Marion Meadows: Smooth Ride to the Top
If smooth-jazz musician Marion Meadows ever decides to tour France again, he may decide to take it easy and just bring his saxophone.
See, Meadows has already done the hard part-riding a bike in the real Tour de France last year. Meadows is a competitive cyclist who races on a team in Phoenix, and he has won several races. (So it was no thing at all when he dropped $7,500 on an aluminum-and-carbon-fiber state-of-the-art bicycle weighing a scant 15 pounds.)
Actually, Meadows didn't compete in the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France, which American Lance Armstrong won for the fifth straight time. But Meadows and teammates from his cycling club, Bicycle Ranch/Dial, were invited to ride the same courses the contestants would take. Trek Bicycles, which holds its annual winter training camp in Phoenix during January, made the offer. Meadows' team helps set up training rides for the U.S. Postal Service team, Armstrong's sponsor.
"Lance's team sneaks into town for a while," Meadows says, "and Trek wanted to give us a present for helping them train."
Trek provided Meadows' team a full 10-day riding and tour schedule and had bikes waiting for them upon arrival in Annecy, France. On race days, Meadows and the team chose their courses. "Needless to say we chose the hard ones," he says. "How many chances do you get to ride in the Alps? Anyone can ride the flat courses. Every day we rode on some huge mountains, where we often had eight to 10 miles of climbing. But we worked a long time to meet the race's demands, and it was the most amazing thing I've ever done in my life. We'd finish, and the regular racers would come through, and there was Lance Armstrong."
Of course, every day can't be racing nirvana, and Meadows has suffered through several serious spills. "Crashing is a way of life for bike racers," he says. One accident broke a couple of his ribs and another kept him off his bike for six weeks, but for the most part cycling has helped sculpt Meadows' rock-hard physique and ensure his fitness during his recording career, which took off in 1990 with For Lovers Only (Jive/Novus). His latest CD, Player's Club (Heads Up), offers up his sultry soprano sax on 11 songs. "Anytime you have something that keeps you fit and mentally alert, or you have a hobby that you love that has something to do with exercise, that makes you a better, well-rounded person," Meadows says. "Cycling keeps me strong and alert every day, as well as giving me good wind as a saxophone player."
Marion Meadows was born in West Virginia and grew up in Stamford, Conn., where he picked up a clarinet and began studying classical music at age 8. But music wasn't his first love. "My parents weren't players, but they were strong supporters," Meadows says. "I was into academics in school, and music was just more a hobby. I wanted to go into animal science."
That changed, however, on a post-high-school graduation trip to Europe, where he played at a music festival in Austria with fellow students. "For kids who were 17 and 18 we were like, 'This is totally cool.' I mean: Do I want to be neutering a cat right now or standing on a stage playing music?"
Music won, of course, and Berklee College of Music soon accepted Meadows after hearing his sax stylings at an audition. After graduating from Berklee, he attended the SUNY Purchase School of Arts in New York and studied his craft with players such as Joe Henderson and Eddie Daniels. Meadows played club gigs and worked as a sideman with the likes of Eartha Kitt, the Temptations, Michael Bolton, Angela Bofill and Will Downing. Jazz/R&B drummer Norman Connors recorded a song Meadows wrote called "Invitation" and asked him to join his band, and he later produced Connors' album Passion in 1988.
Meadows briefly played with an avant-garde band called the Aboriginal Music Society. And this is where the next part of Meadows' story has often been told: One day, Meadows found himself at a deserted Grand Central Station with a friend, waiting for the 3 a.m. train to take him home after a concert at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. "If you've been to Grand Central, you know there's a huge rotunda; it's like being at the Taj Mahal. My buddy told me to take my horn out and start playing, because the sound must be awesome. I do, and some guy comes running up the steps toward us, and we think it's security."
No worries. It was television composer Jay Chattaway, bounding up the steps to catch the last train home, too. He liked what he heard, which led to Meadows earning some gigs with pianist Bob James, who would sign him to his Tappan Zee label. Although Meadows' initial CD was never released, working with James helped steer Meadows away from avant-garde jazz and into his career as a smooth-jazz player.
After his debut, Meadows recorded three more for Jive/Novus: Keep It Right There (1992), Forbidden Fruit (1994) and Body Rhythm (1995). He recorded Pleasure for the Discovery label in 1997 before finding his present home at Heads Up, where he has recorded three CDs: Next to You (2000), In Deep (2002) and Player's Club.
