Michael Brecker: He Can Groove Any Way You Want
“ The first time I played with Dewey Redman, Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden [on Pat Metheny's 80/81] something just clicked, something changed, something shifted, I was never the same after that. ”
(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.
AAJ: Did the EWI and performing that kind of music take you places you would not have otherwise explored or later have an impact on your acoustic material?
MB: Well, it certainly opened doors... sonically, that I never even dreamed of. It opened doors in areas... synthesis... and the fact that it is such an expressive instrument... previous to that I had tried to electrify the saxophone. And it [the EWI] is a challenging instrument to play.
AAJ: Yeah, don't you have to keep your fingers off the keys?
MB: Yeah, just that alone
AAJ: Did that ever get overcome?
MB: It got overcome pretty quickly... I was willing to do whatever it took...and as I said, it has certain sonic possibilities... and at the same time it made going back to the saxophone seem fresh.
AAJ: Could you discuss what each player brings to the group?
MB: Well, you know, I've been playing with Joey Calderazzo for many years and he brings a very strong compositional ability (to the band)...and is just a very broad player. And James Genus is just a good bassist and, you know, just really plays the bass [laughs], and assumes that function, and I like that. Jeff Watts is great on the drums.
AAJ: [Guitarist Pat] Metheny's quoted as saying he "hears music in everything . Do you find that's true for you?
MB: Sometimes. Most of the time I'm usually not looking at it that way [laughs]. Occasionally, I'll listen to the... cicadas...
AAJ: They sound orchestral sometimes...
MB: They sound like they're talking...but, I wouldn't say I go around thinking like that.
AAJ: The use of [graphic artist] Escher's "Sky and Water I" on Now You See It, Now You Don't captured that concept in a static image really well. Do you get involved in the presentation of your product?
MB: I do. I did a tune on the Now You See it, Now You Don't album called "Escher Sketch." It seemed to me to be an aural adaptation of an Escher lithograph. It sort of presented a figure, a sonic figure or relationship It's something I will probably do more of in the future, in a different way.
AAJ: Coming out of his work?
MB: No. It's really not coming out of his work at all. It occurred to me to be a similarity though, in other words, it wasn't inspired by his work. A whole other place, but I realized there were certain parallels between the two. I used one of his lithographs which was a fairly famous one. Actually, I had chosen a different one that had dogs, but the record company thought that the dogs looked a little too rabid [laughs].
MB: So we passed up on that one, but I'm generally involved, both my manager and I.
AAJ: I'm sure that's a lot of fun
MB: It is a lot of fun.
AAJ: What are your considerations when composing new music? Techniques, concepts? Are there certain processes each time or do you make it different each time?
MB: I kind of let the chips fall. I'll come in with certain ideas I want to hear, a certain direction that I want to pursue. A lot of it I kind of leave up to the muse. When I'm in writing mode I make sure that I'm available to write everyday. And certain days its going to work and certain days nothing's going to happen.
AAJ: Do themes, ostinatos, etc. just kind of come to you?
MB: Sometimes... they'll come... there are many ways, it just depends.
AAJ: You sometimes credit Edgar Grana in the liners. Have you been studying with him and how has he helped you?
MB: Well, he helped me to be able to focus on a certain aspect of writing and also taught me a lot about counterpoint, composition and to finish what I start.
AAJ: What do you work on?
MB: I work on a lot of things, harmonic things, intervals and just the saxophone.
AAJ: You've developed and integrated so many different styles within your playing, yet you still sound original and recognizable, even to non-musicians. How do you feel you've been able to do that, continue to be accessible, yet stay hip and focused?
MB...I try to approach everything creatively, you know...
AAJ: Does the material change from show to show and from tour to studio?
MB: Yeah, it does change quite a bit, although on this past record we had the chance to go out and play the music live, for a little while, which I did on purpose; the first time I've ever done that. Because often I would recordyou know, write music and then attempt the compositions and would record them first and then go out and play. And then two or three months down the line the music would've changed...
