Remembering Michael Brecker, Five Years Later


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Hard to wrap my mind around the fact that as of yesterday, Michael Brecker has been dead for five years, now. With over 900 recordings to his name, it's damned near impossible to avoid that singular sax sound of his whether the music is funk, rock, mainstream jazz or fusion jazz. Moreover, I find that more and more of the current crop of sax players are drawing major elements of their style from Brecker, perhaps the most significant indication of his importance to jazz.

Of all of his accomplishments, the most amazing one to me was when he was ailing badly from the form of leukemia that would ultimately take his life, he summoned up the strength and determination to make one last musical statement, Pilgrimage, and it was a grand one, a curtain call released after his death that only made us fans miss him more.

Two weeks after Brecker's passing, I put together some personal thoughts on him around an MB song—one of many—that I loved. Here's a reprint of that One Track Mind:

Last weekend I helped my brother move across state. After we stuffed the 26 foot U-Haul and his Ford pickup, he handed me the keys to the Ford and just as we were about to embark he showed my his XM radio and before I can tell him I already had an iPod handy for listening, he gave me a quick tutorial on how to work this newfangled device that's become all the rage among mobile music listeners.

We shove off with me tailing my brother's U-Haul and I pop the white earbuds in my ears. Crap, the Nano is just about bled dry of juice. Let's check out this XM gizmo and see if we can find some good tunes on it. Turning the knob I find a “straight jazz" channel.

Alright, I think, now we're getting somewhere. But I soon discover some of the material is too soft, I'll never make the three hour drive up to Shreveport. Luckily, just two channels over, I discover “Beyond Jazz." Now, this is what I call travelling music. They're playing Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanton Moore and some trippy acid jazz outfit called the Modern Groove Syndicate.

And about every hour, they're queuing up a song by the late, lamented Michael Brecker.

A couple of weeks ago I sort of covered his untimely passing with a quick piece, and intended to move on from there. But this station was playing cuts off of Now You See It...Now You Don't which I previously noted was my favorite Michael Brecker.

Adding to that good vibe are some positive associations with the time period when this record was new and in my regular CD rotation.

One of the cuts played was “Dogs In The Wine Shop," and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since then. Yes, folks, I have a One Track Mind, but this time, the song wasn't selected on a whim. Indeed, it's a mission.

Like all the other tracks on Now You See It...Now You Don't and all of Brecker's early solo records in general, it is a rare example of challenging, engaging fusion in the late eighties and early nineties.

By then the genre largely gave way to bland smooth jazz on one end and incessant wanking on the other. Brecker offered a perfect middle road.

Everyone knows he could play his ass off on the alto sax, and he always left room to strut his stuff. But to him, the mood and depth of the material meant just as much. On 1990's Now You See It... it probably meant even more.

With good friend and longtime musical partner keyboardist/composer Don Grolnick as producer, Brecker put together an exotic bland of bop, world music and Brecker Brothers that at it's heart had a slightly meloncholy soul to it. In it, Brecker always soloed and never soloed.

If you've heard that phrase before, you know I'm drawing a comparison to Weather Report's approach to fusion, a comparison that is made in the most complimentary way.

Insofar as the Grolnick composition “Dogs In The Wine Shop" goes, the Zawinul/Shorter influence is especially evident. A jungle beat introduces the tune but chordal instruments all seem to float along in half-time. The dreamy atmosphere is accentuated by a Victor Bailey's sparse bass and Jim Beard's tastefully employed synths.

Typical of a Grolnick creation, the chords take a different progression than where you would expect and barely say tethered to any structure, but remained melodic all the same. Vastly underrated pianist Joey Calderazzo provides a thoughtful interlude.

The leader himself is playing restrained and economically but with a deeply felt blues feeling. He doubles on his trademark EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) which in this setting provides some low-end coloring sounding much like a bass clarinet. It's inspired soup of seemingly incompatible instruments that work due to the outside-the-box approach of Brecker and Grolnick.

So maybe now that I immersed myself in this song, I can finally get it out of my cranium. But now, I've got Grolnick on the brain. Don Grolnick, incidentally, preceded Brecker to jazz heaven some eleven years earlier at age 48 (Michael's inspired Two Blocks From The Edge from 1997 is a tribute to his old friend). A Grolnick review in the near future just might be the elixir.

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This story appears courtesy of Something Else!.
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