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Search for a Sound : Alto saxophonist Michael Paulo of Van Nuys believes the path to individuality is through live performance and recording.

August 06, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

Michael Paulo is in the midst of an identity crisis: He doesn't feel he yet has a unique sound and approach as a musician.

"If I had my own sound, maybe I would get across better. I'm trying to develop it," said Paulo, 37, a Van Nuys resident who plays tonight at La Ve Lee in Studio City.

Like so many contemporary alto saxophonists, Paulo says he has been deeply influenced by David Sanborn, the New York-based horn man renowned for his crying sound and heart-wringing musical tales.

"His influence is hard to get away from, since I have listened to him a lot," said Paulo, wearing flashy black workout pants and a colorful T-shirt. "I like his sound, the way he plays with a bluesy attitude, his emotional content."

Paulo, born in Hawaii of Filipino and Japanese parents, moved to the mainland in 1981. He believes that the path to individuality is through live performance and recording. He has released two albums--"One Passion" for MCA Records in 1988 and "Fuse Box" for GRP Records in 1991.

"It's an evolution," he said.

"The more experience I have, the more I develop into who I am. Maybe one morning I'll wake up and hear something by me on the radio and say, 'Hey, that guy sounds like Michael Paulo.' I don't know when that will be, but I hope it's soon," Paulo said.

The saxophonist is being a bit rough on himself. Yes, his tone and improvisational style definitely have some inflections that might be called Sanbornesque. But as heard on his latest "Save the Children" CD, which is available now only in Asia, Paulo delivers a sound with a richness and tunefulness that Sanborn's lacks. And Paulo solos with a sense of flow and technical fluidity that is not one of his idol's strong points.

Paulo started on saxophone at age 15. His father, Rene Paulo, was a "classical-jazz-pop" pianist--in his son's words--who made 10 albums and toured Hawaii and the West Coast. The saxophonist's mother was a singer, as are some of his siblings. His sister, Charlene, appears on "Save the Children." Still, Paulo's parents wanted him to be a scholar--not a musician. They enrolled him at private St. Louis High School, where he joined the band to get out of a physical education class, he said. Because the school was short on instruments, Paulo started playing an alto that his uncle owned.

"Bang! It grabbed me right away," said Paulo, smiling. "I dug it. There was something mysterious about it, like all these pipes and pads were intimidating, but then I got a sound, and started figuring it out."

The horn man credits his first teacher, Leonard Suesz, with exposing him to jazz. "He was a fanatic. He loved John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker. At my first lesson, he played a blues and told me, 'Play what you want, play what you feel.' "

Mainstream jazz was Paulo's interest for a time, until he gravitated toward contemporary jazz. He grew up listening to a variety of pop-based music and played with numerous pop-jazz bands, including Kalapana, one of the most popular bands in Hawaii. It's easier to connect with an audience, he said, by playing jazz with pop elements than by playing be-bop.

"It's a matter of survival," he said. "I like to play music that has a lot of melody, that has improvisation, and that strikes a balance where you don't lose the listener, where the listener can feel something."

Olivier Vabois, who books La Ve Lee, said Paulo knows how to get across to an audience. "Michael tries to make it a show every time he plays. When he's playing, he's playing for you, not sitting back--ever. That's not in his personality. I like his energy, his aggressive funk groove."

Besides doing his two albums, Paulo has performed or recorded with singers Al Jarreau and James Ingram and pianist David Benoit. And though he occasionally performs in the United States, since 1990, he has made the bulk of his income through performances in Thailand, Singapore and Japan. He wishes that it weren't so.

"I kind of hate to go overseas," he said. "Though it's sustained me, home is where the heart is, and I'd like to be a little more accepted in the U. S. But, hey, that's just the way the business is. You gotta keep doing it."

Where and When What: Michael Paulo plays La Ve Lee, 12514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Hours: 9 and 11 tonight. Price: $10 cover charge, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 980-8158. What: Michael Paulo at the Baked Potato Pasadena, 26 E. Colorado Blvd. Hours: 9 and 11 p.m. Saturday. Price: $10 cover, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 564-1122.

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