Interview by Shannon West
Paul Brown has become the "go to" producer in smooth jazz, with over 40 #1 hits on the Smooth Jazz radio chart. At times over half the songs in the top 10 on that chart have been produced by him. He has been credited with defining and honing that sound and sometimes criticized for turning it into a formula. Talking to him it becomes evident that he was just following his heart, ears and creative instincts. The fact that he hit on something that worked was serendipity. After spending most of his career in the studio as a producer and engineer, he released his first solo album, UpFront, last year and took himself to the top of the charts with his first single. The City, his new release, is a stylistic departure both from his previous solo project and most of the albums he has produced. The release party for the new CD was the day before this conversation. He had Euge Groove, Shilts, and several other stars on stage with him and folks that got to go said he rocked the room!
SmoothViews (SV): You've played guitar and drums since childhood. Why did it take you so long to do your own CD when you have been producing and engineering and were already in the studio?
Paul Brown (PB): I never thought I had enough of an identifiable sound or style to warrant making a record. It took a lot of years working with other people and producing to learn enough to think that I could. I was writing a song to a funky track the way I normally do [and] I came up with the melody and laid it down and listened to it and thought it sounded finished. I played it back for some people and they said, "That's great! Who's that?" I said, "Well, it's me." That was the track that became "24/7" on the first album and that was the genesis of the whole thing.
SV: Do you think it was there and just kind of latent or that it developed over the passage of time?
PB: As a producer, I am always trying to work with artists that have a distinctive sound, a distinctive style. That's the main thing. It's not enough just to be a good musician, you have to have a direction and something to offer that [is] slightly different. It was a matter of working on it until I felt like I had that too. Part of it was the guitar I ended up getting, the Gibson L5. It has a certain sound and makes you play a certain way so that was a big deciding factor for me.
SV: You do have a very distinctive voice on guitar, which is quite an accomplishment since there is a sound and style that works well in smooth jazz, and it would be easy to default to that.
PB: I'm definitely trying to find a voice that you can hang your hat on, that doesn't sound like another guitar player. A lot of it was that the songs on this particular album are a lot more up-tempo and a little funkier. Going out and playing concerts after the first record came out I realized I needed that. That first record was pretty mellow. So I wrote more like that for this one. Even last night it was pretty evident that that stuff works.
SV: You commented in the publicity for the CD that "Smooth Jazz fans like to dance." Traditional thought has dictated that smooth jazz fans like to sit back and relax.
PB: I think they like to get up and rock a little. Last night I played "Reel Motha For Ya," the Johnny 'Guitar' Watson song and it was jumpin'! The crowd loved it! It's great !
SV: Have you been doing a lot of live gigs since the first CD?
PB: Yeah, I just played Cleveland, Hawaii, the Catalina Jazz Festival and Playboy Jazz Festival. I get out as much as I can.
SV: People tend to point toward Steely Dan's Aja as the jumping off point for contemporary jazz/rock hybrid music, but the song you covered, "The City," was even more so, and at a lot earlier point.
PB: I think so. Steely Dan's stuff was more rockish in the early days. There's Breezin' of course and Grover's stuff. “Winelight” goes over really great live. With all the covers, I want to try and bring something new to it. Sometimes it's harder than others and the beat is different but also having a guitar lead is really different.
SV: Your arrangement is so subtle that it showcases what an interesting and unusual melody line that song has.
PB: It's a beautiful song. It has a lot of different sections too. A lot of the songs now are basically either one chord or two chord jams that sorta go in and out of some sort of melodic structure but that song is like an old classic song that has an A section, a B section and a bridge and a funk section. It keeps changing. There are lot of chords and key changes.
SV: Mark-Almond's original version of "The City" was a benchmark song for a lot of contemporary jazz and progressive rock fans who grew up with this music but from a wider perspective it's pretty obscure. How did you come up with that one to cover?
PB: It was one of my favorite albums. I just played it to death. I'm a big Tommy LiPuma fan. He produced the original and I actually called him and asked him to produce the song for me. He was going to do it. We talked about it for about three weeks and had it all planned, but our schedules conflicted and I ended up doing it myself. He was definitely in on it, though. That song was 12 minutes long. It had a bass solo, Rhodes piano, [and] all these extended solos. I went online and listened to the original. I want to get Tommy to produce something on my next record for sure. Actually, I wanted to get John Mark in the studio on my first record to sing something because I've always loved his voice.
SV: You stayed true to the sound of his original vocal without being imitative on this one. Is he still around?
PB: He's still around but evidently he isn't singing anymore.
