Rhythm and jazz soprano saxophonist Marion Meadows’ four RCA recordings have made him one of the most popular and dynamic smooth jazz artists of the 1990s, but it was a chance meeting at New York’s Grand Central Station in the late ’80s that really started it all. Waiting for a train with a friend, Meadows – for the fun of it – pulled out his horn and began playing under the huge dome. His sweet sound, coupled with the location’s perfect acoustics, attracted the ear of fellow traveler, TV composer Jay Chattaway, who was so impressed that he hooked Meadows up with legendary keyboardist Bob James. James signed the musician to his TappanZee label, and although a subsequent album project went unreleased, the experience put Meadows on the road to becoming one of the genre’s most recognizable voices.
Ten years down the road, Meadows and his well-traveled soprano are still making that sweet, funky music. Raw and street wise one minute, sensual and romantic the next, his Discovery debut, Pleasure, more than lives up to its name. Meadows believes it’s his most accomplished album to date: “Conceptually, I was thinking of pleasure as a dichotomy, both in the hedonistic sense and bringing listeners pleasure through the music I make.” He continues, “My previous albums all had certain vibes, but in many ways I just sort of let the music flow and follow where it leads. Here I focused more on the kind of music I find spiritually fulfilling, that makes me happy.
Pleasure is something unique for each person, because everyone responds to music differently,” he adds. “My music is sexual, happy and uplifting, and the sax is simply pleasurable to hear. That’s why one of the lines in my liner notes reads, ‘Oh sweet sax, what pleasure you bring.’ If you study the history of the saxophone, it’s been a sound people can identify with in many contexts including orchestral, jazz and R&B.”
While Meadows has on occasion played other horns on his projects, here all the main melody lines are played exclusively on his trademark instrument. “I played the much more difficult clarinet from the time I was eight, and found that playing soprano was the smoothest transition I could make when I was a teenager,” he reflects. “When I turned professional, people would call me for my soprano work, and I realized emotionally it fit me best as a means of spiritual expression. And when it came time to pursue a solo career, I had the most confidence in my ability to make a unique statement on that horn.”
The ten impressive tracks on Pleasure leave no doubt that the soprano is the powerful, passionate core of who Meadows is as an artist. The album kicks off with the hopeful strains of “January Spring,” a whimsical, orchestral flavored ode to new beginnings, before breezing into the steam heat of late night romantic seduction on “Get Away.” The funky, groove intensive electric guitar-sax jam “Picture This” perfectly captures the spicy mix of soul and jazz traditions that Meadows is best known for, while the swaying, frequently percussive “Lucky Girl” touches on modern laid back hip-hop flavors. The gently caressing “No Other Love” is vintage Meadows all the way – a soft spoken, candle lit romance that calls the name of passion.
Meadows is not one to choose cover tunes unless a pop hit really grabs him, and such was the case with the Toni Braxton gem “Unbreak My Heart,” which the saxman dresses up with equal amounts of melancholy and jazz improvisation. The vocal-tinged “Gotta Move On” combines the best tastes of inspirational gospel and a raw, scratchy street vibe, while the thick funk of “UK Underground” is Meadows’ irresistible, spirited take on the modern club grooves coming out of Great Britain. Rounding out the set are the smoky, atmospheric come-hither ballad “Until Tonight” and the rambunctious, explosive, blues flavored “Child’s Play.”
Born in West Virginia, Meadows grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, where he began playing clarinet and studying classical music at the age of eight. His passion for different types of music led him to appreciate numerous jazz musicians, including Stanley Turrentine, Sidney Bichet, Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, and he naturally gravitated to the soprano sax in his high school years. After studying jazz with Anthony Truglia, Meadows attended Berklee College of Music, where he majored in arranging and composition. He later went to the SUNY Purchase School for the Arts, where he studied under Ron Herder. “I got a lot of sideman jobs in college, and I have always said I got a graduate degree playing clubs,” says Meadows, who perfected his craft studying with Joe Henderson, Dave Liebman and Eddie Daniels. “Not long after I finished school, (well-known jazz drummer) Norman Connors recorded my song ‘Invitation’ and then asked me to join his band. I later produced his Passion album with him. Things just fell into place.”
Through the Bob James connection, Meadows hooked up with numerous vocalists and musicians and became a well-known sideman in his own right, recording or performing over the years with Brook Benton, Eartha Kitt, Phyllis Hyman, Jean Came, The Temptations, Michael Bolton, Angela Bofill, Will Downing and Native American flute player Douglas Spotted Eagle, among many others. He also contributed to three Fantasy Band albums (with Chuck Loeb, George Jinda, John Lee and Dave Samuels) from 1993 to 1997 (The Fantasy Band, Sweet Dreams, The Kiss) and, working with guitarist/producer Brian Keane, the Windham Hill Records holiday samplers, Carols of Christmas and Winter Solstice Vl. In the fate ’80s, Meadows stretched his usual pop/jazz boundaries as a member of the New York avant-garde band called the Aboriginal Music Society. He was performing in Japan when he got the call that RCA Records was interested in signing him to a solo deal based on his first album which he had recorded and financed himself. His catalogue includes For Lovers Only (’91), Keep It Right Here (’93), Forbidden Fruit (’94) and Body Rhythm (’96).
“I can always look back and find things I really like on any of those albums,” he says, “but I have to say that in every creative way, my work on Pleasure has been my most satisfying to date.”