An Interview with Michael Brecker
We Have A Talk With
by Mark Ruffin
Tenor sax legend Michael Brecker has a new album out titled ,”The Nearness of You,´ It is a ballad album featuring gorgeous work by Herbie Hancock and pop vocalist James Taylor. Brecker, of course, is just as good a friend of pop musicians as he is in jazz. His most famous pop collaborations include work with Taylor, Paul Simon and numerous others. Of course funkateers will lionize him as being an original member of George Clinton’s Horny Horns concept (the others included his brother Randy on trumpet and Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker of James Brown fame.) But it is jazz music where Brecker’s heart lies. This month he is doing a limited number of dates celebrating the 75th birthday of John Coltrane by performing with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and piano giant Herbie Hancock playing the music of Miles and Trane. JazzUSA’s Senior Editor, Mark Ruffin, talked to Brecker before embarking on the tour.
JazzUSA: Why did you decide to do a ballad album at this time?
MB: Well, the idea had been lingering in the back of my mind for a few years. It had been suggested strongly to me years ago by Charlie Haden, and a few other people. Somehow, this year, Richard Seidel at Verve suggested it again to me, and the idea kind of resonated more strongly. I just felt more like I could do it now, and I had more of an inclination to do it.
JazzUSA: Why did you include James Taylor?
MB: Once I decided that I was going to have vocals, my first thought was to call James, because I’m an amazing James Taylor fan. I love his voice and he and I have been friends for years. I’ve recorded six or seven albums with James.
JazzUSA: Isn’t that you on the original version of “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight?”
MB: Yes, we did it back in 1970, 71, somewhere in there. We have a good blend, a good chemistry.
JazzUSA: But you don’t associate James Taylor, one, with jazz, and you don’t associate James Taylor with a group that includes Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny.
MB: That to me was the exciting idea of it. I associate James with being an amazingly great musician, and being around him a lot, I know what he can do. He’s a great guitarist, a great composer and he has the ability to be spontaneous, so I knew that that would work. The idea was exciting, to hear him surrounded by Herbie, Pat, Charlie and Jack (De Johnette) I knew that it would work. And it work even beyond what I expected.
JazzUSA: You know, a lot of people don’t associate James Taylor with spontaneity either. Obviously you know something that people who buy his work, or at least jazz people who know his work, don’ t know.
MB: Well, yeah. I’ve worked with him a lot and I know his approach. He never sings the same song twice the same way. He’s not a jazz singer, or not coming from the jazz tradition, like Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Billie Holiday, he’s not coming out of that jazz tradition, but he can be spontaneous and has great ears.
JazzUSA: Pat’s a big fan of his too, isn’t he?
MB: In fact, Pat has a song called “James,”
JazzUSA: Yep, written for James Taylor.
MB: Yeah, so the idea was pretty natural for us.
JazzUSA: This record, to me, seems to be a departure from your last couple of Impulse records, in that, well, to, me, there is a broad line between acoustic jazz and contemporary jazz that a number of people like you and Pat seem to straddle effortlessly, and you seemed to have straddled that line on previous records. Whereas this record doesn’t seem to be a contemporary jazz record at all.
MB: I don’t know, because I don’t quite know what all the labels mean anymore. I’m not quite sure what you mean by contemporary jazz.
JazzUSA: Well electric jazz. I mean you screaming away on your EWI and Pat wailing away, ain’t exactly acoustic be-bop.
MB: Well the last three records of mine have been completely acoustic, so it ‘s hard for me to comment on that.
JazzUSA: I hear what you’re saying Mike, but like that album with you, McCoy Tyner and Pat, (Tales From The Hudson,) sure it was an acoustic record, but it completely has that vibe of a contemporary jazz, or electric album, not a traditional jazz record.
MB: Okay, okay, I see what you’re saying. That’s just the sort of sensibility I bring to it. I’m a product of my time. I grew up playing electric music as well as acoustic. I am who I am, influenced by a lot of different musical voices and that comes out when I play. It also influences who I play with, et cetera. Even though they are acoustic records, they’re not in the traditional jazz vein.
