On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

* * *

Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Michael Brecker, Tenor Saxophone

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