Paul Taylor: Creating a Signature


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Paul TaylorOne of the knocks on smooth jazz has been that it's too commercial. Being commercial isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with creating a product with the primary objective being to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. However, when it comes to music, too often the drive for sales, radio play and that elusive "hit single" leads to a bland product. Like food in a school cafeteria, it's sustenance without seasoning.

With Burnin' (Peak, 2009), saxophonist Paul Taylor escapes the confines of the play-it-safe model that has come to define the format. This 10-song set features mostly original music. The lone cover song is War's "Me and Baby Brother." The others were written by Taylor, in collaboration with either of his producers, Rex Rideout or Barry Eastmond. The album has a classic, instrumental soul feel—similar to 1960s and '70s outfits like Junior Walker and the All-Stars.

Taylor says the release's title came after the songs were written. "We went in kind of open minded," he says. "The song ("Burnin''') became the title. It's hot—smoking."

Taylor's supporting cast includes Eastmond and Rideout on the songs that they co-wrote, Darrell Crooks on guitar, Melvin Lee Davis and Ronnie Garrett sharing bass duties, Michael White on drums, Billy Cliff on vocals, Gary Meek on sax and flute, Ron King on trumpet, and Melodie Eastmond and Barry Eastmond Jr. on vocals. For Taylor, working with them is a balancing act between allowing the musicians to interpret the music the way they would play it, and to some degree specifying certain sounds that he wants. "A little bit of both, I would say," Taylor says. "When I'm writing in the studio, with the producers I'm working with, we generate the basis of the idea. Me and the producer—mostly the producer because they're responsible, and they bring in the musicians.

"Some people play it a couple of times first—to see what you're going for," Taylor continues. "In a way, they're all concentrating. It goes pretty quickly. You can see if a person is in the ballpark on a given song. At the same time, me or the producers are giving input."

Often with solo artists, or instrumentalists, the supporting lineup changes from song to song. However, with the exception of the two bassists and the two producers, Taylor employs the same rhythm section throughout Burnin'. "Usually, on other records, I'll have different musicians per track or for different producers," he says. "It's kind of the sign of economic times. Both Rex (Rideout) and Barry (Eastmond), they made a connection to use the same rhythm section. Plus Barry and Rex play keyboard, and they use the same guys just to keep a consistent sound and to make it easier."

One instrumentalist's recording may have less than a dozen total musicians, using a core of piano, bass, drums, with the other positions changing according to who has solos. Then another may have as many as 30, with no two songs having an identical lineup. Availability can be a factor. "Sometimes it is," Taylor says. "Sometimes, they might be busy on a road tour themselves."

And, sometimes, artists have a specific voice in mind, such as bringing in String to sing a certain song or Marcus Miller because of the distinctive way he plays bass. However, a song—"Back in the Day," featuring Billy Cliff—isn't necessarily written for that voice. "No, we do the music first and whatever the inspiration we have for the melody," Taylor says. "Once you have the basic idea down, then you can explore who you want to add to it."

Paul Taylor"Back in the Day" was one of the first songs Taylor and his producers wrote for Burnin'. The idea was to bring an old-school flavor. However, known most for his play on the alto and soprano saxophones, his choice of tenor for this outing came by accident. "This is kind of the story of the whole record," he says. "It kind of happened by serendipity. In the first session with Barry in New York, I brought my trademark soprano and alto. I had just gotten a very good tenor that I had been kind of wood-shedding. I brought it just in case.

"How it happened," Taylor continues, "I got into the session with Barry, took out the soprano and got the reed wet, and then found out that it somehow got damaged on the flight. I couldn't play. I said, 'Well, let's whip out the tenor.' And that's what happened." Until now, all of Taylor's original songs were written with soprano or alto in mind. Hopefully, people will appreciate the tenor on this one."

Since the 1980s, a number of saxophonists have come onto the scene as bandleaders. Several of them seem to be following the trail blazed by Kenny G, favoring the soprano on soft, romantic ballads. Taylor says it's important for artists to distinguish themselves in some way. "Everyone has their own distinctive tones," he says. "It comes down to just making my phrase. How do I say this? It's kind of personal—making your own signature. I use a lot of grace notes in my playing. Something I really can't describe. I recognize what makes my sound, and I emphasize those."

Paul Taylor"Groove Shack" is one of those tracks that revisits the 1960s/'70s soul instrumentals that people didn't call jazz. For Taylor, the song isn't symbolic of a specific time or place, but it does capture the concept of the overall recording. "We both [Taylor and Eastmond] kind of channeled some Junior Walker. We tried to get that chicken-fried, back-in-the-shack, party mood."

Some of that chicken frying can be heard in a grinding sound the tenor makes. It's not necessarily written into a song, but Taylor does get into it on playback. "I recall on that song, it's the growl. I think it's probably a little bit of both. It's one of the tricks in their bag that a saxophonist can have—especially on tenor. On 'Groove Shack,' since it's that kind of a piece, it's kind of a honky-tonk, balls-to-the-walls, really throaty kind of piece."

The ballad, "Remember the Love," is another song that has that old-school feel. Crooks' guitar has an Isley Brothers feel. "Exactly," Taylor says. "I'm glad you recognize that. That's what Rex said. A lot of these songs, I recorded the sax part, and Rex or Barry worked with the musicians. In the second or third session, Rex, said, 'Hey, Paul, check out 'Remember the Love now.' We're very proud of it."

There's a good bit of variance on the title song. All 10 tracks have a soul-jazz feel, but each has its own identity. While they all could break onto the radio scene, they don't sound like Taylor and the producers went out of their way to make a radio-friendly recording. "I don't want to have it sound contrived, like when you try to go for it too hard," Taylor says. "So each song kind of stands out. We just kind of keep it honest in the studio and having fun with it. After a while, you don't want to think about it too hard."

It's about making good music. "Exactly," Taylor says.

Putting Burnin' together didn't come without a hitch or two. Some copies of the album will have bonus tracks. One of those doesn't sound the way it was intended. Taylor says it happened when he was with Rideout in California. "I'm playing the tenor again, and so, we've already done several songs on the record with Rex. They were saying, 'We like the song, but go back and try something different on it.' So we tried it again. I got the horn out, and when Rex was getting my level in the control room, he noticed the sax wasn't sounding quite the same. I thought, 'Wow, that's strange.' He made the adjustments on the board, and we went ahead and redid the song.

"We're really proud of it. At the end of the earlier session, I was packing, getting ready to leave. I had an extra box of reeds, and put the box in the bell of the horn." Taylor pauses, laughing. "When I put the horn away after playing that song, the box of reeds fell out of the bell. The box fell out. I was kind of teed off, but it was actually very funny."

Taylor went home, not wanting to tell Rideout they'd have to record the song again. Two weeks later, he did tell him. "I said, 'Hey, Rex, I gotta confess something to you. The song we did called 'Weekend,' Rex, I'm so sorry, but I had a box of reeds in my horn.' He said, 'Oh, that's what it was.' We started busting, cracking up."

It's a fitting conclusion to the creation of a soul-stirring, smooth jazz record.

Selected discography:

Paul Taylor, Burnin' (Peak, 2009)
Paul Taylor, Ladies' Choice (Peak, 2007)

Paul Taylor, Nightlife (Peak, 2005)

Paul Taylor, Hypnotic (Peak, 2001)

Paul Taylor, Undercover (N-Coded Music, 2000)

Photo Credit

Damon Hereta

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