Anyone who has had the pleasure of experiencing Paul Taylor live knows about the unique synergy between the charismatic saxophonist and his devoted fans. A few years ago, Taylor invited a handful of excited female audience members onstage during his performance of "Deeper," and that moment grew into a beloved ongoing tradition. Still, his dynamic stage presence tells only part of the story of his emergence as one of smooth jazz's most exciting icons. Over the course of four albums-On the Horn (1995), Pleasure Seeker (1997), Undercover (2000) and his most recent Top Ten Billboard hit, Hypnotic (2001)--that have helped define the soul of the genre both literally and figuratively, Taylor has always focused on creating new challenges for himself. On Steppin' Out, his second outing from Peak Records, these involve the texturing of live horns and drums for the first time, playing the vocorder and connecting with Rex Rideout and Barry J. Eastmond, two of modern R&B's most acclaimed and legendary producers.
Taylor, who has always surrounded himself with the best soul and smooth jazz producers in the business, achieved airplay success over the past year and a half with the Dino Esposito-produced title track from "Hypnotic" and the Jeff Lorber-helmed "Palisades." The vibe on Steppin' Out is decidedly split between West and East Coasts, as he worked on six tracks in L.A. with Rideout and five in Manhattan with Eastmond.
Smooth jazz fans are probably familiar with Rideout's collaborations with Boney James, Larry Carlton and Will Downing, and the producer also helmed an all-star project called Club 1600. Eastmond has spun studio magic for superstars from the worlds of pop (Britney Spears), soul (Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Freddie Jackson, Taylor's Peak labelmates Phil Perry and Regina Belle) and smooth jazz (Jonathan Butler, Marion Meadows), among others. The Rideout tracks feature such well-known studio names as guitarist Dwight Sills, bassist Dwayne "Smitty" Smith, drummer Michael White and percussionist Luis Conte. Eastmond's feature guitarist Phil Hamilton, and the beautiful Eastmond produced vocal track "Someone Watching Over You" includes the lush guitar of Jonathan Butler.
"I always want to make my sax the main focus, but otherwise begin each project with an open slate that I can bring different elements to," says Taylor. "It's all about building a new palette which takes me to different places while not getting too far off from my core sound. Steppin' Out has a little less of that aggressive, edgy R&B I was doing last time, and more of an old school moody, pop-oriented flavor, even on the dance tunes. Rex and I had an immediate chemistry, and wrote so many songs that it was hard to pare them down. My other albums all had electronic percussion, and Rex said straight out that he wanted to get me in front of some live drums. He also brought in horns, which added a lot of cool possibilities.
"Barry and I didn't write as many songs, but all the ones we wrote made the first cut," he adds. "I'm doing the sax harmonies on a few of them, and for two others, 'Night Rider' and 'Enchanted Garden,' I brought this interesting electronic instrument called the vocoder to the party, which I double with the sax and also do solos with. It's got a unique synthesized sound that adds a retro feeling to those songs. I'm a huge fan of Herbie Hancock, and I was always impressed with the way he used the vocoder on his disco era album Feet Don't Fail Me Now. I even wrote a few melodies for this album on the vocoder. It takes both me and the listener to some new and interesting places."
The tracking on Steppin' Out begins with three Rideout collaborations, followed by three Eastmond tunes. The trippy, dreamy and jangling retro soul opener "On the Move" is what Taylor calls his "in a club, looking for a dance partner tune," while the funkier, brass inflected thumping of the title cut (featuring the horn arrangement of Nicholas Lane) primes this track as a perfect club experience, even, as Taylor says "good for the electric slide." The wistful soprano sweetness of "Long Way Home" is an ode to that sense of longing and melancholy that Taylor finds "when I've just come home from a trip and I'm driving back to my house." The Eastmond experience begins with the producer's co-composition, "Someone Watching Over You," a sexy vocal tune (sung by Sharon Youngblood) so compelling that Taylor said "It's going on there" the minute he heard it.
With its mix of Phil Hamilton's jangly rhythm guitar and his crisp electric, "Night Rider" offers the perfect blend of Euro-soul edge and the dreamy atmospheres Taylor is well known for; he wrote it on the vocoder, and plays a magnificent solo on that instrument. Eastmond and Taylor create a subtle tropical essence behind the shuffle funk groove of "Cantina," which features veteran Brecker Brothers drummer Chris Parker. The next two Rideout-produced tracks, the retro funk dance tune "Let's Go Out Tonight" (which has a sing along chorus and exciting splashes of brass) and the softer soprano piece "Hacienda," serve to fully immerse Taylor into the mix of a live band. Taylor beautifully blends the vocoder with lush sax harmonies on "Enchanted Garden," then gets in the party mood on the D'Angelo-esque "Speakeasy," a Rideout collaboration that reminds the saxman of his days in the college jazz ensemble at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Steppin' Out closes with "Runaway," another spirited jam featuring drummer Chris Parker.
Growing up in Denver, Taylor, who has been playing sax since age seven, discovered his true calling while playing in a local high school garage band called Mixed Company. The group played Top 40 and funk but also would delve into the soulful fusion of the time typified by groups like The Crusaders. He received a scholarship to study music performance at UNLV, began doing more gigs there, and was soon hooked on making a career of it.
Aiming to build his resume beyond the many dues-paying Vegas lounge gigs which marked his early professional life, he commuted often to Los Angeles and hooked up in the late 80s with (his later producer) Dino Esposito. Taylor did one of Esposito's sessions at Jeff Lorber's home studio; a few years later, in 1994, the popular keyboardist remembered Taylor and asked him to play with him at the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. Popular smooth jazz keyboardist Keiko Matsui and her producer/husband Kazu liked Taylor's charismatic performance and finesse, and later offered him an audition with their band.
Taylor recorded and toured with the Matsuis for two years (appearing on Sapphire and Dream Walk), and Kazu Matsui eventually produced the saxman's debut On The Horn, which spawned the #1 radio hit "Till We Meet Again". Taylor quickly found his own niche in the smooth jazz world, and his quick but well deserved popularity led Pleasure Seeker to the top of the radio charts. The #1 title track was one of Radio & Records most played genre cuts of the year.
Although Taylor has since been one of the genre's most popular live attractions as a solo artist, he eagerly accepted Russ Freeman's invitation to tour with The Rippingtons in 2000 after Jeff Kashiwa left the group. In many ways, Taylor's stint with The Ripps was a perfect marketing tie-into his deal on Peak Records (which is co-owned by Freeman and Andi Howard). In early 2002, Taylor also teamed with another labelmate, Phil Perry, for a Valentine's tour.
"The live show is where the magic really happens, and I'm always trying to add versatility to it for those who have seen me play multiple times," says Taylor. "The whole process begins with me in a room with the sax, writing melodies from the heart that I like first. I try to imagine how the listener and the audience will respond. I'm very devoted to my fans, and keep in touch with them via email as much as possible. They tell me what they'd like to hear me play at the next show, and that way I know what material works best. Then when I get in the studio to do a new album, I'm excited by the idea of creating something different, yet keeping the vibe I've built going strong."