When you listen to Paul Brown’s all at once cool and heartfelt, guttural and plaintive vocals on his latest masterwork Uptown Blues, it may hit you that all of his success creating urban leaning vibes for himself and the greats of smooth jazz was just a way to bide time until he had a chance to share his true artistry and identity as a blues singer and musician.
While he was scoring over 60 #1 smooth jazz hits as an artist and producer, the guitarist’s musical heart has always been in the blues. His past decade of pushing the boundaries towards the ultimate powerhouse fusion of urban flavored jazz and hardcore, heartfelt blues culminates in his latest Woodward Avenue Records album UPTOWN BLUES. The hipster title of the album and its simmering, easy funk title track – which features frequent collaborator Chris Standing using hypnotic drums and moody organ parts to emotionally underscore Brown’s crisp, fluid lines - comes from Robert Cray’s longtime drummer Tony Braunagel. Brown played the album for Braunagel and he said, “You know, it’s not like straight blues or straight jazz, but more like uptown blues.”
It’s the real deal, drawing inspiration from the masters, only with touches of soulful sophistication.
Brown’s longtime genre fans will be happy to know that even as Uptown Blues storms up the Billboard Blues Albums chart, he’s not giving up his (to invoke the name of one of his hit albums) funky joints completely. He’s currently riding high on the smooth jazz charts with “Boogaloo,” a fiery, horn drenched pocket groove driven jam that pulls out all the funk, jazz and blues stops. It feels like a fresh, freewheeling extension of Brown’s #1 hit version of The Crusaders’ “Put it Where You Want It,” sassed up with melodic bits from “Grazin’ in the Grass” and chord changes reminiscent of “Cold Duke Time.” Sort of an old school soul-fusion mater class.
Tunes like this one and the strutting, brass-tinged, mid-tempo funk gem “Some of This” – featuring spirited interaction with saxophonist Greg Vail - allow Brown to explore his blues chops but in an infectious pop-soul setting. Yet the emotional core of this most intimate collection lies in the slow burning, blues drenched vocal ballads like the Eric Claptonesque “done me wrong” tune “I’m Good as Gone” and the resigned, mournful “The Love That I Need.” Those are real deal blues tunes that blissfully won’t cross over easily to the smooth charts. One of the strengths of Uptown Blues is that Brown showcases his vulnerabilities as a storyteller while singing the lyrics of others. He was introduced to “I’m Good as Gone,” penned by Bobby Rush, by his friend and longtime collaborator with the same name, called “Brother Paul Brown” to distinguish them. “Brother Paul” plays organ on both “I’m Good As Gone” and “The Love That I Need,” which he wrote for his “brother.” Another solid inclusion on Uptown Blues is Ann Peebles’ Memphis soul classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” performed as both a sorrowful vocal and sultry instrumental.
Some of the best stories told on Uptown Blues are actually behind the scenes. The tightly funky, easy struttin’ and brass fired “Blues For Jeff” isn’t simply a tribute to the late guitarist (and friend) Jeff Golub. Brown originally wrote it for Golub under the title of “Hampton Blues,” because Golub had a pad in the Hamptons. As a blues driven jazz guitarist who lived on Long Island, Golub was truly the originator of the Uptown Blues vibe that Brown celebrates here. Perhaps Brown’s most unique choice on the album was to include the deeply felt acoustic driven number “Tomorrow Morning” sung beautifully, almost angelically, by the late great Kenny Rankin as Brown’s blues guitar line pops underneath. The song was recorded as a demo not long after Brown, Rankin and Marc Antoine did some gigs together, but was set aside after Rankin passed away in 2009. Its brilliance is subtle and deserves to be heard
The same can be said of Uptown Blues’ incredible “outlier” of a tune, “Somebody’s Child,” a painfully personal yet universal message about the struggles of addiction, written and sung by Paul’s multi-talented wife Jacqui Brown, who also plays the haunting piano line. Written from the point of view of the addict on the street trying to find a better day, its inspiration runs very deep for the Browns, as their adult daughter has been struggling with addiction on and off for most of her life. They will be using the song to raise awareness and funds in one of life’s toughest and most necessary battles. Fascinatingly, the Browns have been married some 40 years and Paul was unaware of Jacqui’s singing ability until he heard her tooling around with the song on the piano over and over. It’s a gorgeous, heartrending tune that infuses deeper meaning to the “blues” on a personal level here than any other song on this album.
Overall, Uptown Blues is a collection that takes us uptown, downtown and all the places in between where genuine R&B/soul and urban jazz meets the blues. Brown grew up listening to and playing the blues and this album is his deepest exploration of his truest heart yet.