Essential Michael Brecker
“ I listened to Elvin as I was coming up, and of course with the John Coltrane quartet, which was very, very instrumental and inspiring and it was really the group that propelled me into wanting to choose music as a livelihood, a life endeavor. ”
(This article was first published in November 1999)
Michael Brecker's contributions to music are generous and, like the pregnant ideas that flow from his tenor horn, they continue to grow. At 50, the saxophonist has found acceptance in a wide variety of musical settings, having performed with pop stars like John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and jazz heavyweights the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Charles Mingus, and Jaco Pastorius. Brecker's resume includes extensive work as a studio musician, a tour of duty in Horace Silver's band and teaming up with this brother, Randy, to form the critically acclaimed funk group, The Brecker Brothers.
A recipient of multiple Grammys, there's little that this soft-spoken musical soul from Philadelphia hasn't accomplished in his career, and yet one would never know it from speaking with him. "There's so much I don't know," Michael reveals, and not surprisingly, his new CD, Time Is of the Essence (Verve, 1999), is chalk full of valuable lessons. Featuring the distinctive drum styles of Elvin Jones, Jeff "Tain" Watts and Bill Stewart (each play on three tunes), plus Larry Goldings' organ and Pat Metheny's guitar, Michael Brecker's latest release offers jazz fans numerous reasons to smile.
In mid-October, I spoke via telephone with a tired but amiable Brecker at his New Jersey residence.
Michael Brecker: I was just watching [a TV show] about liposuction. Should we start there?
All About Jazz: (Laughter) Yeah, that's interesting because my first question was going to be: Is there anything you'd like to talk about and get off your chest? We could start with that. (Laughter)
MB: But I already got it off my chest.
AAJ: Michael Brecker has liposuction! That's a strange idea.
MB: Yeah, it's a bizarre thing. Anyway?
AAJ: Well, besides liposuction, is there anything you want to start off with? (Laughter)
MB: No, it's in your hands.
AAJ: OK. Well, I was reading about you and one of the things that I discovered was that your father was a pianist. Is he still alive?
MB: No, my father passed away about three years ago. He was an attorney and also a semi-professional jazz pianist. He played very well-loved the music.
AAJ: I imagine that he must have been an influence on you.
MB: Certainly. That's what got us started, got the kids started; there were always musicians in the house, you know, playing on weekends-and he had a great record collection. My father used to play every night, and it excited him so we naturally became excited as well. And my brother Randy began playing at a very early age and showing a lot of talent, as well as-I had a sister, Emily, who's in between us in terms of age, and she took up piano. So of course I followed suit and chose the clarinet when I was six or seven.
AAJ: You know that's interesting to me because my dad also plays the piano, and I heard the piano when I was growing up, too, and one of the things that I've enjoyed is-my dad's not a big talker-but since I started playing the bass, music has provided another avenue of communication.
MB: Yeah, well, it's very well put, and I think that also was at play, too. It certainly gave us another way to communicate with him, and it enabled us to be close in a different way.
AAJ: I imagine that around the Brecker house during the holidays it must have been a pretty musical group. Did the whole neighborhood come over and sing carols?
MB: Uh, no.
MB: Partially because we're Jewish, but um...? (Laughter)
AAJ: (Laughter) OK, that explains it.
MB: But, that doesn't totally explain it. (Laughter) But that never stopped us. No, we used to play together every night after dinner. I actually was the drummer of the family, and my brother played vibraphones; my sister played bass. We had a little group. My father knew a lot of the standards, so we had a little repertoire.
AAJ: Did you ever play out for people
MB: I don't recall? Maybe we did once. We just did it purely for enjoyment. As you said, it was a way to be close, and we enjoyed it.
AAJ: How did mom fit into that?
MB: Mom was a good listener. Actually, she played piano as well, classical piano. She was an artist-a great painter. So ours was a somewhat artistic family.
AAJ: That sounds like an amazing thing.
MB: Yeah, this is true, but my father really made a living being an attorney. The whole dynamic was interesting.
