A reprise of the best of the Brecker Brothers Band, with the aid of the WDR Big Band
In the dead heat of the mid-1970s, the future of jazz seemed split between a fairly obscure avant-garde scene and a burst of funky "fusion jazz" that wanted to be popular something bad. The Brecker Brothers Band -- led by Randy Brecker on trumpet and Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone -- was the latter: a group of horn players who knew as much soul as they did bop, along with their funk-laden rhythm crew. It was a band you could shake a hip to, no doubt -- and they played with precision that reminded you of both Tower of Power and Count Basie.
The Brecker Brothers Band released two such albums in 1975 -- the same year that the Average White Band released its highly Brecker-ish instrumental hit "Pick Up the Pieces". And that comparison says it all. As snappy and sharp as the Breckers' funk-bop was, it will always be confused with a less accomplished -- but more memorable -- pop hit. In short, was the Brecker Brothers' oeuvre really jazz, or just a kind of passing funk-pop fad that would reach a nadir with Chuck Mangione's cheesy brass/disco megahit "Feels So Good"?
Some Skunk Funk is a live big band record that finds brothers Randy and Michael putting my question to pleasant rest. Playing mostly BBB repertoire -- but supplemented by the roaring power of the WDR Big Band in front of a Koln, Germany audience -- the brothers demonstrate that their music was (or at least could be) something very much like the real thing. At least as reincarnated here, The Brothers sound like a rock-knowledgeable big band, and the old BBB charts sound like knowing mutations of the jazz tradition -- a fusion of bop and groove that was maybe not as cynical as its listeners took it to be later in the '70s.
This concert was recorded in 2003, shortly before Michael Brecker was diagnosed with the blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, which prevented him from performing until earlier this year. Here, the saxophonist is not credited as a co-leader, and he does not play on every tune. Still, his muscular, metallic sound is absolutely gripping -- the most distinctive voice on the recording. On the original BBB tracks, Michael Brecker's sound was not fully developed yet. Here, however, the tenor player is commanding and pungent. On "Straphangin'", for example, he rides over complex big band accompaniment and a medium groove as if he were an old Texas Tenor given star treatment on a Ray Charles date. Brecker's distinctive tenor style, however, makes it all up to date: cascades of modes rippled at high speed, luxurious long tones that ripen on the vine, tasteful rasps, sure-footed harmonic runs, and glorious high notes that twist in a blues wind. His work is very nearly worth the price of the disc on its own.
Trumpeter Randy Brecker is no slouch either. He stars, however, more as the composer than the player. He's a nice soloist, tart and smart and probing, but much more anonymous than his brother. Since the funky heyday of the BBB, both brothers smartly made their reputations in "real jazz" circles -- Randy Brecker being a mainstay of the New York scene and playing in the Mingus Big Band, among other prestigious places. What emerges on Some Skunk Funk is just what a great jazz mind Brecker has -- devising lines and grooves that are rich enough for real jazz workouts, but never cheap imitations of jazz greats.
"Wayne Out", for example, is a tribute to saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, with all the harmonic tastiness that implies, but it floats on a Latin groove and funky guitar lick that is Randy Brecker's own. Here, Brecker sounds distinctly Milesian as he solos in broad flutters and smears. "And Then She Wept" is about as far from BBB as you can get -- a gorgeous "straight" chart that features impressionistic horn harmonies without rhythm at first, seguing into a ballad-tempo track that develops with lovely logic. Brecker plays a plaintive open-horn solo that would make Art Farmer proud, and then Jim Beard -- usually featured on organs, synths and other instruments of electronic color -- takes a wow spot on acoustic piano. Similarly, "Levitate" is gorgeous writing -- an exercise in layers of held tones and a harmonic progression that surprises in a gentle way.
I'm not a huge fan of the subtle but unnecessary electronic processing that Brecker has attached to his trumpet on some tunes here. His lines are given a synthesized electronic shadow that plays in unison with the acoustic sound -- as if Brecker were unsure of the quality of his tone on its own -- or, more likely, unsure that his listeners will stay interested in plain ol' jazz playing.
The other players on the disc all acquit themselves. The rhythm section is a BBB/NY session group of all-stars: Jim Beard's keyboards, Will Lee on bass (of the Letterman band), Marcio Doctor on percussion, and Peter Erskine's drums (Weather Report). Best of all is the WDR Big Band and the charts of Vince Mendoza, which flesh out the Brecker sound for 17 crisply recorded pieces.
As an exercise in funky but full-bodied "real jazz", Some Skunk Funk is wholly successful. For folks who grew up in that jazz-compromised climate of the mid-'70s, this disc reassures: what you enjoyed back then was not an entirely guilty pleasure. This pleasure is not guilty at all -- a combination of snap-funk and beauty that emerges all these years later from a jazz life lived on both sides of the divide.