Throughout his extraordinary career as one of contemporary urban jazz’s premiere hit makers and producers, Paul Brown has engaged in his share of cover tunes – starting with Boney James’ versions of “Creepin’” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” and including gems like Rick Braun’s “Use Me,” Boney and Braun’s “Grazin’ in the Grass” and George Benson’s sensual spin through the jazz standard “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” The key to turning these into instrumental hits has been a keen ear for fresh arrangements that pay homage to the original while dazzling along a path towards a colorful new direction.
Drawing on that same spirit of originality and freshness, the two-time Grammy winning composer, producer and guitarist finds a unique way to take stock of his chart-topping success as an artist and producer of many of the genre’s greats. Cleverly titled Ones Upon a Time, his new album offers ten dynamic re-imaginings of songs he’s produced over the past few decades that have truly been the foundational fabric and through line of what has made the genre so successful. While initially engaging us with their infectious familiarity, these ten tracks offer a whole new way to experience Brown’s keen ear for sonic detail and his always engaging, deeply emotional blues-driven guitar.
Since Brown’s breakthrough with Boney in the early 90’s, it’s become more and more challenging to keep track of just how many Billboard #1 hits he’s amassed. So imagine the energy in his studio as he listened attentively and chose his favorite ten tracks out of an initial pool of 50. His initial criteria was based on which songs would adapt best to the timbre of his Gibson L5, Buzzy Feiten Stratocaster, Gibson 335 and Gibson Johnny Smith L5.
The casual listener might not detect it at first, but another huge difference is that Brown recorded most of these tracks live at Big Surprise Studio with his core ensemble of Gregg Karukas (keys), Roberto Vally (bass), Gorden Campbell (drums) and Lenny Castro (percussion). On most of his productions, he records and compiles tracks in a piecemeal fashion. So when we’re listening to these tracks, it’s like hearing them onstage with this killer band.
While Brown admits that arrangement wise, some of them “didn’t change a ton,” he believes that just having his trademark guitar sound on lead melody instead of the original instrument made the tracks unique. This approach is especially prominent on the completely horn-free spin through the romantic Kirk Whalum track “Now Til Forever,” where Brown complements his slow burning guitar with the dreamy wordless vocals of Woodward Avenue labelmates DW3; and on the easy flowing Bob James tune “Mind Games,” whose lack of sax opens the door to more prominent spotlights for Brown’s fluid guitar and Gregg Karukas’ retro keyboard magic.
On others, Brown brings in just the right amount of sax to add texture and emotional thrust. While bringing fresh grooving, old school vibes and seductive guitar magic to the Boney song “Nothin’ But Love,” the intense duality he creates with Jeff Ryan on the chorus takes the track to another level. Likewise, his moody, slow burning and laid-back take on Rick Braun’s “Notorious” features the empowering energy of Richard Elliot.
His new version of Norman Brown’s Grammy winning “Just Chillin’” has a slightly more bluesy guitar – and picks up intense steam midway through when Darren Rahn’s fiery sax takes off. On his snappy, funked up new swirl through Larry Carlton’s “Deep Into It,” he creates a whole new flow by replacing the original’s sax harmony and solo with Rick Braun’s soaring flugelhorn and a snazzy horn arrangement featuring Lee Thornburg and Greg Vail.
On other tracks, Brown engages in some seriously hipster re-imagining, from his sped up, joyfully swinging shuffle blues/straight blues romp through the classic “Grazin’ in the Grass” (featuring Euge Groove’s punchy tenor and the bubbling Hammond B-3 of Brother Paul Brown) to replacing the original silky/balmy Latin flavor of Jessy J’s “Tequila Moon” with a peppier groove that borrows from the aesthetic of Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mister Magic.” One of Brown’s ultra-soulful favorites here is “Softly as In a Morning Sunrise.” There’s no way to out-Benson Benson (who improvised on his version), so Brown made the artful decision to keep the sensual, bossa tinged track sonically interesting by creating a new moody intro and modulating keys several times.
Brown brings everything full circle with a playful take on his first hit as a solo artist “24/7” (2004), which sticks close to the original arrangement but is buoyed by slightly more aggressive guitar soloing, the spirited live energy of the band and the vibrant tenor solo of Greg Vail and soaring harmonies by him and flugelhornist Ron King.
For longtime fans of contemporary jazz, Ones Upon a Time is a great way to revisit some old friends in a whole new way. Others who came to the party later will enjoy hearing all that they’ve been missing- and hopefully be inspired to check out the wonderful originals that defined the genre’s aesthetic for the past 30 years.
Listen to Ones Upon a Time here: https://open.spotify.com/album/1HKrssxKR7mL59rDy0OgMp