There's no doubting Michael Brecker's status as a tenor saxophone giant. As a composer and a leader of bands, however, he still seems to be searching'on the right track, but searching. His work for Impulse in the late 80s was slick and a bit ordinary'remember the ill-fated EWI?'and his live group during that period, featuring fusion guitar god Mike Stern, tended to eclipse music with muscle-flexing. But the muscle-flexing earned Brecker a devoted following among chops-hungry fusionheads wandering the halls of Berklee. I should know, I was one of them. We regarded Brecker as the second coming of Coltrane and so on and so forth. We were wrong.
After a hiatus of several years, Brecker released Tales from the Hudson
in 1996. Good, not great. The all-star players sounded as though they had done a few too many studio sessions together. They did their job, but they didn't surprise. Meanwhile, Brecker had put together a killer live band with Joey Calderazzo on piano (from the muscle-flexing period), James Genus on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. The gigs were a knockout, and so was the group's 1998 studio effort, Two Blocks from the Edge.
The record displayed the spark and dynamism of a working band'precisely what the previous disc lacked.
Brecker's new release, Time Is of the Essence,
doesn't quite rise to the level of its predecessor. The lineup has changed again. Pat Metheny, who appeared on Tales,
is back in on guitar. Larry Goldings plays Hammond organ. And Tain remains behind the kit, although Elvin Jones and Bill Stewart make guest appearances on three tracks each. To the best of my knowledge, Metheny, Goldings, and Tain (and Elvin) had never worked together before, and that in itself is a treat.
Five of the nine tracks are Brecker's. "Arc of the Pendulum" is a heavy-swinging 3/4 tailor-made for Elvin Jones. "Half Past Late" is a New Orleans-style groove similarly tailor-made for Bill Stewart. "The Morning of This Night," a ballad in four with some interspersed bars of three, features Metheny in top form. "Dr. Slate" is gritty organ-driven swing with across-the-bar-line triplet figures beginning each melodic phrase. And the closer, "Outrance," resembles "Miles' Mode" in tempo and feel. Appropriately, Elvin plays this one, backing Brecker on an extended sax/drum duo break that strongly recalls the sound of the Coltrane quartet. Goldings contributes "Sound Off," a fast minor-key tune, while Metheny weighs in with the Elvin-esque "Timeline" and the ballad "As I Am." Producer George Whitty pens "Renaissance Man," a tribute to Eddie Harris which showcases Bill Stewart at his funkiest.
Metheny and Brecker play brilliantly; even their familiar licks and phrases acquire freshness against the backdrop of Goldings's organ. Some of Metheny's best work of the decade has been as a sideman, and this record is no exception. Goldings does a masterful job carrying half the rhythm section burden, laying the harmonic foundation, and playing consistently strong solos. Time Is of the Essence
is not an earth-shattering record, but like Two Blocks from the Edge,
it suggests that Michael Brecker has the capacity to make earth-shattering records.