Studio musicians and fusion bands — especially successful ones — get the least respect from jazz purists. Saxophonist Michael Brecker is in both categories. His 30 some years of studio recordings with practically everyone (Average White Band, Parliament, Paul Simon, Dire Straits, Aerosmith) would seem to have banished him forever from the realm of jazz authenticity. The popularity of his 1970s fusion band, the Brecker Brothers, co-led with brother Randy, made that exile even surer.
Little by little, though, Brecker has edged back toward recognition as one of the most accomplished jazz sax players around — and one of the most influential. Coveted spots with jazz masters Mark Murphy, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny washed away the pop-music phrasings and revealed his well-honed bop technique. His own straight-ahead jazz groups in the ’80s and ’90s showcased not only his leadership, but also his improvisational intensity. His Coltrane-inspired playing on the recent “Directions in Music” with Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove positioned him as a serious contender for respect.
Last year, Brecker released his most innovative recording yet, “Wide Angle,” a quindectet with an unusual combination of brass and strings. Though Brecker has played on countless studio recordings where strings added nothing but sweetness and light, the arrangements on “Wide Angle” do just the opposite. The four strings slice open the jazz harmonies with atonal edginess and reframe the bop-heavy brass to create a unique ensemble sound.
Last week, he brought his 15-piece group of classical and jazz musicians to the Blue Note Tokyo for a week of packed-out shows. In the middle of the week, however, drummer Antonio Sanchez was hit with the flu and had to miss the last set. Brecker and guitarist Adam Rogers sat in on drums for several numbers, eliciting great amusement, but also a sharper focus, from the band and from the audience.
Brecker later took time to talk about his latent drumming skill, the band and his inspiration.
I want to ask you about your drumming, first of all . . .
[Laughs loudly] That’s the end of my drumming career. You were there for that show? Antonio was unfortunately taken ill. It was just a flash virus, but it wasn’t worth letting it get worse. He’s such an important addition. He makes the music come alive. Well, it was an interesting evening. I didn’t panic, but it was just “deal with the situation.”
With the drummer out, though, all these other textures seemed to emerge.
Some things were revealed. I heard some things that I hadn’t heard before. In most bands the drummer becomes the leader. The drums set up the dynamics and keep everything in motion. Rhythm is really the most important part of the music. And for me, you could almost say the notes are simply decoration. Antonio is such a fantastic musician. It was interesting to try to do it without him, but I don’t want to do it again. [Laughs again]
What motivated you to put together this larger group?
It wasn’t like I had a lifelong dream, and it wasn’t even something that I had given much thought to until about 2 1/2 years ago when I did a tour for the British Arts Council. I had a rhythm section from America and eight musicians from Britain — three woodwind players, three strings and two brass. I did old tunes of mine re-arranged by Gil Goldstein. I really enjoyed hearing the textures and colors so much I wanted to record it.
It’s interesting that the strings are not just adding romantic background.
No, no, I didn’t want that. The strings are very active. They are providing a cushion in a few spots, but I really didn’t want them there for sweetening. I like that it’s a big band without being a big band. Not that I have anything against big bands, but I thought this was a fresh approach to looking at a large ensemble with a different palette. The strings all improvise together so beautifully. Every night they come up different motifs and colors and are constantly shifting lead voices. I give them a lot of space to play alone as a section, because I can’t imagine what they’ll come up with next.
Often when musicians try a new “project” it seems to come out of dissatisfaction with some aspect of jazz. Is that the case here?
No, not for me. I wish I had the intelligence to even be able to assemble that amount of information and make a judgment that this hasn’t been done or that should have been done. I have to like something, and things that are challenging are exciting. It might have been done 50 times before, but it’s fresh for me.
I really notice that this band is enjoying themselves a lot, which is kind of rare.
Maybe often musicians are enjoying themselves but not showing it. They get into the serious effect. You’re supposed to look cool, and be cool, and look detached and all that stuff. I really like to enjoy myself when I’m playing. I’m at that stage of life when every chance of playing seems like a gift. Every day feels like a ball game in extra innings. I want to take advantage of that. I don’t want to be up there and not have a good time. It’s too valuable an experience to waste.
Your solo of “Naima” was riveting. You always seem to go back to Coltrane.
I hadn’t done that in months — actually, a year and a half. Coltrane is a very important presence for me. He was the reason I chose music as a life’s endeavor. I became interested in music right when Trane was at the height of his powers. It literally bowled me over. Just that, “bu-dah, bu-deh,” on “Love Supreme” and he had me. When I heard that I realized that this music was powerful stuff. I spent years listening to Coltrane. I’m forever indebted to him.
Not only did he leave us with a great musical legacy, but he left us with a great blueprint of how to be a good human being and how to contribute something on this planet and how to do so in an extremely egoless way.
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