happen without any changes. But the majority of Brown's summer schedule has had to deal with some logistical shuffling as well as some counseling with nervous concert promoters.
"It's become quite difficult," Brown said. "I got the news about Wayman early that morning. It was a Friday morning, I believe. And not 30 minutes later, promoters were calling me wanting to know who the replacement was going to be. I was like, 'My goodness. This just happened. Can we please just digest this for a moment?'
"It has been like that since I first got the news. I'm still dealing with it. One of the shows was even canceled. They didn't want to do it all without Wayman. So it's been a real effort to try and keep things moving."
What Brown has decided, though, is that all of his summer shows, including the Lexington date, will be dedicated to Tisdale's music and memory.
"We're going to play some of his music, maybe show some video footage. We're just going to have a moment and celebrate the life of Wayman Tisdale."