Talking jazz

Sholto Byrnes
Friday 05 September 2003 00:00
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The accolades vary. Is Michael Brecker the biggest influence on young tenor saxophonists since John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter? Either way, it's clear that he has the same status as Eric Clapton enjoyed in a different musical community 30 years ago, except that jazz fans are too polite to scrawl: "Brecker is God" on walls, as devotees of Slowhand used to do. His huge, powerful sound has featured on hundreds if not thousands of albums, both jazz and pop. So many, in fact, that when recording his new CD, Wide Angles, he realised that he would have to rename the first track. It was to be called "Loxodrome", but just before the release he remembered he'd already recorded an Eddie Gomez number by the same name while part of Steps Ahead in the Eighties. Brecker was a key member of the group for several years - this was no fly-by-night studio session. "I completely forgot," he says, adding with dry understatement: "There have been a few albums since."

At least now, when his recent tours have been either under his own name or as co-leader of the Directions in Music supergroup with Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove, it's not quite as hectic as the Seventies, when he and his trumpeter brother Randy were providing horn sections for so many recordings they didn't even have time to register what the track names were. "I remember when one producer called us to play on five different records in one day. We didn't know one from the next. A few months later I'd hear something on the radio and I'd be like, 'oh, that's what it was.'"

His ubiquity on chart records and the fact that he and Randy ran a popular fusion band, The Brecker Brothers, led some, ludicrously, to suggest that he wasn't a serious jazz player. The dazzling albums he's made under his own name since the mid-Eighties more than refute this charge. He had, in any case, served an apprenticeship as a 22-year-old with the co-founder of that great academy, The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver. "My first night with the quintet, we were playing 'Song for My Father', which was a big hit for Horace, and it was a tenor-saxophone feature, a tune I could really stretch out on. I was playing when Horace turned round and yelled: 'Gone.' I didn't know what he meant; I thought he said: 'Go on.' So I played harder and longer. He turned round after 30 seconds and said: 'Gone,' again. I still thought he was telling me to go on. It was only afterwards that he explained to me that 'Gone' is bebop lingo for 'Stop'."

These days, only those wishing to deny themselves pleasure would urge him to desist. Capable of the fullest attack, ululating overblowing and an endless stream of invention all tinged with a gorgeous depth of tone, Brecker is the possessor of probably the most admired tenor sound around. In person, though, he's disarmingly modest. "I take the music seriously," he says, "but I try not to take myself seriously." Proof of that is evident in a film he made on a recent tour. Members of the band, including the bassist Chris Minh Doky and the fearsome-looking drummer, Jeff "Tain" Watts, quiver in front of the camera recounting tales of how they've been reduced to wrecks by iPod machines. The credits inform the viewer of the participation of "Harry Podder" and "Osama bin Poden" and that the film has been directed by "Stanley Kubrecker". "I'm a perpetual student," he says. And the very best kind of teacher.

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