…A dazzling avalanche of notes.
Jazzline Classics D77102
Michael Brecker band: Michael Brecker (tenor sax, EWI, electronics); Joey Calderazzo (keyboards); Mike Stern (guitar); Jeff Andrews (bass); Adam Nussbaum (drums)
Randy Brecker Band: Randy Brecker (trumpet); Bob Berg (tenor sax); Dieter Ilg (bass); David Kikoski (piano); Joey Baron (drums)
Recorded Fabrik, Hamburg, Germany 18 October 1987
There are times when I wish I could step into a time machine and go back and experience a memorable gig; this album documents one of them. On 18 October 1987, Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker were both on the stage at the Fabrik, a cultural centre in Hamburg, Germany. Nothing special about that you might think, after all, they did play together in the Brecker Brothers band. But on this occasion, they were leaders of their own separate groups – talk about getting to see two superb bands for the price of a single ticket!
Michael Brecker (who died in 2007, aged just 57) was profoundly influenced by John Coltrane (what jazz tenor saxophonist wasn’t?), but Brecker himself influenced and inspired new generations of sax players. Brecker combined ferocious technique with outstanding versatility. He was an explosive, fiery player, but also capable of playing with great tenderness and sensitivity. Little wonder that he was an in-demand session musician, playing on more than 900 sessions across jazz, rock, pop and funk – his cv stretches from Charles Mingus to Yoko Ono.
Brecker was more than just a Coltrane clone – he built on the latter’s legacy and developed his own style and technique. He also explored electronic instrumentation in the form of the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), a wind synthesiser that is played like a soprano sax (although the keys are touched rather than pressed). By the time of this gig, Brecker was connecting his EWI to samplers and synthesisers to trigger voicings and sound effects.
The year of this gig was a momentous one for Michael Brecker, who at the relatively late age of 37, released his first album as leader and formed his own band. This concert was part of a tour to promote Brecker’s first album (all but one of the tunes are taken from it) and the band members include guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Jeff Andrews and drummer Adam Nussbaum. These musicians were playing as a trio at the 55 Bar jazz venue in New York, where Brecker saw them, and asked them to join his band.
By now, Mike Stern was well known for his association with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and Billy Cobham. He would go onto to play with Brecker in the bands Steps Ahead and the reformed Brecker Brothers group. Bassist Jeff Andrews (who died in 2019) is one of those bassists who deserves wider recognition for his talents, while drummer Adam Nussbaum has played with John Scofield, Dave Liebman, Gil Evans and Stan Getz. The band’s original keyboardist was Kenny Kirkland, but just as they were preparing for a European tour, Kirkland dropped out to join Sting’s touring band.
His replacement was a 22 year-old keyboard prodigy, Joey Calderazzo, whom Brecker had jammed with two years earlier at a university workshop. Calderazzo – whose influences include McCoy Tyner, Mulgrew Miller, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock and Chic Corea – had been playing around New York with Dave Liebman. Coincidentally, when Kirkland died in 1998, Calderazzo was his replacement in the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Looking back at why Brecker recruited him, Calderazzo noted that while he could play jazz, his playing came from another place, ‘I played like a lunatic, but I had this energy that not many people had, and Mike thought it was exciting.’
The opening number is ‘Nothing Personal’, transforms a five-minute album track into a 21-minute frenetic jazz-rock marathon. From its edgy, agitated opening, you can feel that this is a band that is fired up and straining to be let off the leash. Brecker, Stern and Calderazzo are all exciting, energetic players and there is no let-up from the first bar to the final note. Brecker hits the audience with a dazzling avalanche of notes, barely pausing for breath throughout the entire tune.
The album version featured Pat Metheny on guitar, whose playing was from the jazz idiom, but Stern’s playing leans towards rock and his blazing solo includes super-fast runs, explosive chords, aggressive picking, along with the use of a chorus pedal which soaks the sound in echo, reverb and delay – at times, Stern sounds as if he’s playing several guitars simultaneously. Calderazzo’s solo follows, with the band switching to jazz-swing rhythm. The influence of McCoy Tyner can be clearly heard, with fast, furious playing and pounding chords, but even at such a young age Calderazzo is already marking out his own sound, lacing jazz phrases with rock chords.
Next to solo is Andrews, whose sound is influenced by Jaco Pastorius (his fretted bass sounding more like a fretless) and displays terrific speed, articulation, tone and feel. And let’s not forget the drumming of Adam Nussbaum, who doesn’t drop time or let up for a minute, throughout this maelstrom of sound.
‘Choices’ is a midtempo tune and is a showcase for Brecker’s virtuosity on the EWI, while Stern’s explosive jazz-rock composition ‘Upside Downside’ is the title track of his 1986 album. The tune starts with Brecker generating some turntable scratch effects via the EWI. Stern’s chorus pedal is in overdrive, with multiple screaming guitar lines, as the guitarist plays as if he has six hands during his thunderous solo.
Brecker plays a highly charged solo on the EWI, which sounds more like a keyboard synthesiser and includes guitar sampled sounds. One suspects the audience needed a breather after this performance and indeed, that’s what they get with the next number, the ballad ‘My One And Only Love,’ which has Brecker playing with great tenderness on tenor. It’s not until the two-minute that the band joins in, with Stern comping gently and the rest of the band playing sparsely. It’s a gorgeous performance.
