In the recorded history of jazz, there have been few events in recent memory that have really made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your heart skip a beat. The news that Michael Brecker has made a stunning ballad record is not necessarily the event that might make you wake the kids and phone the neighbours - and yet it should. Brecker's powerhouse, pile-driving style of tenor playing has imprinted itself indelibly on jazz's psyche since he first burst out of the '70's session scene and into the jazz-rock limelight with his brother Randy, in the guise of those funky siblings The Brecker Brothers. Carving huge, mathematically advanced chunks of harmony out of thin air with his husky, blues-inflected tone, Brecker has been cited by almost every young pretender to his crown as a huge influence, and now it's his turn to acknowledge his influences and some long-time ambitions to play a set of ballads.
Assembling a bunch of old friends - Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJonnette, Brecker has found a sheltered spot from his usual maelstrom of notes, one where he's able to expose a softer, more introspective side to his character. The genesis of the project was always on the back burner, one that had been hanging around in the farthest corner of that tall, mostly bald, half-shorn cranium, and been flickering behind those mischievous eyes for a few years. Yet, like an actor craving the day when they possess the kind of faculty and facility to play King Lear or Richard III, at 52, Brecker has reached a point where he finally feels he has the strength of character to give away a little more of the 'little kid inside'. But none of this would have happened were it not for the other creative minds orbiting around this sax colossus. Pat Metheny has been like a brother to Brecker for years and it was during their quartet tour last year that this obvious collaboration was in gestation. The choice of producer was also right under his nose, as he explained, "I knew that Pat was going to play on it, and we were talking about various directions, and then I just said, 'hey, why don't you produce it?' Duh! [Laughs] And his mark is all over the record and I really couldn't have done it without him in this way. I went in with an intention and he underlined the intention, and made it come to life as only he can do."
This association also started a more seismic shift in Brecker's mentality some 20 years ago, around the time he was finding his own solo voice, "My first association with Jack and Charlie came through Pat. Through the '80/81' album of Pat's and the ensuing tour. As I've said before, that record and tour was a pivotal kind of thing for me, an epiphany! [Laughs gently] It caused a shift in the way I had been thinking about playing, and particularly playing in public, it was a freer setting than I was used to playing in, at least on stage. I was used to free settings in our lofts, where we used to play a lot of free music, but this was a way of presenting it that I hadn't encountered before, and a lot of it was largely engineered by Pat and executed by Charlie and Jack, and really Dewey Redman too, who was really in the mix. And it just opened my ears to another way of presenting music in that manner and of course we were touring in Europe, where it was possible to do and where the audiences are more open. Then I came home, and at the time I was playing with the group Steps, which became Steps Ahead, and I immediately tried to shift the music more in that direction and in a more open way. Anyway, that's when I first started playing with the guys, and of course when it actually came to record an album of my own it was no accident that Pat, Charlie and Jack ended up there! [Laughs] And they were all gracious enough to take part in it."
Having such luminaries as close and dear friends as well as premier league players, the choice of material for 'The Nearness Of You - The Ballad Book' was assembled in the most painstaking fashion, akin to researching a demanding, if still autobiographical, subject. Having Hancock and Metheny present helped both spiritually and intellectually yet it was Coltrane's 'Ballads' and his duet album with Johnny Hartman that served as some kind of archived blueprint for Brecker's mind set. "The Coltrane ballad record, which will always live on inside my mind as one of the great records he made, and as one the great records of all time, and the Coltrane/Johnny Hartman record. Those are the two main records, when I think ballad records I think of that."
To avoid simply having too many choices, Brecker admits he had a lot of help choosing such a poignant set of statements that give 'The Ballad Book' such a definitive quality. He elaborated, "I actually came in with four things, two which were particularly written for this date, and I was only going to use one, but we ended up recording two and we chose a couple of Pat's songs that we thought lent themselves to the musicians involved. And of course Herbie is one of the great writers of the century, and has affected all of us, affected just about every writer I know, so it just seemed like a crime not to include a Herbie tune, so we chose 'Chan's Song', which is not a ballad in the way he originally wrote it, but it works as a ballad, and ended up leading off the record."
There is also a slight surprise in the form of Joe Zawinul's beautiful piece 'My Ship', Brecker underscoring another of jazz's great composers, "That was also not originally written as a ballad, that's actually a happy, peppy, mid-tempo tune. But Joe is also one of the great writers of our time and has written some real classic; they just go on and on, 'In A Silent Way', 'Birdland', these are amazing tunes…Richard Seidel was tremendously helpful to me, because he's a walking, encyclopaedic source of every tune that's ever been recorded! He's unbelievable. The way his mind works, he can access fairly quickly from the files in his mind. So he sent me CDs of compilations of things that he thought might work, and that included 'Nascente' and I think even included 'Midnight Mood', which is a tune that I wasn't familiar with but I thought I could play. With 'Nascente', he gave me the Milton Nascimento version of it which I had never heard, and I totally flipped, and said 'I've got to do this'. And Pat was familiar with both versions of it, Pat's familiar with everything! He knew both versions of the tune, he knew different versions of 'Nascente' - I'd never even heard it, and thought as well that we could do it. And 'Midnight Mood' - Pat knew the Wes Montgomery arrangement of it, and we adapted our version of it from that. 'My Ship' is a song that I've played before and used to hear Joe Farrell do every night with Elvin (Jones) in the '70s, but I wasn't familiar with the Gil Evans version, believe it or not, from the classic Miles record. It was Gil Goldstein's idea to adapt it, as he was helping us do the arrangement, it was his idea to adapt to a small group version of it. So as you can see, I had a lot of help."