JazzUSA: But the new one is right there in the acoustic jazz vein, even with James Taylor’s appearance on it.
MB: I’d agree with that.
JazzUSA: I’m a child of the 70’s, so you’re a hero because of your funk escapades. You’re a bona fide funkateer.
MB: (laughs) Oh, thank you.
JazzUSA: Is any of that still in your smorgasbord now? Do you go back to your P-Funk roots?
MB: Well, when I play with my brother, we try to visit those roots.
JazzUSA: So you and your brother still play together?
MB: Yes, we just finished a tour of Europe. It was an acoustic group, but it was pretty funky.
JazzUSA: What does Coltrane mean to you?
MB: Coltrane was probably my biggest influence. His music is what kind of propelled me into pursing music as a lifetime pursuit.
JazzUSA: In what way? Can you elaborate?
MB: Well, it’s just that he and his quartet reached places in me that I didn ‘t know could be reached through music and affected me on a number of levels. Enough so that I wanted to try to play music and see if I could have more of that (laughs)
JazzUSA: To try to find whatever it was he was looking for?
MB: Well, in my own way. I’m a different person (laughs) I don’t know how to put it.
JazzUSA: In a different time,
MB: Yeah, in a different time and in a whole different set of circumstances. Coltrane’s music for me was extremely exhilarating, powerful, spiritual, intelligent, emotional, technical, non-technical, everything.
JazzUSA: Did you keep following him after the heyday of the quartet and he moved into “Om,” and…
MB: Yes, I listened to everything and continued to. He was a brilliant force. I think his music affected all of the arts. He had the ability to move forward and change in a way that I couldn’t even begin to approximate. He was a real musical spirit.
JazzUSA: You said moved forward and changed,’ has there been times in your career where you’ve said yes, I’ve accomplished something and I’m moving on.’ Have you ever felt that?
MB: It doesn’t quite come like that. It comes in small steps for me. Changes for me have been gradual and not so fast and big. Coltrane from year to year, but I think if you were to examine it on a day to day basis, it would appear to be smaller, but the overall effect was fast and rapid growth. I’m a much slower learner. It takes me a much longer time. I’m perfect with small changes in small increments.
JazzUSA: We heard those changes in big steps, but he recorded so much, he was on to something else, by the time we heard a new album,
MB: That’s true.
JazzUSA: So to us, it seems like big shit,,,
MB: Number one, you’re right, he recorded a lot. At a pace that I couldn’t even imagine. They seemed to be in the studio every couple of months. Coltrane played a lot and practiced a lot. If you listen to night to night performances, you can hear them performing the tunes that they recorded, and realize that he was working on that stuff and gradually change. But he played so much, that the overall effect was huge change from record to record, at least from period to period..
JazzUSA: So this tour, is all this month, and it’s you, Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove and who else.
MB: It’s a tour of 28 dates and it will also feature John Patituci and Brian Blade.
JazzUSA: Wow, that’s a great group. How did this come together?
MB: The idea was the brainchild of a guy named Scott Southerd, a friend of mine, who also happens to be a booking agent. He approached us with the idea and we all liked it. It seemed to be a good time to do it, and I knew we were going to have a lot of fun. Also, for me, a chance to learn.
JazzUSA: In what way?
MB: Well, for me, anytime I get to play with Herbie, it’s always a learning experience. I mean, he is such a brilliant musician, and we’ll be reinterpreting some of Miles and Coltrane compositions, and of course, Herbie was one of the prime elements in one of the greatest Miles’ bands ever. So that will be interesting.
JazzUSA: Have you played with Roy Hargrove before?
MB: I’ve done a teeny-weeny bit of playing with him. So I’m looking forward to hitting with him. I’m a big fan. I think he is so incredibly talented. And I’ve played a lot with John Patituci, and this will be a fine chance to play with Brian Blade as well. I think the group has a great chemistry.
JazzUSA: Any plans on recording this group?
MB: None so far, but there’s been some talk. So, I wouldn’t be surprised. It would be a shame not to.