(This article was originally published in August 1998)
Once one half of the world renowned Brecker Brothers and full time studio legend, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker relinquished that throne to form a group and deliver his own material. Though the Coltrane influence is present in spirit, its simultaneously transcended, skewered even, by the sheer strength and personality of Brecker's tone and seemingly infinite permutations of major seventh laden linear expressions.
Although he might disagree, it no longer seems strange to include Brecker's name alongside those of his other influences:
Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. A whole generation of saxophonists who have copied his sound and solos has already grown up and they're still coming. One listen and you can see why.
Formerly a fixture on Saturday Night Live and veteran of over 400 recordings, the list of those he's worked with is staggering, often requiring last-name-only recognition: Lennon, Clapton, Zappa, Hancock, Metheny, Pastorius, Mingus, Corea, Tyner as well as the groups of Paul Simon, James Taylor, Steely Dan, Dire Straits, Joni Mitchell, Parliment/Funkadelic, and many others.
Though typically found in the jazz bins, Brecker's music is truly eclectic, pulling influence from many genres; improvisational, ethnic influenced ("Itsbynne Reel" from Don't Try This at Home), even rock approved at times.
He can groove any way you want, no sweat. The CD, Two Blocks From the Edge, dedicated to keyboardist Don Grolnick, was released in '98 on the Impulse label, the company for which John Coltrane recorded his later material. His latest, Time is of the Essence shows this to be true in triplicate; making use of the unique time manipulations of three percussion greats: Elvin Jones, Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart. And supplanting the omnipresent bass chair w/ the footpedals and hard blues groovin' of Larry Golding's B-3.
Rarely pictured without a horn, the seven time Grammy winner has never turned his back on tradition, but chooses to use it in ever progressive ways while retaining the music's integrity and originality, bringing life back to a sometimes static idiom. Some of the most insightful dialogue regarding the 49 year old tenor's perspective comes from his Impulse! bio: "I'm not sure where the full-tilt thing comes from in terms of my personality, because I'm often told I'm fairly mild mannered. It's probably got something to do with the fact that John Coltrane was such a tremendous influence, and I was attracted to the emotional intensity of his playing. The power of his quartet was one of the reasons I chose music as my life's endeavor."
I was surprised to hear that this was the first of his five CD's where he'd played the music live before recording it, since its usually done that way most of the time. Mike's take on it: "Joey, 'Tain, James, Don and I played the new music live, but only for a little while," he states. "I wanted us to know it, but not be sick of it. Being familiar with a tune helps spark creativity, but being overly familiar...well, you know. Keeping it fresh was important".
Regarding the band put together to do the CDTwo Blocks from the EdgeBrecker's says in his bio, "I've been with [pianist] Joey [Calderazzo] since '86. We have a chemistry. He's able to read me well, and we have a similar energy. Don's presence is great, too," he continues, referring again to Grolnick. "He has the ability to shift the mood, drive the band with nuances. [Bassist] James Genus, has a great sound; his bass is really limber." he continues. "About 'Tain' [drummer, Jeff Watts formerly with Wynton and Branford Marsalis] I can't say enoughhe's one of the greatest drummers around right now. He has the ability to maintain a musical conversation while still swinging." A tall order and available from a select few others. In addition, "He's constantly feeding ideas into the mix. Together they not only make a solid rhythm section, but one that likes to take chances."
Very high praise from such an accomplished leader, composer and leading light of contemporary improvisation in jazz. Brecker keeps an air of sincere humility about him. Another clue that he's no ordinary front man. He seems to use it to his advantage, in that this attitude keeps him learning what he feels he doesn't yet know and striving for what's around the next corner so he can then bring it to us in his own way.
The title of Two Blocks from the Edge comes from a phrase coined by Brecker's good friend, the late pianist and composer, Don Grolnickwho also worked with James Taylorthat was that he liked living close to the edge, as long as it was two or three blocks away.
"In jazz, the first takes are the best, the freshest and most open," Brecker stresses. "Many times in the past, after recording new music I found that the music would take on a new life on stage. I would find myself wishing I could go back and re-record the new version. This time we had the chance to fine-tune the material first."
"This record [Two Blocks from the Edge] is different," he confirms "and that's largely because this is the first time I've made an album after playing the material live with my band." As a result, he continues, "this was my most natural record." And it comes across to the listener.
Furthermore, many tracks were first takes. Always a good sign, as jazz recordings rarely have the luxury of a large budget as pop projects often do. Case in point, John Coltrane has been known to literally record an album in the time it would take to later play it back. All first takes, all in the can. Not every time, but by today's standards, unheard of. It just isn't done.
Technology has marched on since then but it hasn't brought us any closer to repeating that kind of performance more often. When it does happen, it's coming from the artist, not the gear.
Though the current music is all acoustic, Mike previously performed and recorded with a wind synthesizer known simply as the EWI [Electronic Wind Instrument] capable a barrage of sensory overloading timbres as well as more conventional, sax-like sounds. A few good examples include his work on originals such as the tune, "Syzygy" [from Michael Brecker] and a personal favorite, "Itsbynne Reel," from Don't Try this at Home, a quote often associated with David Letterman.
I had the chance recently to discuss Brecker's recordings and various other facets of his lengthy and productive career. Though somewhat guarded at first, when the questions pertained to the current music, he was more than insightful and forthcoming about it.
All About Jazz: Do you plan to use the EWI again?
Michael Brecker: Probably I would plan to use it. It could easily come back in a different context.