An Interview With
by Mark Ruffin
So you’re tired of your local smooth jazz station applying the same old aural wallpaper? Well, according to saxophonist Marion Meadows, so are most contemporary jazz musicians. After four albums on RCA, Marion Meadows has signed with Discovery records and comes forth with his new album Pleasure. In a sweeping interview with JazzUSA’s Mark Ruffin, Meadows talks about why he’s finding new ways to get around being ignored by smooth jazz radio, cycling, his surprising avant-garde background and hanging out in Grand Central Station after midnight.
JazzUSA: So you moved to Arizona, right?
MM: Yeah, my wife and I come out here during the winter. The last couple of years we’ve come out here and built a house. My thing is cycling. I’ve gotten heavily into it the last few years, so I came out here to work on my “Body Rhythm,” and I found this a cool place to cycle year round.
JazzUSA: So have you left Connecticut totally?
MM: No we go back and forth.
JazzUSA: So what’s up with Phoenix, is there a scene happening there and are you concerned with that?
MM: For sure. There’s an up and coming scene here. They have an excellent jazz series put on by the Coyote, the jazz station out here. They have a lot of artists coming through here and the town is growing like crazy.
JazzUSA: Are you establishing yourself there?
MM: We’re just testing the water out here. We’re having a good time. It’s not a permanent situation.
JazzUSA: Is there anybody else out there?
MM: Well Waymon Tisdale was here when he was with the (NBA Phoenix) Suns. He and I know each other. We have a musical association, as a matter of fact, he’s on my new album. He was my neighbor. He lived right down the street from me. There are a lot of (musicians) people here and I met a lot of really neat people and it seems like everybody is always eventually coming through Phoenix.
JazzUSA: Is Waymon Tisdale still playing ball?
MM: He took a year off. He calls himself retiring, but I think he’ll be back.
JazzUSA: Yeah, how can you give that up when you’re young and got the talent?
MM: Exactly, and with that kind of money. He’s just enjoying this year off and making music. He signed a new record deal with Atlantic. He’s just having a good time. I just told him the other day, it must be nice being a millionaire bass playing ball player. (laughing) I said, as a matter of fact, I’m not even speaking to you anymore.
JazzUSA: Not to offend you or anything, but I must tell you your new record, “Pleasure,” is head and shoulders above your other albums?
MM: Other people have pretty much said the same thing. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I picked one producer and he and I really concentrated on this record. We put a lot into it as opposed to a lot of people going out and getting this producer and that producer.
JazzUSA: Did your other records have multiple producers?
MM: Look, I’m not blaming the producers. But there’s such a thing as being too eclectic. I’m not saying that I’m guilty of that, it’s just that I’ve grown and I certainly can go back and fix some of my favorites from records like “Forbidden Fruit” and “Keep It Right There” but as a collective and one record that I think is my favorite as a whole, it would be this one.
JazzUSA: You said you’ve grown, in what ways?
MM: I think I’ve grown in the combination of what I feel is a maturity in my music, my playing, and also a maturity in understanding what my audience is vibing off of. And they have kind of been my barometer as to the kind of music that I feel they like to hear. Also I’m an advocate of keeping the music scene lively and happening and interesting as opposed to becoming schmaltzy, clone-ish and uninteresting. With the wave of smooth jazz, they have to be very careful, the musicians themselves, they’re all great musicians but they tend to want to make these guys get into this smooth jazz format and all that schmaltzy crap. People don’t want to hear that stuff. After a while, they’re going what is that stuff? It’s the same old sound. Everybody wants to sound like David Sanborn or Kenny G. You just can’t treat the music like that because people are not that dumb. Musically people want more, and radio stations and the people who design that stuff, they might want you to think that, but that’s not the case at all. The listeners that I talk to are up in arms with some of the smooth jazz stations in their cities to get off that cloned computerized approach to what is otherwise a new form of jazz. These straight ahead cats are losing their radio homes because of this kind of format. That’s just the sign of the times, you can’t argue with that point, but still you’ve got a lot of great musicians who could offer a lot more musically than just the same old formula. Somebody at radio has to step up to the plate and say look we’ve got to go two or three (tracks) deep into these records and search for the vibrant stuff.
JazzUSA: Hearing you say that, and after hearing your record, while it is undeniably a NAC (New Adult Contemporary or smooth jazz) record, it is definitely a touch above the normal stuff you hear on NAC stations. Don’t you wonder if they’re going to be attracted to it?
