Michael Brecker: Nearness of You — The Ballad Book

Michael Brecker
Nearness of You -- the Ballad Book

Why is it that some talented people strive to do the opposite of what, to them, comes naturally? Ask many comic geniuses what they’d most like in life and nine times out of ten, it’s to be taken seriously. Bill Murray tried for a time to do serious movies, and even Kevin Kline — who is wonderful in comic roles — much prefers the heavy-handed ones that are more likely to garner Oscar consideration. The musical parallel here is much the same. The talented are never content — they’d rather prove themselves all around.

In a musical career currently spanning four decades, Michael Brecker has established himself as a tenor sax legend of sorts. His reputation was born in the studio, where he became known for his marvelous ability as a session player for a string of well-known ’70s and ’80s pop stars (Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, and Diana Ross — just to name some), and later was enhanced by great improvisational skills in more traditional jazz settings. His strong technique and ability to create breathtaking flourishes has at times invoked the hallowed spirits of Coltrane and Parker.

In a fairly distinguished recording career, Brecker has shown these abilities to great advantage. He has seven Grammies that prove it. Many a fan will buy a CD or show up at a live venue just to be wowed by his ability to get so many notes into a solo or to hear him rise to the musical challenges he sets himself.

Yet some say the true test of a musician’s prowess is not merely in playing the fast and furious, but rather how ably one can handle the slow stuff. The great Coltrane showed that mastery in his quintessential set Ballads. And so now Brecker turns his skills toward proving himself adept at handling ballads, seeing if he can walk that fine line of mellow without falling over into the slush pile of boring.

The good news is that Nearness of You – The Ballad Book never approaches boring. For one, Brecker has assembled just about the finest group of seasoned all-stars imaginable to accompany him on this ballad challenge. Charlie Haden holds it together on bass and Jack DeJohnette uses his drum skills to form the rhythm section. Herbie Hancock handles the piano, as well as contributing one original song. Pat Metheny is the largest contributor of all, producing the record, penning two songs and handling guitar duties throughout.

This is a fine collection, with some wonderful music skillfully performed by this venerable quintet — and yet, it will incur wrath from some fans and traditionalists alike. Those who thrill at Brecker’s speed and flourishes probably won’t be enthused at the general concept employed. You get a more musically contained Brecker here, doing wonderful things but walking more inside the creative lines and around the melodies, rather than pushing the boundaries to run far outside them. Secondly, the choice of music on this collection is bound to raise many an eyebrow. The ballads selected are anything but your traditional fare.

This is intentional, according to Brecker. “I wanted it to be a modern ballad album — an elegant, simple statement”, he said. “I steered clear of the ballads in the traditional tenor vocabulary, like “Body and Soul”, “‘Round Midnight”, and “Lush Life”, which are tunes I love to play, but have been recorded so many times before.

So instead we get more non-traditional fare like Flavio Venturini’s “Nascente” (based on Milton Nascimento’s version) and Joe Zawinul’s “Midnight Mood” (with an arrangement partially inspired by guitarist Wes Montgomery’s rendition). Even selections from more traditional composers are not always the standards one might expect. There is Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin’s “My Ship”, Irving Berlin’s “Always” and the title track — Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You”, featuring the vocal styling of James Taylor, again not a traditional jazz choice.

Sweet Baby James also contributes vocals to a jazzy revamp of his own “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, revisiting a song that Brecker contributed a sax solo to so many years before. His recognizable vocals do justice to these songs, particularly from his older, more experienced perspective, but these cuts could just as easily be from a James Taylor CD. Similarly, the two Metheny compositions “Sometimes I See” and “Seven Days”, while both wonderfully moody and tender, could fit comfortably on some earlier Pat Metheny CD. This doesn’t necessarily pose a problem, particularly if you like both Taylor and Metheny, but again, diehard jazz purists may balk at it.

Brecker himself contributes two originals as well: “Incandescence” and the CD’s epilogue piece “I Can See Your Dreams”. This is a different Brecker than you might know, languid and tender, sensitive and warm and more personal.

The playing is terrific here, the tone and technique superb on saxophone, piano and guitar. From the opening of Hancock’s “Chan’s Song” to the last note of “I Can See Your Dreams”, you get masters at work, and never is it less than professional. These gents have a history together, years of recording and performing in combinations with one another — and the result translates into a comfort that makes this a pleasure to hear.

The evocative melodies and instrumental subtleties at work demand careful and repeated listening, though I expect this CD also might successfully be marketed to vapid yuppies as great “mood music”. Though jazz enthusiasts can dissect each solo, the end result can be termed “easy listening” as well. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s marketable music, the kind of sedate disc that might play musical backdrop to many a suburban dinner party. And while I don’t begrudge the talented Brecker sales or commercial success (he certainly deserves it), it’s tantamount to when people buy paintings or sculpture merely because it matches their decorating schemes.

Brecker and his prestigious all-star lineup deliver the goods here, though it’s not the traditional ballad lineup and probably falls short of the Coltrane standard of excellence. Still, this is a fine CD full of beautiful selections that offer resonance and depth, deserving a better fate then to serve as “background music”. I think Michael Brecker has scored high marks on the “ballad challenge” here, and the radiance of the ensemble makes Nearness of You: The Ballad Book a formidable addition to his impressive discography, as well as a must-have for those seeking to hear a warmer and markedly different sensitive side to his music.