One name that hasn't been mentioned thus far is that of soul searching, singer/songwriter pioneer James Taylor. A long-time friend, having played sax on six or seven of his albums (he can't recall the exact amount), Brecker felt the urge to take the Hartman/Coltrane link one stage further to its logical conclusion, so he asked James to come and record a couple of things. Never venturing outside his 'Taylor-istic' trappings, Brecker and his luminaries were thrilled by Taylor's natural ability to improvise and blossom in a freer setting. Brecker explains with an affectionate glint in his eye, "James and I have been friends for 30 years and we've had a great chemistry and there a lot of real parallels, funny parallels, we even look alike! We used to really look alike; in fact I once did a stand in, he did a TV commercial in America, and I was his stand in because there was one scene when there had to be two James's - so they used me from the back, and I dressed in his clothes - I had to play the guitar and turn around! But we've had a good chemistry and the sound of his voice and my horn work well together and, we knew that. James is an amazing musician; he has an extraordinary personal quality to his voice that means he is immediately identifiable. He has incredible phrasing; he's a great guitarist, a great musician, a great composer and when I decided to have a vocal on the record, sort of echoing the Johnny Hartman/Coltrane thing, I thought James would be the perfect foil, or perfect counterpart, even though he's not a jazz singer in the traditional sense." Taylor took everyone by surprise on the date - even an old hand like Hancock, "It was effortless, Herbie was amazing, Pat was amazing and they were also James fans, so they were having a lot of fun. I remember Herbie coming up to Pat and I after James had left and saying 'Wow, he's a jazz singer! He can really improvise.' And we did a number of takes of each tune; just for safety purposes and James did each one different, and took a lot of chances."
As the sessions went by, Steve Rodby (Pat Metheny Group bassist and co-producer here) had already established the concept of a 'book of ballads'. But as things became a little tricky around the running order of songs Metheny stepped in and used what Brecker terms "his brilliant mind" to assemble things in their natural order. By doing this, two very different types of songs began to reveal themselves - a soft lyrical, almost romantic sound on one side, a deeper more intense, brooding on the other. Aptly, it's the lovely resolution of Brecker's own composition 'I Can See Your Dreams' that serves as the perfect 'epilogue' to this fantastic voyage.
Overall, this was a new approach for Brecker, one so often associated with a highly intellectual style and flawless technique, diving headlong into a well of emotion and expression. "My main goal with this album was to create a collection of music, of slow tempos, that would function on two levels. It would function for the heart and the mind. Meaning that you could listen to it closely - there's a lot of information there - and listen to it like you'd listen to any jazz record, pretty intensely or put it on and just kind of dream with it, and relax. Because that's the way the Coltrane ballad record functions so well for me. I can put that on in so many different ways and it's a romantic record. It wasn't designed to be that way but it's just intensely beautiful, you can listen close and there's so much there, and that part of the ballad record served as a vignette or a template for this record - the records sound quite different, I think. With that in mind I approached the tunes on the saxophone as simple as possible." Indeed, whether it's the stunning interplay between him and Metheny on the closing bars of Irving Berlin's 'Always' or the incandescent beauty of 'Nascente' - or James Taylor's haunting vocal on 'Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight', there is little that won't have you welling up.
Whether this project signifies such a paradigm shift as the '80/81' experience of the 1980s it is impossible to say without the luxury of hindsight. Yet Brecker finds it difficult to express in words what he can say so eloquently with his sax, which is ultimately his truest voice. His opinion on the future and what this might say about him in the 'now' is therefore understandably inconclusive. "I mean, there is a statement there but for me it's a statement of simplicity. I'm 52 now and I couldn't have made this record 10 years ago, I couldn't do it, maturity comes late for me. Maturity is probably the wrong word for it because I don't feel like I've grown up emotionally, I will probably never feel that way, and hopefully that's good. On the other hand, I guess I've relaxed enough to allow this record to manifest itself whereas I maybe couldn't have, before I had enough, I wish there was a better word than self confidence." His self-effacing opinion of his own 'emotional depth' is also as pleasingly humble, and simple, "Maybe there's the beginning of some emotional depth here! [Laughs] I think this record came into being now for a reason, and I feel it's one of my finest, if not the finest thing I've done and I'm really proud of it."
Text © Mike Flynn