Zachary Breaux – Uptown Groove
On February 20th 1997, in Miami, Zachary Breaux dove into the ocean in an attempt to rescue a 66 year old New York woman. He dove into the ocean, leaving behind a wife and three young daughters. He died a hero. The Jazz world not only lost a great guitarist and musician, it lost all that Zachary Breaux would have dreamed and created and birthed into the world of music.
That loss is made even more evident by the release of ‘Uptown Groove‘ last year, perhaps the best Zachary Breaux album ever. Seamlessly blending elements of jazz, blues, funk, and 90’s hip-hop rhythms, Breaux created his own special jazz gumbo.
He developed his unique guitar range while traveling between the remote southern flavors of a small town in Texas and the sophisticated urban sounds of New York City. Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Breaux picked up the guitar at age nine and played with garage bands throughout high school. He attended North Texas State University, where he studied composition, and continued to play in local bands.
Breaux rose through the ranks of jazz the old fashioned way, by learning from and playing with some of the genre’s greatest talents. The turning point in his life was when he met jazz legend Donald Byrd, who suggested that he pursue his career more vigorously. Taking the master’s advice, in the mid-80’s, Breaux moved his family to New York City, where he had the opportunity to audition for Roy Ayers. That audition resulted in a six-year stint with Ayers’ band.
Touring with Ayers became a high-level training ground for Breaux, which he fondly compares to a university extension course. Between road gigs for Ayers, Breaux was invited to perform with other great musicians such as Stanley Turrentine, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Guru’s Jazzmatazz, A Tribe Called Quest, and Donald Byrd. The extensive touring schedule and his natural stage presence put Breaux in the spotlight, which eventually led to his own recording deal.
Breaux recorded his first solo album live during a Roy Ayers engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London. In a typical fashion and as a stamp of approval, Ayers structured the band’s performance with several sets featuring Breaux on guitar, during which Ayers left the stage. The CD that resulted, Groovin’, on Jazz House Records, was critically acclaimed and garnered a four star review in Downbeat, rave reviews in Billboard and across-the-board radio airplay. In fact, when top New York jam station CD101 played it, NYC Records became its U.S. distributor.
A second turning point in Breaux’s career came the day one of his idols, George Benson, joined him on stage. Later, Benson introduced him to McCoy Tyner and also passed along some words of wisdom he had received, early in his own career’ from the late Wes Montgomery. Benson suggested, “Play everything you hear — the notes and chords and ideas in your head – and later you will settle into your own identity.”
In 1994, Breaux released his second CD on NYC Records titled Laid Back. This time around, his jazz was driven by a sharp funky vibe, so several of the tracks received airplay on different radio formats across the country. Ultimately, the record made most Top LPs of the Year lists.
Breaux admited to incorporating elements from the breadth and warmth of Wes Montgomery’s guitar, to the economy and power of B. B. King’s guitar, to the incredible emotion and depth of Sarah Vaughan’s vocals. ‘`My music is very personal and emotional, with songs arising from my experiences.” he explained. “My guitar style is very flat and uncolored, without any effects. There’s more of an edge to ‘Uptown Groove’ than on my previous compositions.”
On ‘Uptown Groove’, Breaux doubled in capacity as co-producer and programmer, and in addition to playing guitar, he played synthesizer and drum loops of his own creation. The CD combines eight original compositions with four previously recorded songs.
Breaux explained that the four songs he covered were born out of the 60’s, as he was. Cafe Reggio, from the movie Shaft, is actually a restaurant that he frequented in New York, and he felt that the guitar work identifies the entire period. Never Can Say Goodbye, originally a Jackson’s song, conjured up a special memory of his childhood in Texas. All Blues is a Miles Davis swing composition which he made more bluesy with raw Southern reflection and some help from Lee Oscar on harmonica; and B.B. King’s, The Thrill is Gone, which contains Breaux’s first recorded vocal feature, depicted the old blues tradition of Texas.
As a child, Breaux saw King perform once and it made a lasting impression on him. King played only six notes all night, while Breaux had been taught to play them all. With the awareness that anything is possible, he said, “This new CD closes one chapter in my life and opens another. I’m fortunate to be able to make my life a part of what I do every day.”
Breaux’s determined focus on freshness and originality persist throught Uptown Groove. It’s this kind of versatility and grasp of a broad range of musical styles that was Zachary’s strategy for success. We can only listen to the beauty of Uptown Groove and dream of the greatness that was waiting for Zachary Breaux and his music.