MM: That is my mild protest. I’m saying, this is my music and this is what you get. I have a history at NAC radio. I’m a true artist. If you guys feel like you need to penalize me because of the music I play, my fans are going to buy my record anyway. So if I sell a hundred thousand less records, I’m going to carry the banner and I’m one of the people who’s going to step up to the plate and speak out against this bull. I was on the phone with (saxophonist) Warren Hill for two hours a couple of days ago talking about this very thing. And everybody says the same stuff, Chieli (Minucci), Chuck Loeb, all the musicians have the same complaints.
JazzUSA: Anyway once you’re an established NAC artist, like you said your fans are going to buy your records, and as long as you’re performing you’re going to be all right and anything NAC does for you will be a bonus.
MM: Right, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket anyway. In as much as sometimes I sit around and think that I need those guys, then I find more creative ways not to need them. Now, I’m not speaking from a racist point of view, but it’s hard to be a black artist and to compromise what I do as a black writer. I came from the Stevie Wonder school, I came from the Temptations school, I came from the John Coltrane school- we’re black and we’re funky. Forget all that other stuff. The California guys that do that stuff and they do the California sound, I dig it, but that’s why they’re different from us, than the guys who come from New York. Those guys came up listening to Paul Desmond, we came up listening to John Coltrane.
JazzUSA: What’s unusual about you is not only do you have the be-bop chops, and the NAC success but you dabble in new age music too.
MM: Oh yeah. I think that’s a very important part of it too. That’s a style of music that has evolved. It was John Klemmer who really started that style of horn playing.
JazzUSA: Some folks say it was Paul Winter.
MM: Well, Paul Winter and Paul Horn would be the ultimate.
JazzUSA: Now you’re from the east coast, and went to Berklee. You also had an early association with Norman Connors and Jean Carne, right?
MM: Norman was really the guy who discovered me as an artist, the man who gave me my shot. I met Norman when he was playing with Pharoah Sanders. That was when I was at Berklee, and then after I got out of school and I was looking for a gig, I knew a guy who was playing with Norman and he said ‘oh yeah, I remember you, you set in with us when you were at school.’ And my buddy said ‘you know he’s gotta couple of songs.” I gave Norman a couple of songs that I had written and recorded. They ended up being on his “Invitation” album, and a few months after that he invited me to join his band. That was really the start of my career. After that I met Jean Carne, Phyliss Hyman. I wrote for Glenn Jones, you know, that whole Norman Connors family. I also worked with Angela Bofill, in fact Angie and I are doing some shows together right now with Ollie Woodson and Norman as well. That was a nice graduate school, sort of speak.
JazzUSA: What’s the Jay Chattaway connection?
MM: Jay Chattaway is the guy who brought me over to Bob James. I met Jay Chattaway in Grand Central Station one night. I lived in Connecticut. I was in New York working with a bass player at the time. I was working with an avant-garde band with Rashid Ali and we had just played Avery Fisher Hall and I was waiting for the train late at night. That’s when Grand Central used to be open late and there was hardly anybody in the station, and that big domed ceiling in there, so?. I took my horn out and I started blowing, and this guy comes running up to me and says ‘man, that was beautiful.’ I thought the guy was like security. (laughing) It ended up being Jay Chattaway on his way back home to Connecticut. He took my number and said I’ll give you a call. About a month later, he called me and said Bob James wanted to meet me. We got together and did some recording. Bob had Tappan Zee Records at the time. And we were going to put a record together but his record company didn’t make it. It folded up. But that was the start of a whole other wonderful friendship which lasted through the years.
JazzUSA: So, there was another album before you signed with RCA.
MM: Yeah, that one, but it never came out. It was after that that I did sign with RCA and went on to do the four records with them.
JazzUSA: What’s the connection with the avant-garde band, the Aboriginal Music Society.
MM: That’s the group I was working with that night in Grand Central. That group was where I met a sax player at a train station up in White Plains. He was walking had his horn and we got to talking, and he said, I play with a group out of Brooklyn. It’s kind of a free group, avant-garde. The guitar player was James “Blood” Ulmer. Cats like David Murray had been through this band, Oliver Lake too. And I was very hip to the World Saxophone Quartet and I said I definitely want to check this out. It ended up being one of the heaviest bands I ever joined. The music is way over most people heads, but it was some of the hardest music I’ve ever played and some of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve ever had. I used to go to Brooklyn and jam with these guys. They play drums for two or three hours and play the most amazing music. These cats were deep.
View the Marion Meadows Pleasure press release for more information.