The closing number is the 19-minute ‘Original Rays,’ has Brecker playing a jaunty solo on EWI at the intro, which lasts for seven minutes. It’s loud, at times dissonant, and a tad self-indulgent perhaps (well, this was the 80s), although you cannot help but be impressed by his virtuosity. When the rest of the band joins in, they lock into a tight, jazz-rock groove that could easily be mistaken for a Weather Report tune – Andrews lays down a Pastorious-like groove and Brecker plays a sampled sound straight out of the Joe Zawinul play book. This is not to suggest that the band is simply aping Weather Report, but rather a sign of how influential this band was.
Brecker switches to tenor, once again pushing himself and the instrument to the limit, the sound building to great intensity and the audience wildly applauding his performance. Stern starts his solo with slow, graceful lines, laced with reverb, that slowly sweep across the soundscape, before gradually building up to a scorching-hot climax. It’s an electrifying end to an excellent concert.
In his short liner notes for this album, Randy Brecker describes the music of his band as being more straight-ahead than the jazz-rock fusion performance of his brother’s band. Randy Brecker is also a much in-demand session musician and his musical associates include Horace Silver, Ron Carter, Dave Liebman, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder – eclectic or versatile; take your pick. Brecker describes himself as a bebopper at heart, but with bands like Dreams and The Brecker Brothers, he has also been at the vanguard of the jazz-rock movement.
Brecker assembled a band of virtuosos for this gig and that included tenor saxophonist Bob Berg. By this time, Berg’s profile was raised considerably by his association with Miles Davis (at the time of this concert, he just left Miles, after a two-year stint), and he was also a close musical collaborator with Mike Stern – they played on each other’s solo albums and would later form the Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band. Berg had also recently released his third solo album, Short Stories. Berg’s playing style was similar to Michael Brecker’s: fiery, energetic, showering audiences with notes and capable of playing at full blast for extensive periods of time. One of jazz’s great losses was when Berg died in a traffic accident in 2002.
I have been fortunate to see keyboardist Dave Kikoski up close several times. He’s an exciting player, who embraces both acoustic and electric instrumentation (he plays piano on this gig). He’s played with the likes of Roy Haynes, Billy Hart and Joe Locke, and his influences range from Art Tatum to McCoy Tyner to Keith Emerson and Jan Hammer. Bassist Dieter Ilg is perhaps the least well-known of the band, but he’s a solid German musician who has released a dozen albums under his own name (a favourite of mine is the 1991 album Summerhill, which features Randy Brecker, Bob Berg, Mike Stern and Peter Erskine). Drummer Joey Baron has played with an array of artists including, John Scofield, Al Jarreau, Bill Frisell, Jim Hall and David Bowie.
The concert opener ‘No Scratch’ starts off with a fanfare from Brecker and Berg, and then settles into a mid-tempo piece, with Brecker’s open horn dominating the sound for the first three minutes, with some powerful playing, packed with fast trills and explosive flurries. His superb control and tone are clearly evident. Berg follows him with a long vigorous solo, full of fizz and energy. It’s a tight band performance – Baron’s drums tumble and crash; Ilg’s throbbing bass lines provide plenty of bottom, and Kikoski delivers a sensitive accompaniment. The pianist also gets a solo slot, delivered with great flair and dexterity.
Brecker generously gives two of the set’s six tunes over to tracks from Berg’s Short Stories album, the first of which is ‘Search,’ composed by Mike Stern. Berg starts by playing the moving, anthemic theme on tenor, accompanied by piano. The tune puts the spotlight firmly on Berg’s playing, which is straight from the heart. His fine solo includes a frenzy of strangulated blasts and busy lines, played at lightning speed.
As you might infer from the quirky title, ‘There’s A Mingus A Monk Us,’ is where bebop meets the avant garde. The uptempo tune has a blazing big-band opening featuring both horns, and Ilg lays down a busy walking bass line. Baron doesn’t let up on the drums. Kikoski interjects Monk-like chords and voicings and also gets a long solo. Brecker’s playing displays his terrific tone, control and articulation and Berg also plays a forceful solo, accompanied by some furious fills by Baron. Ilg plays a nimble solo, his fingers moving speedily up and down the fingerboard of his upright, adding a few slides for good measure. The coda features a terrific call-and-response section, first between Berg and Baron, and then Brecker and Baron, with the cycle then repeated. This performance is one of the highlights of the set.
The band plays a swinging version of ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’ with Brecker playing with a harmon mute – the Miles Davis influence is easy to hear. ‘Forever Young’ is an exquisite ten-minute ballad, with Brecker playing open horn. He plays sweetly and tenderly, and there’s a spacious quality to the sound – the other band members not only know when to play, but more importantly, when not to play, or when to simply insert a short note or riff and then quickly depart from the scene. Kikoski’s delicate solo complements the sound. Brecker plays a lovely flurry of notes at the conclusion. No wonder the audience applauds with great enthusiasm.
The concert closer is the near 15-minute ‘Snakes’ another number from Berg’s album. It’s a fast, exciting tune with a Latin feel, featuring an urgent-sounding intro, played by sax and trumpet together. Berg’s tenor sounds thicker and heavier than on the album version, and once again, he delivers a solo that pushes his playing to the limit, with hot, raging lines played at breakneck speed, and seemingly without pause for breath. Brecker solos on open horn, matching Berg’s speed, power and intensity.
Kikoski follows with a speedy solo that brings out the Latin feel of the sound. Next comes Baron, with a wild solo that gets the crowd going wild. The tune ends with Berg and Brecker harmonizing on the theme and concluding with a soaring flurry of notes. It’s a terrific ending to what was undoubtedly an unforgettable night. What a lucky audience.
Reviewed by George Cole