Monday, January 15, 2007

Now you see it, now you don't- RIP Michael Brecker

(Blown up from yesterday's post)

Michael Brecker (NY Times obit here) has been sick for some time, but the last news I heard was optimistic, which makes this hurt even more. The Bad Plus has posted a tribute from Mark Turner, and Darcy blogs about tributes at the IAJE.

In addition to the music TBP mention, I would add as a favorite Brecker moment the drum duet with DeJohnette on the Michael Brecker Impulse album. A good, not great record, but that track is mind-boggling. And call me sappy, but my personal favorite Brecker is the solo on Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years". I don't care if it wasn't improvised; it was the perfect sound for that moment, which at his best is what Brecker, and any great improviser, is.

I personally am not a huge Brecker fan, though I've always admired him tremendously. When I was getting into jazz, Brecker was recording very glossy-sounding albums for GRP- not his finest hour, perhaps- that didn't resonate with me at all. And I saw him live once with the Brecker Brothers once in '90 or so. The gig was unbelieveably loud- three times too loud for the room- and most of the playing was flashy but pedestrian. Except for Michael Brecker; he was unbelievable- I've never before or since heard the sheer instrumental brilliance on the saxophone that Brecker could whip out of seemingly nowhere. I've just never seen anyone, anyone play more saxophone than Brecker. And he wasn't showy about it- that's just what he did. Even when I didn't love his music, I always admired and respected him, which I think most musicians do, and all should. (And I would echo Darcy and Mark- the more recent stuff he's been doing seems to be much more wide open, and the little bits of the Quindectet album I've heard is really, really good.

The tone of Mark Turner's comments points out that Brecker gets something of a bum wrap from the "jazz establishment". I think there are two chief complaints about Brecker, neither of which is really his fault. One is that he is the prototype of what Brookmeyer calls "the robo-tenor", this technical saxophone monster who plays with brilliant, usually very pentatonic technique but lacks any imagination. (Just to be clear, I've NEVER heard Bob say this about Brecker, just his imitators. Keep reading) Two, he made too much fluffy, pop music; he "sold out".

The first complaint is like blaming Monet for all the knockoff impressionist works in suburban houses. In the early 70's, several tenor players emerged- Brecker, Liebman, and Joe Farrell jump to mind- who were grappling with all of the harmonic innovations Coltrane presented. (Warning, gross overgeneralizations ahead) Brecker is famous for focusing on and to some degree systemizing Coltrane's exploration of pentatonic scales (five note patterns that can be superimposed in many different situations to sound more "inside" or "outside" the chords played behind the scale). This is very evident on the Brecker Brothers stuff, and on a lot of his solo albums as well. As Mark points out, Brecker could do damn near anything he wanted on the tenor- this system (if indeed he thought of it that way, I don't know) wasn't a crutch, but a tool for him. I have no doubt that he could have gone in a different direction, and out-bopped the best rebopper on the planet. But this is what he did do. A lot of young saxophonists in the 70's and 80's, egged on no doubt by jazz educators or theory books, imitated this part of Brecker et al, without either his mastery of musicianship. He somehow gets blamed in some circles for deep study and application, and innovation? Please...

As for the pop thing- I can't speak for every Brecker studio date, but i think about the music with Steely Dan, and Paul Simon, and Joni that I know. The music is never any less than good, and his playing is never any less than great. Since when is there anything wrong with that. Wouldn't you kill to hear Brecker on pop radio today? I know I would. Though at this point, I wish I could hear him again in any context.

Current Listening: Joni Mitchell, "Shadows and Light". Has anyone else ever notices the yodeling in the crowd at the end of "In France They Kiss..." I just did- pretty funny.

Update: Trumpeter Randy Sandke writes a moving tribute to Mike on Doug Ramsey's page. (via Mwanji)


Jordan said...

I hadn't heard the "robo-tenor" term before, but it seems somewhat apt for the school of tenor playing that Brecker inspired (though I agree with you that Brecker himself was above that). I felt that a lot of his work began to sound the same, and I'm not a huge fan of his tone, but his influence and technical mastery were undeniable, which keeps me coming back to his albums.

pat said...

Credit where credit is due- I heard that term from Brookmeyer. I think the "robo-tenor" is one of the main things that caused him to write in a way that really reels the soloist into the piece...