Portland saxophonist's Top 10 hit 'Maceo!' puts a little bite in his musical arsenal

by: COURTESY OF PATRICK LAMB PRODUCTIONS - Patrick Lamb, an Oregon Music Hall of Fame member, says his time playing as an opening act to Maceo Parker inspired his hit single, 'Maceo!' a career highlight for the Portland musician.If you know anything about the Portland jazz and dance party scene, you know singer-saxophonist Patrick Lamb is an integral part of it. He’s backed up countless musicians, put together an award-winning musical tribute to Ray Charles and was just inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Now his years of hard work and dedication have yielded something most musicians only dream of — a Top 10 single.

Lamb’s “Maceo!,” a funky danceable instrumental tribute to Maceo Parker, echoes such ‘70s songs as “Cut the Cake” by the Average White Band and hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Contemporary charts a couple weeks ago.

Lamb took some time out to talk to the Portland Tribune about what went into his hit song and his career as a whole:

Tribune: What went into the making of “Maceo!”?

Lamb: We set up the recording of this record very old-school fashion in that we set a week for writing, a week for recording, and then mixing shortly after that. The basic intention was for (fusion keyboardist) Jeff Lorber and I to collaborate and create some new music together that was a hybrid of our influences.

With this particular song I actually had the specific idea to take the groove from James Brown’s “Super Bad” song and write a new song around it based on a Maceo Parker vibe. We had opened up for Maceo recently, and I was thinking about how inspired I was to meet him and how he had influenced me and how my approach I felt was somewhat similar.

James Brown always said when Maceo played in his band and it was time for his solo, he’d say “Maceo!” The title seemed appropriate.

Tribune: Did you think you had a hit on your hands?

Lamb: I didn’t think “Maceo!” would get much play because it’s a funky, choppy little James Brown song that was most likely too funky for radio. I went into the project with Jeff saying I think that we weren’t making any music for any format, that I just wanted to love every song that we did and be excited about playing it for people. I know if I love it and I’m excited about it then that energy alone makes a way for it.

Everything else industrywide was a crapshoot. The only caveat was I did want the songs recorded to transfer well to a live audience, because not all songs that sound great on a record transfer to a live audience well, and my shows are high energy, so I wanted all the songs to be playable live.

Tribune: Your dad was a musician, correct?

Lamb: My dad took care of the family playing road houses and weddings and college functions in Mississippi and Texas. He was into Oscar Petersen and Ray Charles and Phoebe Snow and the Pointer Sisters and the Crusaders. Horace Silver. All kinds of great music was always rolling. My mom and dad had a green Datsun 210. My earliest music memories were in the back of that car against a Fender Rhodes organ on the way to a wedding or something.

Tribune: When did you start gigging?

Lamb: I didn’t start playing until 1983 when I moved to Portland and enrolled late at Cedar Park Middle School and enrolled in beginning band with Mr. Robert Ernst. Mr. Ernst also taught (recent Grammy winner) Chris Botti before me. People need to think about this when they are cutting beginning (school music programs). Where do you think people get introduced to an instrument?

Everybody was playing loud instruments. Drums. Trumpet. I wanted to play those, too, but he said there wasn’t any more room. I looked through a book at all the instruments and picked out clarinet. That lasted about a week, and I didn’t care for that. Saxophone was next.

I went through all the books quickly and then my dad got me the Charlie Parker Omnibook and I learned a bunch of Charlie Parker solos and started going to jam sessions. A short time after that I started touring with different people — Diane Schuur for several years, Bobby Caldwell for six years, Gino Vannelli, some stuff with Jeff Lorber Fusion.

Tribune: Would you consider yourself pretty adept at all the saxes — baritone, tenor, alto, soprano?

Lamb: I prefer tenor or alto but both soprano and baritone have grown on me over the last few years as I tour with different people and have tried to find my voice on each one.

I play primarily tenor with Diane Schuur, primarily alto with Bobby Caldwell, tenor and soprano mostly with Jeff Lorber Fusion, all of them with Gino Vannelli.

Tribune: What did you learn from playing with (jazz singer) Diane “Deeds” Schuur?

Lamb: How to be a great sideman, and what that means. First rule in playing with a singer of international caliber like “Deeds” is to first learn and respect the material. Stay out of their way and don’t step on their space in the music.

I toured with “Deedles” for many years all over the world after she won her Grammys and I enjoyed transcribing all the solos from her records so that first of all I can play things exactly how they were arranged and executed and performed by Stan Getz. Producers and artists spend a lot of time and money and effort creating the arrangements and vibe on these records, so a good sideman learns every note the way it was executed and then takes some liberties if that is needed and works hard to play meaningful solos that add to the sum of the parts.

You also learn a little about the politics of being on the road and the different funny characters. Looking back on it now, I also learned that having a good band is like anything else. It’s always who’s on board, not where you’re going, in having a successful team.

Tribune: What is it like playing with singers Bobby Caldwell and Gino Vannelli?

Lamb: Touring with Bobby and going to Japan many years, I learned a lot more about the alto saxophone as I was mostly focused on tenor when I met Bobby. I also learned that a single hit song (like Caldwell’s 1978 hit “What You Won’t Do for Love”) can make you a superstar and how much fun it is to play R&B.

The focus was on a very smooth and silky contemporary sound. Right before I joined the band I sidelined my other mouthpieces and began playing a different setup in order to get the kind of sound that was needed for his show. Through this I learned how to get a more contemporary alto sound when I needed it. The sound and voice is everything, and even in just the contemporary alto saxophone sounds there are so many different choices, so you have to figure out what your voice is.

With Gino Vannelli it was a focus on tenor initially and a sound that was in the opposite direction. When I began playing with Gino I had a metal, bright mouthpiece (but) Gino didn’t like that sound in the studio, so I took a couple of weeks and went on a hunt for a hard rubber mouthpiece that maybe didn’t project as much live, but in the studio had a much richer sound. That was a valuable lesson. I played all the saxophones on his newest record including baritone, and Gino is one of the most inspired and focused and creative musicians alive I think.

Tribune: You’ve co-written songs with Lee Garrett, who wrote “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” How do the two of you go about writing songs?

Lamb: Lee is pure realness, and he lives in the moment. I call him “the hook master.” I will sit and work on a groove and a chord change and a concept. Lee will come in and within 10 minutes he is singing a hook. He is the bomb!

Tribune: Any tips for sax players who’d like to get as good as you?

Lamb: Make sure you start off with a reed, ligature, mouthpiece and saxophone that is a good setup. If you don’t, then you’ll get discouraged before you’ve begun.

The most important thing initially is to stay inspired about playing, and this starts with feeling like you can accomplish something and move forward on the instrument. Get the Charlie Parker Omnibook, download the solos and learn them. After you do that you will already have learned so much.

To learn more about Patrick Lamb, visit