Meadows' sound centers on soprano sax melodies set over a lush, smooth and urban groove. Of course, that's not something hard to find in the smooth-jazz genre, but Meadows has always had a sound that somewhat recalls 1970s fusion. He's firmly rooted in smooth jazz, of course, but his playing hasn't led to as many radio hits as contemporaries Boney James or Kenny G. That could change with Player's Club, which has numerous radio-friendly cuts cowritten by Meadows and frequent collaborators Michael Broening (Rippingtons, Wayman Tisdale), Michael Bearden (Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jackson) and his longtime bass player, Chip Meadows. Making guest appearances are guitarists Chieli Minucci and Freddie Fox and bassist Mel Brown.
"I've always been an advocate of pushing the envelope a little bit, even with smooth jazz," Meadows says. "I wrote a lot of my own songs earlier in my career, then accepted the work of others before now writing and cowriting my own material again. It gives my music more continuity. My music's about making my own mark, especially as a jazz artist at a time when you have so many sax players out there."
It was the late saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. who taught Meadows a valuable lesson about creating his own sound. "I was a big clone of his as a student," Meadows says. "We had some sessions together and naturally I wanted to play just like him. At the same time, I had an incredible group of mentors with Dave Liebman, Joe Henderson and Eddie Daniels. It was a very eclectic and influential group of artists, people I'd want to draw from, but I was just mesmerized by Grover's approach to songs. One day, though, he told me that it was time for me to put the records down and stop copying other guys' licks. 'Just start doing your own thing,' he told me. 'It's cool to listen to other sax players and dig what they're doing, but start copying licks from piano players and guitar players instead of sax players.' It was great advice and worked for me."
That doesn't mean that Meadows doesn't check out other sax players. He credits Kenny G as the force behind bringing smooth jazz into the pop consciousness back in the 1980s, when it went by the name "contemporary jazz." David Sanborn is probably the most copied player, and Gerald Albright and Boney James have "their own amazing and unique sounds." But Meadows admits he sometimes stumbles when trying to identify who's who on the soprano on certain tunes that cop the same mood. He is, however, optimistic about the smooth-jazz format.
"I'm not a big fan of the term 'smooth jazz,' but I go along with it," he says. "The connotation of that name means so little when you look at what musicians are doing, both in the studio and live, where they really get to stretch. We owe it to fans of smooth jazz to broaden horizons so the music doesn't get too homogenized or too passive. We, as musicians, who are so fond and influenced by our mentors, should never depart from what we set out to do, which was to make great make music and to be pioneers in our own right. I don't think pioneering smooth jazz means we need to all sound the same and to make the music sound so passive and tappy-tap. We need to play, do some blowing. The fans can handle it. We just need to pick it up a little bit."
Having said that, Meadows still know who pays the bills. "I do appreciate having the smooth-jazz genre, so I just should shut up."
Meadows seems to have it all these days. He loves Arizona's Sonoran Desert, pushes himself on his bike during the week (he does gigs on weekends whenever he can, of course) and is accepted by smooth-jazz radio and fans.
Could it get any better?
Of course it can, beginning with his new wife. He met Desislava Peneva, a native of Bulgaria, at a festival in Delaware. "I was performing there, but I met her at a restaurant jam session. She was just so beautiful I couldn't take my eyes off her. She came in after I'd performed so she didn't know who I was or what I do. I was just with friends." The couple hit it off and saw each later at another club, where Meadows got out his sax and started playing. "She was surprised," Meadows says. "She liked smooth jazz but didn't really know the artists that well, so she had no idea who I was."
A year after they met, the couple married in a setting that could only be described as made for smooth jazz. They held the nuptials on Catalina Island off the coast of the Dominican Republic while on Warren Hill's Smooth Jazz Cruise earlier this year. "We had an earlier ceremony in Las Vegas, but wanted to do something special on Catalina," Meadows says. Presiding over the ceremony was saxophonist Kirk Whalum. Best man was Frank Woodbeck, general manager of the Las Vegas smooth-jazz radio station KAOS, and guests included JazzTrax founder Art Good and musicians Jonathan Butler, Bob Baldwin, Euge Groove and Peter White. Trumpeter Don Harris wrote and played a composition especially for the ceremony. Meadows named a song after his new bride-"Deska," her nickname-on Player's Club.
Not all has gone smoothly for Meadows in the past year or so, which has provided him with another story to rival his "discovery" at Grand Central Station. While on the Smooth Jazz Cruise, a seven-day excursion in the Caribbean, Meadows and his wife missed the boat-literally-at a stop in Key West.
"I was told to be back on the boat by 3 p.m., but it turned out it left at 1," Meadows says. "I came around the corner and thought, 'There was a 1,000-foot boat here a little while ago. Where the hell did it go?' We had to fly from Miami to Cozumel the next morning. It was the news for the next two weeks on the boat. I showed up on stage the next night with snorkel, fins and mask on. 'It was a long swim, but I made it back,'" he says laughing. "It was great fun."
Originally published in June 2004