AAJ: I also read that you went to college at Indiana University and then moved to New York in the late sixties, and I believe at that time there was something called the loft scene that was going on. Describe that for people who don't know what it was like?
MB: Well, when I initially moved to New York I lived in an apartment, but I became friendly with musicians such as Dave Liebman, Dave Holland; I got to know Chick Corea pretty early on, and musicians sort of in my milieu. And a lot of them were living in lofts, and that's where we used to do a lot of the playing. Lofts were reconverted factory spaces, converted into living spaces. They were very inexpensive, large, and generally somewhat neighbor-less-a different vibe than living in an apartment. I actually moved into a loft a couple years later, and my loft was actually right out back of Dave Liebman's loft; our windows were almost facing each other.
Dave had a really strong scene going on in his place. There were musicians playing there literally every day. He was taping, and I was there often, either playing or listening. There's a gentleman named Steve Grossman who's a fantastic saxophonist, he used to be there a lot, and the music would go from one loft to another. There was a lot of playing going on and that's sort of how we honed our craft. We learned our instruments, you know, really learned to play that way. Eventually, we started getting busy, and Dave went with Elvin, I think. I should mention too that we formed an organization called Free Life Communication, which is what gelled out of the loft scene. It was an organization basically dedicated to creative music, largely made up of loft musicians, and Dave Liebman was really the primary instigator, he and Richard Beirach kind of headed it up.
Originally lofts were used as concert spaces, then Dave and Richie were able to get hold of financial backing that provided a beautiful space, and a lot of concerts were held there. It was an amazing thing and quite unique, really. It sort of began to dissolve as everybody started getting busy professionally. Dave went with Elvin, and I went-we all sort of went our separate ways. Dave eventually joined Miles.
Steve Grossman was playing with Elvin and Miles as well, and my brother and I were always playing with different groups, and eventually formed the Brecker Brothers. In '73 we played with Horace Silver for a year. We also were in a group called Dreams and recorded for Columbia Records back in '70, '71. That's a kind of rambling answer to your question. (Laughter)
AAJ: Well, I'm interested in the camaraderie musicians always seem to have had in jazz, and I imagine that things in New York have changed quite a bit, and you kind of alluded to that in your answer, saying how people moved on as they started getting work.
MB: I think the scene just changed and younger players found a way to get together. You know, lofts became more expensive as time went on; they became very fashionable and chic-and amazingly expensive. So the places to get lofts started changing. It was easier to find them in Brooklyn and other places, and I think the scene really moved. It moved around quite a bit.
MB: The club came later. That was around '77. The club was actually another way for us to provide an environment for creative music, and it worked very well.
AAJ: How long did you have that?
MB: Seven years. The name of the club was 7th Ave South, and it was one of the hot spots in New York.
AAJ: That must have been quite a learning experience to run a club.
MB: Well, it was; and probably the main thing I learned was that I'll never do it again. (Laughter) But, we had some fantastic times there musically, and in other areas as well. It was a great learning experience to be sort of on the other side of the fence.
AAJ: You must have got a bunch of different people coming in. Describe some of the crowds, the people that would come.
MB: We had a very open booking policy. We weren't strictly, you know, an acoustic jazz club; there was a lot of electric music there as well. And we changed up a lot, and tried to, you know-our niche was that we sort of presented interesting music in many genres-a lot of R&B groups-and a lot of groups had their start there as well. And we attracted a New York audience that wanted to come out and enjoy themselves and hear some music. Steps Ahead had its beginning there. Jaco's Word of Mouth band actually began as a gig at 7th Avenue, and he wasn't allowed to advertise it because of his record company, but it was standing room only-and it was purely from word of mouth-so that's where that came from.
AAJ: Wow, that sounds like a great time, too. Well, let me ask you about your new CD, Time Is of the Essence. I guess the most notable thing-what stands out the most-is that you have three drummers playing with you. Describe the time-feel of Elvin Jones, Jeff "Tain" Watts and Bill Stewart.
MB: Well, that's kind of hard to put into words; it's very difficult to describe someone's time-feel, but suffice to say that Elvin Jones is one of the living legends on the drums, and there isn't a drummer on the planet that hasn't been influenced by Elvin in some way. It was a great thrill to have him be present and participate-it was like a dream come true for me.
