Paul Brown, two-time Grammy winning producer/arranger/composer and all-around magic-maker for countless smooth jazz artists, returns from behind the mixing board for his sophomore effort as a leader on The City. While he’s primarily made a name for himself producing number one hits for artists like Boney James, Rick Braun, Peter White, Kirk Whalum and countless others, it’s Brown’s guitar that is the star on this recording.
Up Front, Brown’s first recording as a solo artist, was heavy on his tried and true collection of stock smooth jazz clichés, which are, incidentally, clichés only because Brown’s successful use of them made them so. These included heavy use of acoustic instruments as the main vehicle for carrying the melodic line (sometimes teamed with another instrument mixed down about 70 percent), up-tempo grooves, simple accompaniment in chordal instruments, bridges which contrast both melodically and sonically from the rest of the track, selected use of improvisation within strict eight to 16-bar boundaries and an overall emphasis on happy drum machine sounds that fill instrumental holes in order to enliven each track.
Brown’s sophomore effort, The City, shows him to be much more comfortable with his own guitar playing than on his previous effort. While Up Front had overall groove as the predominant quotient, The City demonstrates Brown has real chops behind his studio wizardry. His solos on Hello Again and Side Steppin’ are extended, harmonically interesting and feature attractive and many times unexpected melodic curves. More importantly, these tunes are really just vehicles to get Brown’s improvisational ideas out front. Who would have thought it would be Brown to bring classic small jazz group concepts to smooth jazz?
The entire recording is a winner and deserves some serious air-play on both regular and smooth-jazz radio stations. Notably along for the ride is Michael Paulo and Boney James, whose patented blues lines turn Las Vegas and Old Friends into non-stop parties. The Brown/Carruthers Jumpin’ Uptown is too cool, ala Miles Davis, for its good, and is just one of many examples featuring excellent guitar work. Brown’s playing is so good it deserves to be listened to by all serious jazz guitarists.
There are only two missteps. Cosmic Monkey is a little too chill, and Brown’s reworking of Winelight, from Grover Washington Jr.’s album of the same name, should be taken off of everyone’s list of possible covers. While Brown makes the tune his own with a back-beat heavy groove and a very hip improvised solo, it’s just not possible for anyone to ever top, let alone stand beside, any of Grover’s efforts from that album.
One serious after thought. Nothing points out just how much the musical world mourns the passing of guitar-god Eric Gale a number of years ago more than listening to the disc’s title tune. Gale’s asymmetrical backgrounds would have turned this tight little pop gem into a real work of art. Taking nothing away from Brown’s abilities, but Gale’s playing would have taken the tune beyond the stars.