Michael Brecker: Nearness of You: The Ballad Book

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There comes a time, it seems, when every major-label jazzer has to add a ballads album to his or her discography. That time has come for Michael Brecker, who enlists the formidable Pat Metheny as both producer and guitarist. Along for the ride are three players you may have heard of: Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette. The 11 tracks (divided into two five-track "chapters" and a one-track "epilogue") are flawlessly executed—practically airbrushed—and as mainstream as can be, but darned if they don't raise a few goosebumps. Brecker is restrained and mellow-toned throughout, shelving some of his pet licks and pushing himself into more lyrical territory. Metheny's guitar work is exquisite, particularly on Hancock's "Chan's Song," which contrasts nicely with Jacky Terrasson's version on 1997's Rendezvous (Blue Note).

These aren't the ballads you'd expect, and that's primarily what makes the date work. There are two cuts from Metheny's 1996 album Quartet (Geffen), "Sometimes I See" and "Seven Days." There's also Brecker's "Incandescence" and "I Can See Your Dreams," the latter serving as the wistful "epilogue." Joe Zawinul's "Midnight Mood" is another unusual entry. The only standards are "Always," "My Ship" (Gil Evans's Miles Ahead arrangement, Gil Goldstein's adaptation for quintet), and "The Nearness of You," the last of which features James Taylor (!) on vocals.

Taylor's presence raises some interesting issues. His is not a jazz voice by any means, and in a way, that's what redeems his performance on "The Nearness of You." Cynics may lambaste his inclusion as a commercial ploy, and they may be partly right, but one thing's for sure: he puts his own stamp on the tune, preventing it from sounding recycled and retro. The same can be said for "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," which also features Taylor's singing. One could argue that Taylor is this track's saving grace. Without him, the group might have played the song as a boring, muzaky instrumental. Instead, we hear Taylor revisiting one of his own classics, rearranged as a jazz ballad. There's artistic merit there for sure.

Track Listing: 1. Chan's Song 2. Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight 3. Nascente 4. Midnight Mood 5. The Nearness of You 6. Incandescence 7. Sometimes I See 8. My Ship 9. Always 10. Seven Days 11. I Can See Your Dreams

Personnel: Michael Brecker, tenor sax; Pat Metheny, guitars, producer; Herbie Hancock, piano; Charlie Haden, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums; James Taylor, vocals (2, 5)

Record Label: Verve Music Group

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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