AAJ: I imagine you were influenced by him, growing up as a drummer, as you mentioned.
MB: Yeah. I listened to Elvin as I was coming up, and of course with the John Coltrane quartet, which was very, very instrumental and inspiring and it was really the group that propelled me into wanting to choose music as a livelihood, a life endeavor. So Elvin has been an idol of mine for years, and I had a couple of brief opportunities to play with himthe first one actually, was when I was fifteen and he came to play one weekend at a music camp that I was going to. But, it was great to have him on the record. We had a fantastic time, and he subsequently invited me to play with him at the Blue Note for his birthday celebration, which I did. We had a really wonderful time.
And then, you know, Jeff "Tain" Watts is one of the great drummers playing the instrument today, great jazz drummer. And, like Elvin, he has sort of invented his own language coming out of the tradition of all the great drummers; and he certainly is Elvin-influenced, but he's come up with really his own approach on the instrument-a very conversational approach, and a serious swing. I've been playing a lot with Tain over the past two or three years so we have a real chemistry, which is great.
And I'd been wanting to play with Bill Stewart for a long time, and I thought this would be a good opportunity since I had Larry Goldings on the record, and knowing Larry has such a great chemistry with Bill, I thought it would be a great idea to include Bill as well. I've been fascinated by Bill's drumming. He kind of came out of left field, and has really made his mark and become one of the great drummers playing today-a very original drummeryou never know what he's going to come up with. He's a real serious student of the instrument, and one of the most original drummers to come along in a long time. And also can really swing; that's the thing that connects all three of these amazing musicians.
So to describe their time-feel is a little difficult, and they do have three very different time-feels-again, it's hard to articulate. It's more of a thing that you want to leave to the listener.
AAJ: I'm curious about the recording. Was the band in one room or in separate rooms?
MB: We were in separate rooms, but separated only by glass. I like to record at this place called Avatar, which gives you fairly good separation but great visibility and you can hear everything really well.
AAJ: Elvin has his growl that he does. Do you remember hearing that as you were playing?
MB: Yeah, sure. That's a great sound. I love hearing that sound. It's almost the sound of the beat being subdivided.
AAJ: Yeah, those songs that Elvin plays on, I think, are my favorite.
MB: Thank you.
AAJ: You also have Larry Goldings on organ. Talk about what the sound of the organ brings, and makes you feel.
MB: Well, that's really the sound of Larry. (Laughter)
AAJ: The sound of Larry?
MB: Yeah, you know, I've always loved the organ, loved the tradition of the organ, but I never really had a desire to record or play with an organ until I heard Larry play. I just love the way he plays; I love everything about it. I love his sound on the instrument; I love his sense of time. He has amazing elegance, you know, and plays like a poet, and yet swings incredibly hard and has a lot of intensity in terms of tension and release built into his playing-a really remarkable musician. I've wanted a chance to record with him for quite a while now. I first heard him with John Scofield's band, as well as Bill Stewart, I heard them both when they first came out with Sco's band, and I flipped, of course.
AAJ: Yeah, I know as a bassist, I kind of dig hearing that organ-bass, you know?
MB: It's funny you mentionI mean I like it too and one of the initial decisions was whether to have Larry play bass, which he does great, or to have a bassist, and I decided to opt for Larry, partially because it was truer to the organ-trio tradition, but also I hadn't heard him do itoutside of his own recordsI hadn't heard him do it that much on other records. I also wanted to experience what that was like, and I'm glad I did it that way. Because, weirdly enough, even though it's a more traditional sound, it felt fresher to me.
AAJ: And then Pat Metheny on guitar. I think he's just an incredible composer, and that song "Timeline ...
MB: That's a good one, isn't it?
AAJ: Yeah. Man, he really lays some stuff down there.
