The funk sprint start certainly gets an audience going, with thumping drums and excessive backbeat, and bass guitar firing the pulse of a panic attack. Ask anybody who’s seen Randy Brecker and his brother standing shoulder-to-shoulder pumping out this sort of stuff live. It looks and feels awesome, but like the performance of Bill Evans’s “Rattletrap” here, it’s often been more an exercise in playing scales than real music. Rousing rabble rapidly also seems to be what the second Evans number is out for, interrupted by a little passage of playing quietly. Randy Brecker breaks into music after the long intro, half-and-half music and physical exercise, leading into something more interesting from Evans’ tenor before Hiram Bullock does a rock guitar thing—Kikoski accompanying all the time on synthesizer with the mechanical thrash of Steve Smith’s drums and Victor Bailey’s bass guitar.
More funk cliché but with actual musical variety precedes the superior interest of Brecker’s “Above and Below”. The hard-bop-rock does eventually issue in a sustained succession of real ideas from Brecker, and after him Evans also sounds a little less rushed. He manages to outrun the rhythm, and with Kikoski’s solo on acoustic guitar the rhythm settles down into a lesser degree of automatism. Indeed, the pianist plays a decent solo, driving strongly rather than being driven. Then at last there’s something more considered, less frenetic, and quieter, tasteful: a drum solo. Smith has subtlety and dynamics, I’m sure not merely in contrast with the foregoing, The coda suggests something better.
And suddenly I can breathe: Evans is playing soprano in a balladic intro to his “Let’s Pretend”. He proceeds aptly with muted trumpet obbligati, and Kikoski is seriously atmospheric and delicate—bejabers!—with sensitive bass pulses and quiet, even brushwork drumming on another acoustic piano solo. Could it be that the band has suspected somebody is listening? The soprano continues nice, movingly, and with Brecker muted and harmonising the conclusion’s the nicest thing yet. There’s rather more measure in “Some Skunk Funk”, the hornmen phrasing their unison work, before Bailey takes a solo on buzzy bass guitar. This isn’t a mistake, unlike “Rattletrap”—rather a tour-de-force for Bailey. He visits a lot of very different places before the horns start riffing the theme with some attention to colour. The drumming is a bit too insistent.
Hiram Bullock’s blues guitar introduces “Greed”, in which he equates an addiction to driving cars with that compulsion to accumulate ever more money summed up by the song’s title. Greed: currently an underused word! He really makes it ring! The song’s references to what people will do to continue driving / accumulation do have a curiously baroque resonance in a track timed at nine minutes, eleven seconds.
I don’t think Brecker is among the singers on the title track who intone “boppity-bop” (a scholarly allusion). He’s too big a musician to have bothered learning to sing and play trumpet at the same time. Before the entry of Evans’ soprano, mostly with Steve Smith’s New Orleans drumming, there’s been a trumpet solo of depth, an indicator of what it’s all about: big music. Evans starts without the same brooding, and the track benefits from the contrast of character. Although Kikoski solos well, he occasionally indulges in too many scalar routines, at times apparently unable to traverse one point to the next without them.
On “Don’t Tease Me (and then leave me)”, Bullock’s funk verses combine references to Presidents Johnson and Bush, Vietnam and two-timing vis-à-vis l’amour. There’s impressive fours-trading between Brecker and Evans after a vivid Kikoski piano solo has demonstrated an ability to cook and burn, and Bullock’s subsequent guitar solo suggests dancing in the aisles. Then after a Bullock intro, Evans’ “Cool Eddie” features the horns in something like re-sprung classic Horace Silver mode—Brecker can do all the business of quoting from other numbers and make serious music at the same time. He even emulates King Oliver’s practice of replaying the same phrase with increasing magnificence. Evans is an excellent foil once the music dominates over the earlier crowd-pleasing.
“Hangin’ in the City” was premiered for me (before it appeared on another Randy Brecker album) on a Brecker Brothers acoustic music tour. The now more snowy-bearded trumpeter’s Sprechgesang celebrates advantages of urban life. “Dixie Hop” is more resprung bebop, with a fugaloo beat. The drummers of the Rebirth Brass band are alive and well and working under the name of Steve Smith: making Evans’s music dance. Having surged in nicely with Kikoski to fill out accompaniments, Victor Bailey gets the last proper solo on the set, mostly grumbly and waydownbelow, but on occasion suggesting a lively marital squabble. The music gets very good after a warm-up, which is unfortunately rather too long to allow a top ranking for the CD set. The music’s also somewhat circumscribed by closeness to the funk model, though both these guys play much more.
The recording is dedicated to the late Bob Berg, at his very considerable peak when killed just over two years ago in a car accident.