I wonder if Paul Patterson notices me squirming a little as we sit in his Northside kitchen. This interview is my idea, so he isn’t to blame. Still, an uncomfortable refrain is repeating in my head as we talk about the mechanics of music-making. It’s a blurry lyric: Paul is the real thing, na na na, and you are a fraud, ha ha ha. Patterson has made a career of making music, and in his presence I feel like I’ve made a career faking it.
If you’ve enjoyed any type of locally produced music, then you’ve probably enjoyed Paul Patterson. He plays violin in the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops orchestras. He’s a member of the Faux Frenchmen, the mighty jazz quartet that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. His additional work, on countless stages and recordings, veers into every music genre imaginable: gospel, bluegrass, swing, pop, children’s records, country, and even Bootsy Collins.
Patterson is a busy guy. He plays an astonishing variety of instruments well. When a local band needs a stand-in or a guest to spice up a gig or recording session, they call him. Everyone knows he’s a sure thing.
Then there’s me. Chances are good you’ve also heard my music in Cincinnati, but not from any stage. I’ve never been in a band or substituted in one, and no way in hell have I ever played in the Cincinnati Symphony. My music has appeared mostly in commercial jingles and satiric parodies. Rarely have I created songs that aren’t about low prices or skewering celebrities.
I did once successfully sneak an actual noncommercial song onto a WEBN Album Project, using a fake name to skirt the station’s rule against employee submissions. The band named Hoodwink was really me, hiding behind session players and singers. And that’s the difference between me and Paul Patterson. He makes music; I hire others to make it for me.
Paul had forgotten, until I reminded him, that we’d first met some decades ago when I needed help on a jingle. I had just landed my first project with a budget allowing for a string section. Strings?? That means writing down real musical notes, with sharps and flats and dots and all those squiggly things! I was terrified. Luckily I was pointed to a student enrolled at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, Paul Patterson. He may have forgotten our adventure, but not me. You don’t forget someone who saved your life.
Patterson and I share a childhood memory. We both got struck early by a musical lightning bolt—a sound that made us suddenly widen our eyes and sit up straight, changing us inside, lighting the way to the rest of our lives. For Patterson it was an obscure album by jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and for me it was a rock and roll song that jumped out of a radio. Both of us had the same reaction: What is this? It’s unlike anything our parents ever play at home or in the car! This is something from another planet, and I want to go there right now, forever!
Patterson has been going there ever since, having eagerly turned himself into a willing lightning rod. I evolved into more of a listener and presenter, only dallying in composing and performing.
People like me, who love music at a depth we can’t even express, are in awe of those who can. Patterson absorbs every kind of music, finds secrets inside every note and nuance, and adds them to his toolbox. The freedom he enjoys in his own groups and compositions makes it easier to blend into the formality of a large symphony orchestra and still engage there fully.
Here’s an example of how much Patterson engages. “When I play Beethoven, my heart is full,” he tells me. “Beethoven always asks the most. All these highest things that classical musicians aim for, they’re right there. Even though Beethoven is gone, his muse is alive. It lives outside of time. It existed, exists, will always exist. That’s the thing I connect with. I have a conversation with it. It’s just there all the time.”
Travel a million miles from Beethoven, and there’s Joni Mitchell. “The most influential person for me, of just the highest artistic level, the thing that inspires me the most, is Joni Mitchell,” he says. “The absolute level of her artistic integrity, if I have her too present in the back of my mind, can make it very difficult for me to record my own stuff.”
Patterson speaks just as reverently of other musicians who live with commitment and passion to their muse. This is a path he tries to walk daily, but that I rarely do: music for the sake of itself and nothing else. Side-by-side lists of our professional projects, divided into columns of music created for its own sake vs. music created for selling beer, would show a massive imbalance. Sure, Patterson has played plenty of sessions for commercials and bad songwriters, but throughout all of those journeys he’s never stopped booking flights to that other planet. He goes there as often as he can.
The young Paul Patterson learned music two ways: by the book and by the gut. Unlike typical kids who dumped music lessons as soon as possible—hi there!—he couldn’t get enough. His lessons often jumped from one instrument to another.
Infatuated with the banjo at age 12, Patterson listened over and over to bluegrass records played at half-speed, internalizing the timing and the tone. “That organized my brain and my hands, which improved my violin playing and my piano, guitar, mandolin,” he says. “My composing, too.”
Patterson’s youthful drive to keep learning and improving hasn’t slowed. After a lifetime of practicing banjo, adjusting pick positions, and filing his nails just so, he thinks that maybe now, finally, he’s getting close to the mountaintop of sounding like Earl Scruggs.
There’s no way to do a reasonable transition from Earl Scruggs to Bootsy Collins but, like Patterson, let’s just suddenly go there. “It’s so cool to work with Bootsy because he knows that even though I’m just this white violinist guy perhaps I have some funkiness in me,” says Patterson. “And he says, Don’t play funky for me! Just play! It’ll work! It’s been really good.” Good enough, apparently, for Bootsy to give him a personal shoutout in the middle of one of his songs (listen here; Bootsy mentions Patterson at 3:48).
I don’t have enough space here to do justice to Patterson’s incredible output with the Faux Frenchmen, Cincinnati’s beloved “gypsy jazz” quartet. Their lengthy résumé includes playing at my daughter’s wedding. Nor have I mentioned his wife, Sylvia Mitchell, also a member of the Symphony/Pops orchestras. Their romance began in 1978, when Playhouse in the Park accidentally double-booked two Elizabethan strolling violinists for one performance of Romeo and Juliet. Sorry for the cliché, but they’ve made beautiful music together ever since. And a daughter.
I need to bring up someone else, a guy named Irving Berlin. He was the most successful Broadway songwriter in history, despite his near-total lack of musical training. He knew how to play piano only in F-sharp, the black keys. He used a special piano with a giant lever (“my Buick”) that could shift the entire keyboard left or right. He also had to sing every new melody to a transcriber, because he couldn’t write notation.
Purely on instinct, Berlin gave the world songs like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” Would you call him a musician? Or would you sing Paul Patterson is the real thing, na na na, and Irving Berlin is a fraud, ha ha ha?
I’ve seen professional players impressively nail the first take of the most complex charts. But ask them to improvise with an existing track—to simply hear the music and join in—and they’re completely lost. Irving Berlin could easily do it. So could I, even if I couldn’t play that well.
Paul Patterson is comfortable with both. After all, he’s a musician, just like Irving Berlin. And maybe I’m ready to consider that I am, too.