One Track Mind: The Brecker Brothers "Song for Barry" (1992)


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By Pico

Such much has been mentioned here about the late, great saxophonist Michael Brecker, but nothing about the group from which he first gained fame from.

Michael, of course, wasn't the only musically talented Brecker; brother Randy was and remains a pretty good trumpet player in the hard bop tradition. He was also also around for some of the critical incubation points of rock-jazz fusion: an original member of Blood Sweat And Tears in 1967 and two years later in a fusion band called Dreams with then-unknowns Billy Cobham and John Abercrombrie (as well as a teenaged Michael). Randy also was on Larry Coryell's first Eleventh House album and like his brother played on a crazy number of dates in both rock and jazz worlds. Maybe it was only inevitable that the brothers would pool their talents and form a band of their own, and they did around 1974. Tey proceeded to spin off a series of records over the next six years, introducing a horn-based brand of funk-jazz that was electric and contemporary but never really abandoned bop, either; “Some Skunk Funk" from their first album was a prime example of how well they could merge these two musical worlds. Thus, they enjoyed some crossover success while also retaining some measure of artistic integrity.

After 1980's Straphangin', the brother act went on ice as both got diverted by recording and touring commitments that come with the territory for sought-after studio vets such as these two. After about a dozen years, Randy and Michael were finally able to resume their collaboration with Return of the Brecker Brothers (1992).

A lot had happened during those intervening years. Miles Davis had come back from retirement, touring and making a final batch of new musicbefore passing away in 1991. Michael Brecker finally begun to record as a solo artist in 1987, and quickly followed up his brilliant debut with two more strong albums. And the so-called “contemporary" jazz that the Brecker Brothers' music was sometimes lumped into morphed into “smooth" jazz. Would the brothers follow suit and smooth out any sharp edges to their music? The answer came swiftly on the first track of Return, “Song For Barry."

On the surface, “Barry" has much of the same production earmarks of many smooth jazz songs of the early 90s: bright sound, synthesized drums up high in the mix and layers of the latest and greatest keyboards. There's no mistaking that this is a song from 1992. But as the song's composer, Michael brought the The Brothers the same inclination to draw inspiration from disparate sources as he had been doing for his solo music. A tribute to the then recently deceased Latin trombonist and former fellow Dreams band member Barry Rogers, Michael took the main melody from a horn pattern that Rogers was fond of, and even excerpted a trombone solo Rogers once did on an Eddie Palmieri album. And then just for rhythmic fun, Brecker threw in an adaptation of a Guinean tribal theme for a bass line.

Michael adds to the exotic African flavor by playing his wood flute-like EWI over the percussion and that bass line, and then switches over to his tenor and joins Randy's trumpet for that Rogers-inspired motif. The drums punches in during the chorus with its staccato note pattern, and then it's off to the races on solos. Michael, followed by Randy do justice with theirs and Mike Stern, who up to this point of the song had been quiet, takes it out on an energetic high with his rock-oriented guitar break. It's good enough, but nothing like when he has room to fully express himself as he did when they played this song on the stage.

The following two part video documents a memorable live performance of the song from 1992.

Part 1, where the Brothers Brecker put on some horn clinics:

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