AAJ: Did it just get more open, more easy?
MB: Yeah. We knew the music by the time we went into the studio. There's a fine line between knowing it and getting bored with it. It had come together to such a degree we could really get it going in the studio and not have to worry about it.
AAJ: Did you get a lot of rehearsal in before the sessions?
MB: We played the music a lot.
AAJ: I saw the quartet last summer with Adam Nussbaum on drums and at one point you went from one tune into solos and when Adam came out of his solo you went into another tune...
MB: You must have been in Northampton!
AAJ: No, it was at San Antonio.
MB: Oh my God! I do rememberthat was actually a wacky gig.
AAJ: What was happening there?
MB: I forget. I actually don't remember. There were probably a lot of things...we did do a couple of gigs without Jeff...oh, that's why you asked if Jeff had replaced Adam. Oh, no, Adam was actually subbing for Jeff. Jeff couldn't make a couple gigs. And I don't think we had percussion on that gig. A lot of ways we approach the music onstage... I try to keep it really open. It's more fun that way.
AAJ: I guess I've always wanted to ask about certain recordings you've done, could you comment on the Word of Mouth and Gaucho sessions?
MB: They're all really memorable [laughs]. Gaucho and of course, Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth album is one of my favorite records. It's an album that really hangs together... the writing. I was pretty close to Jaco at that date. I watched. We would hang quite a bit. [There was] a problem with the record company... and then he also couldn't write the names of the musicians on the original Word of Mouth record. I don't know if you remember that, the original record had no musicians listed. So, he was with two record companies at once. Somehow! [laughs] And I don't know how he pulled that off! [laughs].
AAJ: Sounds like Jaco to me.
MB: Yeah, it was kinda classic Jaco. I think he was with Columbia and Warner Brothers at the same time. Some kind of thing, but the record was done over a short period of time, he was very excited about it. Actually, we all were.
[Regarding 7th Avenue Souththe performance club Mike had co-owned with brother Randythere was a gig arranged there by Jaco, but due to these contractual problems he couldn't advertize it, but people found out anyway and packed the place and the working band became known as Word of Mouth]
AAJ: Then there was a tour...
MB: There was no tour that I was...I actually kind of stayed [in New York].
AAJ: How about the 80/81 sessions?
MB: Pat [Metheny] and I knew each other from Joni Mitchell and got to know each other real well. That was really how I got to know Jaco really well. It was the first time I had played with Dewey Redman and was also the first time I had played with Jack [DeJohnette] and Charlie [Haden]. And the rhythm section just played... and just something clicked, something changed, something shifted, I was never the same after that. And the time changes... well, I had just never played with a rhythm section like that... that open.
AAJ: Do you think all that came out of the Ornette [Coleman] thing?
MB: Definitely. We were all into Ornette's music.
AAJ: Have you heard John Medeski's trio?
MB: I have.
AAJ: Can you see yourself making use of the organ trio sound on your own stuff?
MB: Absolutely. I like a lot of it.
AAJ: Like that [John] Scofield record A Go Go [with Medeski, Martin and Wood].
MB: Yeah, great record.
And, as the new disc shows, he did. It's a true guitar/organ trio in the spirit of those in the day with Jack McDuff and Benson, Jimmy Smith and Wes or Kenny Burrell or Don Patterson and Pat Martino, and then made a quartet with tenor out front. The difference is heard in contemporary writing that keeps the tradition, Pat Metheny's modern touchand as Michael Brecker also contributes two tunesand the redefinition of three drum legends; the stage is set. Keyboardist George Whitty produces and adds an original of his own.
Regarding the new disc Brecker offers: "Great time is one of the most essential elements in jazz. It was a privilege to record this CD with three masters of timeElvin Jones, Jeff "Tain" Watts and Bill Stewart. Add greats Pat Metheny and Larry Goldingswith their highly developed sense of rhythm and musicalityand the result was a music lesson for me and an amazing experience that I will never forget."
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)