A mainstay on the smooth jazz charts and festival stages since the mid-90s, Paul Taylor hit a significant career milestone this past May when Ladies’ Choice — his fourth release for Peak Records and seventh overall — debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart, the first time he’d ever hit the top slot right out of the box.
The titles of his previous albums seemed designed to capture the joyful seduction the saxman conveys in his sensuous rhythms and melodies: Pleasure Seeker, Nightlife, Hypnotic. Yet the moniker of his latest project goes further, reflecting not only the grooving, retro vibe of the music, but his fascinating impact as one of the genre’s genuine sex symbols. Most smooth jazz sax players write and perform amazing make-out music, but few cast the Tom Jones like spell that Taylor does when he’s onstage.
Those big first week sales indicate that husbands and boyfriends are snatching up his music, too, but ask any female who’s ever fallen under his sway during a live performance: he’s their choice. He’s been happily married to his wife Laronda for 19 years, but that doesn’t stop his fans from coming up to him afterwards for photo op, a hug and kiss, and fantasizing about more.
Taylor enhances his natural charisma with a strong stage presence and sense of showmanship that comes across as casual, yet shows an awareness of his own personal charm and the simmering power of his music. For the past ten years or so, the ladies lucky enough to have seats in the first rows have clamored for a shot to get onstage with about ten fellow pleasure seekers and accept his invitation to come up and slow dance along as he plays one of his trademark hits, “Deeper.” The moment has become a crowd-pleasing staple of his set. Those who don’t make it up cheer vicariously for those that did and hope they’ll have a chance next time.
“The idea for the ‘Deeper’ thing happened when we were putting together a tour in support of my Pleasure Seeker CD,” Taylor says. “The title track was #1 on the radio charts and it was important for me to create a show that could keep that positive momentum going. The idea to bring one or two fans up came from Andi Howard (Taylor’s manager and co-founder of Peak Records). We started small and when it was clear that the audience was digging it, I started inviting more and more women onstage and it became a vibe. There have been shows over the years where I haven’t done it and no one complained, but I’ve learned over the years to go with my strengths. It started as an experiment, but as it grew I became more aware that this was a great opportunity to touch my fans with more than simply the music.”
Before his gig as a sideman for Keiko Matsui which led to his emergence as a solo artist with 1995’s On The Horn, Taylor cut his chops playing in numerous showrooms in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. The razzle-dazzle clearly rubbed off. “Working so many gigs in Vegas was great for building my confidence and learning the value of putting on an entertaining show,” he says. “I knew I always wanted to be a star playing the sax, so when I had the chance to do my own shows, I felt it was important to do everything I could to have an advantage. The music has to be there, but I also worked on my image. When my first album came out, I had one of those perm, bi-level haircuts that were trendy at the time, but then I grew these dreadlocks and liked how they looked.
“It’s all about enhancing what comes naturally to you, and finding ways to be interesting to people,” he says. “It’s so flattering to have such adulation and for women to consider me sexy. Part of that’s genetic, and I think it’s the way I approach the horn as well. If the image they respond to enhances their appreciation for my music, and helps me connect with them in a more meaningful way, that’s great for everyone.”
Ironically, Taylor wasn’t thinking about his frenzied fans when the title of the new album came to him. Preferring a natural flow in the studio to over-conceptualizing his projects, Taylor came up with the cool moniker when he and producer Barry Eastmond were listening back to the song that became the title track. Its thumping, discofied Chic flavor reminded the saxman of a distinct 70s club vibe. In those days, there was a sweet moment during the night when the DJ would stop the music, take the mic and turn the moment over to “Ladies’ Choice” - an invitation for the girls to choose the guys they wanted to boogie with.
Once the concept grabbed hold, Taylor took it to heart and invited four exciting female soul singers to the party as lead vocalists on five of the eleven tracks: LaToya London (a former American Idol finalist who released her debut album on Peak), who sings the tender candlelight ballad “I Want To Be Loved By You”; labelmate Regina Belle (the crisply romantic “How Did You Know” and the soaring “Open Your Eyes”); Terry Dexter (“Long Distance Relationship”); and Lauren Evans (a horn-splashed cover of AWB’s “A Love Of Your Own.”) Taylor insists that surrounding himself with these ladies was a purely creative move, but he’s excited about the multi-format possibilities it offers as well; even as the title track was rising on the smooth jazz airplay charts, Peak released “How Did You Know” to Urban AC radio outlets.
“Obviously, this is the best reception I’ve gotten for one of my albums, but I don’t think it’s because I did anything different than what I always do,” he says. “Each time out, I just want to make the best music I can, working with great producers like Barry and Rex Rideout. I think I have a gift of making good melodies and I’m happy I can do that. I dreamed of having a #1 album when I was a kid, and now to be there after so many close calls is the coolest thing and very fulfilling. I guess I just made all the right choices.”
With the release of his Peak Records debut White Sand earlier this year, Paul Brown still only has three solo discs to his credit — but no single person has had a greater impact on the smooth jazz airplay charts over the past 15 years. Google him sometime and you’ll find close to 50 #1 Radio & Records airplay hits for everyone: Boney James, Larry Carlton, Kirk Whalum, Al Jarreau, George Benson and Patti Austin, to name a few. In 2006, he started competing with himself; his version of “Winelight” was ranked by Mediabase as the most spun track of the year, and he also had chart-toppers with Norman Brown, Euge Groove and Peter White. He’s doing it again in 2007, starting the summer with three songs on R&R’s Top Ten: “Rhythm Method,” the first single from White Sand; Norman Brown’s “Let’s Take A Ride” and Peter White’s “Mister Magic” (Brown digs Grover!).
Not surprisingly considering his resume of brilliant pals, Brown makes it a party on White Sand, keeping his guitars up front while celebrating a mix of old school and contemporary soul textures. Billing the artist credit as Paul Brown & Friends, he’s got everyone contributing: Boney James, Al Jarreau, Euge Groove, David Benoit, Rick Braun and Bobby Caldwell (a killer vocal of “Mercy Mercy Mercy”). He also spotlights his current touring sax player, Jessy J, who will soon be giving Candy Dulfer and Mindi Abair a run for their money, and another newcomer, the torchy vocalist Lina.
1) Keith England, Standards, New & Used (SwingSet Music) – An homage to the idea of “it’s never too late,” the former rock backup singer joins forces with brilliant pianist, arranger and producer Mike Melvoin on a stylish mix of standards (Gershwin, Ellington, et al) and snappy Melvoin originals that fit beautifully alongside the greats.
2) Acoustic Alchemy, This Way (Blue Note)
3) Maria Guida, Soul Eyes (Larknote)
4) Dee Brown, No Time To Waste (DeLaf Records)
5) Wensday, Torch Rock (Desert Dreams Records)