Growing up, bassist Paul Randolph’s grandfather left his progeny this indelible piece of advice: “If you’re gonna go somewhere, you gotta go with something.” And through the years, behind the scenes as the cat in the back or as a bandleader, Randolph has heeded granddad’s counsel. In fact, this Randolph guy is a musician’s musician and a worthy frontman, two things that are often mutually exclusive. What’s remarkable is he can play myriad styles — be it house, disco, soul, jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll or reggae — with class and grace; never do you get the sense that he’s simply looking for a trend to cash in on.
Randolph’s a workhorse too; he’s done many bands, showcases, studio sessions, collaborations, guest spots and even a McDonald’s ad campaign. Since catching jazz rock musos Weather Report as a kid, Randolph has been moving forward armed with that something.
After two decades of playing music to pay the bills, Randolph — who is currently holding down the low end in Amp Fiddler’s band — just dropped his solo debut, the breezy, intimate and house-inflected Randolph Says, This Is … What It Is.
To see Randolph perform with Fiddler is to witness unintentional scene-stealing. While they are both sinewy and commanding, Randolph’s quiet demeanor can suddenly shift into a springing wall of presence. And he wields a subtle sexual tension that complements Fiddler’s groove completely.
At home in Berkley, Randolph lives simply, seemingly unaffected by life’s chaos. He likes to kick back and watch classic films and play with his cat. The incense burns. Mementos from his travels abroad and African artifacts adorn the home. It’s an almost soothing place to hang.
While the Randolph story begins in Philly, the real birth was Brazil. His pop was sent there by Ford to run a car radio plant. Though the tenure lasted less than three years, it left a permanent mark on the kid.
By age 5, Randolph was already learning guitar and percussion, and as soon as he was old enough to get an allowance, it went straight to records. From Dad (who dabbled in trombone and harmonica) he got the jazz greats: Monk, Miles and Coltrane. He discovered Brazilians Jorge Ben and Elis Regina, and then Bowie and Zeppelin. But two records solidified Randolph’s love of music: a Jackson 5 album (though today he can’t remember the title) and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys.
“After that Jimi record, I was grabbing everything,” Randolph says.
The family settled in Southfield after a brief stint in Indiana. At Southfield High, Randolph joined anything with the word “band” in it. But the world is full of guitar players, so the teen switched to bass after catching live shows of Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. The latter’s bassist Jaco Pastorius warmed the youngster’s heart.
“I get goose bumps when I think about it,” Randolph recalls. “I had never seen anybody play like that. I didn’t think it was possible to have that kind of flair and command, and be that experimental with the bass. I thought if that can happen, this is what I want to do.”
After the Weather Report show, Randolph went home and promptly slid his guitar under the bed. He began borrowing a classmate’s bass and playing to Elvis Costello and James Brown records.
A blunder got Paul Randolph his first four-string.
While testing a demo model bass at a local music store, Randolph hadn’t noticed that his belt had nicked up the back of the instrument. He was forced to buy the thing. His pop fronted the necessary cash, which Randolph paid off by working a janitor gig at a nearby Holiday Inn.
In less than two years, Randolph had practiced himself into a summer jazz program scholarship at Henry Ford Community College.
That year, he and a pal caught Weather Report once again. They purposefully purchased tickets on Pastorius’ side of the stage and the budding bassist spent the duration of the show scrutinizing his idol, note for note. It was enough to catch the bassist’s attention. When it came time for his solo, Pastorius sat in front of Randolph and played directly to him.
“I tear up every time I think about that,” Randolph says, without a trace of irony. “Looking back, I must have been a maniac.”
After the show, Pastorius brought Randolph and friend backstage, introduced the teens to his family, and eventually invited them back to the hotel. There they spent hours chatting. As Randolph tells it, the pair didn’t talk so much about music as they did about life.
“I learned more in that three-hour span of time that we hung out than I have learned from any other teacher,” he says. “And everything he told me about worked. The most important [thing] … was that I had to have a sound.”
Randolph, who declines to reveal his age, attended Wayne State and transferred to Central Michigan University where he earned a marketing degree. Again, he played with any rock, reggae or blues band he could find. He was soon fronting Mudpuppy, a bluesy band that developed a loyal following here in the ’90s and released one album. Along the way he met down-tempo funk maestro Amp Fiddler.
Randolph had been in New York, performing in singer-songwriter showcases, when he ran into the former P-Funk keyboard player. The two had been aware of each other’s work. Fiddler had been looking for a gig, so the bassist welcomed him into the Mudpuppy fold, which lasted four more years.
After Mudpuppy crumbled, paying gigs were few. Randolph began doing session work and side projects in and around the internationally lauded Detroit electronic music scene. He worked with scene heavyweights Kevin Saunderson, Mike Banks, Carl Craig and Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann). It was Dixon who helped Randolph get his own music on track.
“Kenny was someone sitting on the sidelines, watching me flail around trying to make something happen,” Randolph says. “He recognized my frustration, and he just wanted to help. He is a righteous, righteous brother.”
Dixon signed Randolph to his boutique Mahogani Music label, and birthed the first of what they hope will be many Randolph productions. Randolph Says This is…What It Is is a short and sweet six-track album bereft of fat.
“Part of the reason why the record is only six songs long is because it is just a representation of some music that I enjoy,” he says. “I didn’t want to make it that deep. I could have done 15 or 16 tracks of everything I love to play, have written or dig as a musician … even if I could do that, it would go right over people’s heads.”
The album is evidence that Randolph is developing a sound all his own, that “something” his grandfather had alluded to. Put into words, Randolph — again, with no hint of irony — describes his accomplishments so far as “dynamic, colorful, spiritual and sexual.” Sure, Randolph has evolved as an artist but he makes it clear that there is still much more for him to learn and plenty of time and space to grow.
“I think there are elements of it that I haven’t been able to touch on quite yet,” he says. “I think you’re always in search of it, always trying to perfect it … the difficulty for me has been when you’re a diverse artist, sometimes it’s difficult for people to see you as a completed artist. I had to recognize I am more than just a bass player or singer.”
Randolph says he’ll continue to tour with his pal Fiddler as he’s done for more than a year now. Too, his next solo record is almost complete, and he hopes to release it sometime next year, once again with Dixon. He promises this one will be a complete departure from Randolph Says. He’s also quick to point out that he’s keen on remaining honest with himself, and his music.
“I can’t force anything,” he says. “With music, it has to be real, it has to come from my heart, or else it’s not going to work. I can’t fake it. … So I really need to believe in what I am doing. The whole point of me playing music is it’s my small way of healing the world.”David Valk is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org