MB: I welcome any opportunity I can ever possibly get to play with Pat Metheny. He's, you know, probably my favorite musician playing right now. I can't say enough about him; I love his playing. Obviously, I love his sound, and his conception, I think, really transcends the instrument. He's an artist in every sense of the word, and, as you said, a fantastic composer. So I asked him to come up with a couple of tunes for the record, because the idea of playing with Pat and not playing his compositions seemed crazy. Fortunately, he brought in a couple of tunes, one of which he had previously recorded on his quartet record, the ballad "As I Am. And then, he had kind of half-finished "Timeline and we realized that it would be a great vehicle for Elvin, so Pat finished it quickly, and I think it was the perfect vehicle.
I asked Larry to write something as well, because I'm a big fan of his writing from his albums, and he came up with "Sound Off.
AAJ: Yeah, that really jumps.
MB: That one jumps. I originally came in with a whole lot of tunes-a bunch of them I dumped, [Laughter] knowing that I would, and I kept what I thought were the best of my own. One of them is a composition which is only on a Japanese release. It's a tune in 7/4 which I like very much. It's called "Lunations, and I think that's going to be available on the Internet. I'm not totally sure, but I think it's coming out as some kind of liquid audio format.
AAJ: Yeah, well I hope so. It would be really nice to hear that.
MB: It's a cool thing. I'm really hoping that it comes out.
AAJ: I'm curious about your practicing. Do you still practice?
AAJ: Clearly, you are very technically adept at getting around on your instrument, and I wonder what part of music you struggle with the most?
MB: Where do I begin? [Laughter]
AAJ: Is it more of a mental thing? It seems like you have the physical side of playing pretty much in hand.
MB: I don't find myself struggling so much with the technical. The point of the practicing for me has never really been, at least on the saxophone hasn't been for years, about the technical end of it. Occasionally, you know, I'll find something that I need to bone up on. It's much more about learning different relationships between notes and chords. There's so much I don't know. It's like the more I learn, the more there is to learn. I'm always working on new, intervalic relationships, trying to use my mind, exercise my ears. There's tons to learn out there.
AAJ: Let me ask you, if I may, about a friend of yours who died not long ago, Don Grolnick. I imagine that his memory is still strong with you.
MB: Yeah, his memory is always going to be strong. He was my closest friend, and produced all of my records. We played in 12 or 13 different bands together. He had a way of smoothing my rough edges, and I could kind of ruffle-up his smooth edges. So we were a good team.
AAJ: During the course of an average day, he must come to mind. What do you remember most?
MB: I usually remember-the things that come up on a daily basis are the things that he used to say. He had a really great sense of humor. The record Two Block from the Edge (Impulse/GRP, 1997) was named after one of Don's quips. One day he leaned over to me and said that he liked living close to the edge as long as it was two blocks away.
Michael Brecker, Time is of the Essence (Verve, 1999)
Vince Mendoza, Epiphany (Zebra, 1999)
Michael Brecker, Two Blocks from the Edge (Impulse!, 1997)
James Taylor, Hourglass (Columbia, 1997)
Mike Stern, Give and Take (Atlantic, 1997)
Michael Brecker, Tales from the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996)
Tony Williams, Wilderness (Ark 21, 1996)
Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)
The Brecker Brothers, Out of the Loop (GRP, 1994)
The Brecker Brothers, Return of the Brecker Brothers (GRP, 1992)
Michael Brecker, Now You See It, Now You Don't (GRP, 1990)
Michael Brecker, Don't Try This at Home (Impulse!, 1988)
Gary Burton, Times Like These (GRP, 1988)
Michael Brecker, Michael Brecker (Impulse!, 1986)
Kenny Wheeler, Double, Double You (ECM, 1983)
Joni Mitchell, Shadows and Light (Asylum, 1980)
The Brecker Brothers, Straphangin' (Arista, 1980)
Steps Ahead, Smokin' in the Pit (NYC, 1980)
Pat Metheny, 80/81> (ECM, 1980)
Frank Zappa, Zappa in New York (Rykodisc, 1978)
The Brecker Brothers, Heavy Metal Be-bop (Arista, 1978)
The Brecker Brothers, Brecker Bros. (Arista, 1975)
Billy Cobham, Crosswinds (Atlantic, 1974)
Dreams, Dreams (Columbia, 1970)