SV: On a lot of the CDs you've produced you've gone for covers of familiar R&B or Adult Contemporary hits. You picked a contemporary jazz classic and two songs from way out of left field to cover on this one. "Reel Mutha For You" and the title track were very cool choices that a lot of people remember but they were more underground word-of-mouth hits than chart hits.
PB: You don't think they could get away with playing "Reel Mutha." (laughs) Probably not with that sort of talk-box thing in there. I think if they played it, people would dig it. That would jump off to me. I saw an artist do a song live that was huge at radio for him, it was a mellow Babyface-type sound and there was no audience appreciation at all. People were talking and when it was done there was a smattering of applause and that was it. Stuff can work on radio that just doesn't work live. When I was rehearsing for this gig, there is one of the songs on the new one, "Old Friends," that I did with Boney James. I was playing it with Shilts and I though it was just too mellow. It doesn't work live. It's a good track to listen to but I don't think we're going to get anywhere with it live so we ended up not doing it. Playing live and making records are definitely two different animals. When I'm making the record I just try to arrange the song in a way that brings the song itself out and has some artistic quality to it. You can over-think all that stuff though.
SV: Since you are such a wizard in the studio and work with so many artists , is there a tendency to over-tweak and over-think when you are working on your own project?
PB: I use it as an opportunity to not do that. I try to keep it simple. I obviously use a lot of the same techniques and approaches that I do on all the other records I make, but I tend to be the kind of person who makes a decision and goes with it. I don't have a zillion options left on the table. I kinda get on with it and sometimes when you're working with other people that's not possible. You have to pretty much exhaust all their ideas too, and a lot of them might not work but you still have to go there. With my own, I don't have to do that.
SV: Were you working on Golub's while you were working on yours?
PB: His and Jeffrey Osborne's. That one is going to be covers of classic R&B songs [that] he's always wanted to do.
SV: With Golub, another guitarist, how did you keep those two projects compartmentalized and not end up having them become symbiotic and start to overlap sounds and concepts.
PB: I think a certain amount of that is going to happen anyway. When I was making my first record I was working on Benson's at the same time. George and I have such different styles that it didn't overlap that much, but with Jeff our styles are more similar. I think I actually learned a lot working with Jeff because there is a lot of stuff that he was playing that I could actually use. To me it's a different project. It doesn't matter if it's a vocalist or a sax player or a guitarist. I'm trying to bring out their distinctive style and really the paths don't cross all that much.
SV: The first time I heard "Cosmic Monkey" I was trying to figure out if it was a bonus track remix or an outtake from a Golub CD.
PB: That was the first time I actually used an amplifier for my album. Normally I take my big fat jazz guitar and go direct and it has a much more round, kinda smoother sound. On that song it just didn't come out that strong so I went through an amp, which is more of a Golub-type distorted sound and I think that's what you're reacting to. The melody is a very simple pop bluesy kind of melody and that's kind of his style.
SV: The Golub CD had a denser sound to it I felt. A lot of the music you've produced has to my ears had this dark, dense sound to it. When you put on the headphones you notice a lot of stuff going on in the tracks that you don't really hear when you have it on in the background or with an average set of speakers.
PB: The big bottom... I think a lot of that gets wasted so it's nice when people do hear it.
SV: It seems like you put a lot of sounds on the songs you produce.
PB: I try. A lot of that sometimes is when I feel like the song isn't carrying it by itself. I'll try to beef it up with a lot of ear candy, so to speak. When a song is too simplistic or sounds too regimented or something like that or I want to take it somewhere else and add some emotional impact that I'm not hearing, I stick some of that stuff in there to make up for that. From a mixing and production point of view when I listen to something while I'm trying to finish it, it has to hit me on a certain emotional level and I'll keep working on a song until it does. Sometimes, like an acapella vocal on "Route 66" with Al Jarreau, it immediately hit me, but other times I need these other elements just to keep me interested and keep the song interesting for the listener.
SV: Because you have produced so many songs that have become radio hits you are credited with being the architect of the smooth jazz sound. What is your gut reaction to that comment?
