Paul Brown

Biography

Grabbing his cherished Gibson L5 and playing as if all of his success as a two time Grammy winning producer was simply a warm up, Paul Brown stepped Up Front as a solo artist for the first time on his 2004 GRP Records debut and emerged with one of contemporary jazz’s biggest albums of the year. Now that the accolades for Up Front, whose hit single “24/7” was named the #2 airplay cut of the year by Radio & Records have earned him “great confidence as an artist and even more legitimacy as a producer,” Brown gets even more loose and funky, inviting us into a whole new type of grooving playground in The City.

The top of the radio chart is familiar territory for the behind the boards master many call “the Babyface of smooth jazz.” The oft-imitated but never equaled producer, composer and arranger has been the primary architect of the genre’s urban sound for close to 15 years, scoring over 40 #1 airplay hits for genre stars like Boney James, Rick Braun, Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Euge Groove, Norman Brown, Patti Austin, Larry Carlton and legendary labelmates Al Jarreau and, in a cool full circle career twist, Brown’s chief jazz guitar influence, George Benson. James, whose hit recordings routinely sell over 500,000 copies apiece, once said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Paul Brown.” 

A major tournament poker enthusiast who plays regularly throughout his hometown of Los Angeles for big stakes, Brown could easily have held his winning hand and taken the same cool, laid back approach to his highly-anticipated follow-up. But he had a bunch of high profile gigs lined up, including Las Vegas’ Bali Hai Club on New Year’s Eve, and he needed more upbeat, party-appropriate material—namely, the strutting, jamming, funk-drenched “Las Vegas,” which he co-wrote with another popular smooth jazz guitarist and producer, Chuck Loeb. The track, which features the blistering sax of Michael Paulo, began with Loeb’s chords and rhythm track, which Brown fleshed out with a dazzling melody. The two also collaborated on “Moment By Moment,” from Up Front.

“I needed a straight up dance tune for this gig, to capture the spirit of the night, and this fit the bill,” says Brown, whose other major performances in 2004 included The Wavefest, put on by 94.7 The Wave at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre. “Chuck’s someone I always want to work with. The City  definitely has a more upbeat vibe about it overall, and that’s a direct reflection of playing out live so much since the first album came out. I worked on Up Front after a long time spent alone, practicing on the L5 that I like to call my soul mate. I loved playing all those songs live, but smooth jazz audiences love to dance and I needed to add some more upbeat and fun songs to the set. I wrote the new songs with an eye towards playing them live, with a real focus on the way I’m playing the guitar. I start out with grooves I like and take it from there.”

Brown’s been creating instantly hummable tracks for years with other artists, so his keen instinct for knowing what fans want to hear is no surprise. The City features some immediately identifiable crowdpleasers—a moody, retro chill flavored cover of Grover Washington, Jr.’s trademark classic “Winelight” and other tracks that draw on Brown’s deeper rock, soul and jazz influences. The first single “Cosmic Monkey,” a silky and soulful, yet also trippy and hypnotic ballad featuring the wordless vocals of soul legend Jeffrey Osborne, “was conceived as a San Francisco rock combo tune, like Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills & Nash meets smooth jazz,” Brown says. “It’s got some cool, psychedelic overtones.”

The gentle, bossa nova flavored “Hello Again” will bring to mind the George Benson influence, while the thumpin’ and crunchin’ “Jumpin’ Uptown,” featuring some of Brown’s  most intense guitar licks textured with cool chill effects is the guitarist’s  throwback to the classic “Bumpin’ On Sunset” by another chief inspiration, the legendary Wes Montgomery. He adds a blast of Tower of Power flavored brass intensity to “Reel Mutha For Ya,” a classic 70s guitar rock-funk tune by Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “Picking that one to cover also had to do with getting out and playing live more,” says Brown. “I played this year on Warren Hill’s Smooth Jazz cruise, and I noticed how the crowds go berserk when the guys play 70s funk tunes. (Bassist) Wayman Tisdale told me I played like Johnny, and when I went back home to listen to my old records, I realized he was right.”

Before he became the to “go-to” producer in smooth jazz, Brown established himself as an engineer on numerous recordings by Luther Vandross. “ I fashioned “Old Friends” as a straightforward duet for myself and Boney James,” he says. “It’s kind of moody, with low toned guitar mixed with steamy sax, and very Lutheresque.” James is also featured on the title track, which is presented both as a vocal (sung with graceful soul by Brown) and an instrumental. “That one’s a great old song too, but a little more obscure,” says Brown. “The duo was called Mark Almond Band and they had two classic albums produced by Tommy LiPuma back in the early 70s. The original version was 12 minutes long, based around two chords, done on nylon string and bass, and I thought it would be the perfect vehicle for my voice. To me, their music was the start of what evolved into contemporary and smooth jazz.”

As he hints all throughout The City and on such recent productions as guitarist Jeff Golub’s Temptation, Brown has been inspired by the new chill music that is slowly but surely evolving into a subgenre in contemporary jazz. Brown and the album’s co-producer D.C. go full-force into this realm on the sonically challenging, ambient and slightly avant garde “Food For the Moon,” which comes out of left field amidst the more in the pocket grooves on The City. “D.C. is a multi-talented Croatian musician and engineer who runs all my Pro Tools gear,” the guitarist says. “The melody reminds me of an old jazz melody from Thelonius Monk, with a real minor 6 dissonance, against that cool Euro vibe that D.C. adds to a lot of my productions.”

With Brown’s production career in overdrive for years and his solo career scaling new and exciting heights by the minute, it would seem that he’s working on music, literally “24/7.” These past few years, he’s discovered two major hobbies that he’s almost equally passionate about and allow him some creative rejuvenating time away from the studio. Trumpet great Jerry Hey introduced him to the fine art of wine collecting, and Brown has quickly become a great French wine connoisseur, with thousands of bottles in his collection (favoring French Burgundy). Those weekly poker nights and regular tournaments are important to him as well.

“It’s one of those diversions that take my mind off music entirely,” he says. “I was a math major and it is a total mind game that uses those analytical abilities. There’s a tremendous fad going around Los Angeles with a lot of Hollywood people engaged in celebrity poker tournaments, and I play in a Wednesday night home game, and I also play at Hollywood Park and the Commerce Casino outside L.A. as often as I can.”

Born and raised in L.A. to parents who were professional singers for legends like Mel Torme (as part of The Meltones), Frank Sinatra, Elvis and Barbra Streisand, Brown started playing drums at age five and picked up his first guitar two years later. A self-proclaimed Deadhead who was also fond of The Beatles and later, Peter Gabriel, Brown jokes that he was always starting, playing in or breaking up a band. He launched his production career unofficially with his first gig as an assistant engineer when he was 15, finding an immediate affinity for an environment that quickly became home when he returned to L.A. after studying music and math at the University of Oregon.

“It’s exciting that I was able to produce George Benson later in my career,” he says, “because it was his album Breezin’ that helped me realize that the guitar could be the focus of an entire album. The guitar could hold a person’s interest for 40 minutes or an hour. That was a big revelation back then. The reason I got into this business was to play the guitar and perform live, and as much success as I’ve had as a producer, I’ve always seen that as part of my evolution as a professional to get to this point. Making music is simple to me. When something moves me emotionally, then I know it’s good. I simply try to make every piece of music I create have that effect. If it doesn’t I have to change it, then I know I have something special.

“With Up Front, I feel like I was back to square one as a player, and writing and producing The City was really exciting for me, too,” he adds. “One of the reasons I wanted to make my own records was to branch out and try using my musical brain in a whole new way. It’s something different to keep the creative juices flowing.”