PB: I don't agree with it. I have a lot of songs that did well at radio and I think that's all they mean by that but if I try to look at it completely objectively I wasn't a jazz musician. I didn't listen to jazz music much at all. In my professional career as a producer and engineer, I was basically working on R&B music. I was doing remixes. I worked with Luther Vandross for 10 years, so I was really in that world then when I got a chance to do some quote/unquote Smooth Jazz at the time. My first project was a Sam Riney record in the late 80s and I just leaned it toward the music that I liked, which was R&B and a more urban kind of sound. That really caught on, especially with Boney, then with Peter White and Rick and all of a sudden everybody was trying to do that. It's funny because Boney and I were pretty much trying to copy Grover Washington, Jr. but now people call me all the time and say they want it to sound like Boney James. A lot of sax players go down that road and on that level there may be a certain amount of truth to that "architect" persona but I wasn't coming from any kind of smooth jazz roots, it was kind of the opposite, but the combination seemed to work pretty well and seems to be pretty much the standardized approach. I do feel like it is changing somewhat toward a little bit of chill, a little bit of pop, or whatever.
SV: I saw a sonic thread between Sam Riney's Lay It On The Line and Boney's first CD.
PB: Ironically, that was supposed to be Sam Riney's next record. He didn't want to make another record for that particular record company and Boney was also signed there so I took all that material that I had written for Sam and put Boney on it and that was Boney's debut. A lot of it is sonic. The one thread in my work that you can point your finger at I guess is the way I mix. For some reason radio seems to like it. I don't try to tell people that this is what smooth jazz radio likes. I tell people what I like and that this is what I'm going to do and thankfully they've liked it.
SV: The sound of some of the songs on Sam's albums and Boney's Trust seems to have been phased out. The more pop sounding stuff like "Road Runner" ballads like "Lily" that has more of a pop than R&B “big bottom " type sound seems to have been phased out when the format went national.
PB: I preferred the way it worked back then, when multiple songs from an album got played. I personally think that the playing of one song is a real downer. The problem is that people driving around don't know who we are [and] don't get anything to latch on to. I don't think they are going to tend to buy a record unless they hear another song or even a third song and say, “I like that, too." And then they think about buying the record.
SV: You're working with Euge Groove right now, aren't you? The big buzzword on that one is "retro." Does that mean we get more stuff from him… like "Reel Mutha For Ya" on yours?
PB: Kind of. We went old school even as far as not using any recording equipment that was built past 1975. I'm a big Analog fan and I have a 24-track at my house. We used that and we got all these guys who were playing back then like James Gatson and Ray Parker, Jr. and David T. Walker and Clarence McDonald to come in and we went really into the kind of vibe from Bill Withers' Menagerie album.
SV: Boney's first three records seemed to be barometers for the way the music was evolving within the format in the mid-90s. Trust had more of a pop flavor. Backbone had a darker sound and more bottom, but still had a lot of up-tempo music and tight melodies. Seduction was more mood and groove oriented. Was that intentional or just the creative evolution?
PB: We just thought that was the best approach for the songs we were doing at the time. With Boney, we made a conscious effort to make the music sexier. We figured sex was going to be the key to good smooth jazz, to have it be bedroom music or whatever you want to call it. With the saxophone, you don't want to hear it in your face. I think people want to be wooed by it more, which is something Boney does really well. We wanted to make him identifiable; we wanted to make records that people would care about. I always felt that the type of album that creates a mood is the one people are going to want to buy.
SV: When you go in with an artist who is really established and has an identifiable style, like an Al Jarreau or George Benson, how do you approach that?
PB: The same way I approach anything else. When their styles are that readily recognizable, the thing sort of has a life of its own before you even start.
SV: The first albums you did with Kirk Whalum and Richard Elliot were a change of direction for them.
PB: Well, with Richard I have to take some credit. (laughs) I was sort of trying to go to that sexy thing that I had done with Boney. I said, "You've already got all these records out. Who needs another one of the same thing?" If you've got several Richard Elliot records then Jumpin' Off comes out and it's basically the same thing he always does, why would anyone want to buy that? There's no reason to update your record collection with something you already have. You've gotta evolve! So I told him let's try and make a really sexy record and see what happens. He'd play it and I'd say, "Play it softer." And finally he played what I considered a sexy, quiet sort of approach. Then he listened to it and said, "Man, that sounds really good!"
SV: With the inclusion of more up-tempo stuff on your CD, are you going to be going in that direction with any of the other artists you work with?
PB: It all depends on what's going on at the time, what songs are presented, and whether I'm writing or just producing. Every project is different. I have ideas and maybe some sort of agenda for an album going in, but I don't really know exactly what I'm gonna do the next day until it happens.
SV: You've been an extremely successful producer for so long, and now you've recorded and produced your first two albums. Would you do a record of your own with another person producing?
PB: I think it would be great! I asked Tommy (LiPuma) to produce the song on this one but he was busy. I would love to do that on the next album. I'd like to do maybe half vocals and have somebody produce it and have it kinda sound like that Mark-Almond album. I think Tommy would be the perfect guy!
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