The Brecker Brothers: Sneakin Up Behind You

Will Layman

The Legacy Signature Series profiles the NY sound of mid-'70s funk-fusion.

The Brecker Brothers

Sneakin' Up Behind You

Subtitle: The Very Best of the Brecker Brothers
Contributors: David Sanborn, Will Lee, Don Grolnick
Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2006-08-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

The mid-'70s jazz that was sold under the "fusion" label always had two concurrent streams. The usual suspects that emerged from Miles Davis's band -- Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra -- sounded sort of like progressive rock without vocals, all tricky time signatures and intricate guitars or synthesizers, a kind of baroque jazz-rock that emphasized colossal musicianship if not taste. There was also a funkier stream -- grooved-up soul jazz by folks like the Jazz Crusaders and New York sessions players like Stuff and the Brecker Brothers Band -- that grew organically from the soul-jazz of the '60s and was more than happy to adopt a little disco bump if it would keep the hips moving in a grimy way.

Here we have an entry in the Legacy "Signature Series" providing the "best of" the Brecker Brothers Band. The brothers themselves, Randy Brecker on trumpet and Michael on tenor saxophone, had been knocking around the pop music scene of the 1960s (Blood, Sweat and Tears) even as they'd been apprenticing in jazz groups such as Horace Silver's quintet. They were supplemented by then-unknown Dave Sanborn on alto sax and the cream of the studio session crop in New York: Will Lee or Marcus Miller on bass, Don Grolnick's keyboards, Harvey Mason or Lenny White on drums, guitarists like Steve Khan, Hiram Bulluck, and Barry Finnerty. Sounding at times like the Saturday Night Live band or Paul Schaffer's Letterman band, the players are fantastic -- but how was the music?

Here's an easy answer. Remember the locked-down funk groove with a super-snappy horn line of the Average White Band's "Pickin' Up the Pieces"? That was the signature sound of the Brecker Brothers Band. The most memorable of their tracks -- the title track, "Some Skunk Funk", "Jackknife", "Straphangin'" -- are all in this mode, if ultimately more complex and jazz-infused than AWB's hit. Still, the point is pretty bare: these extremely accomplished jazz musicians were playing on the same plane with pop groups, and so their successes are hard to measure against straight jazz standards.

"Jackknife" is a wonderful case in point. This track is from late in the band's career, the 1981 album Straphangin'. Written by Michael Brecker, the tune moves between propulsive, bass-line-driven funk and solo sections of straight swing. The Marcus Miller funk bass is treated with some synth effect, then it walks almost like an upright on the swing -- with the contrast and sudden shifts being the essence of the tune. Randy Brecker plays Milesian trumpet over the funk, climaxing in a high note cry that extends as the jazz feeling comes to life beneath him. In that moment the tune finds a kind of beauty. Michael Brecker is a more talented and singular voice on tenor sax, and when the band moves into the swing beneath his solo, it is even more lovely -- with Michael's metallic take on Coltrane making perfect sense in the gap between groove and swing. The Average White Band could not have played "Straphangin'" in a million years, yet it is "Pick Up the Pieces" that flat-out lodges in your head.

Seen as part of the jazz fusion landscape, these Brecker Brother recordings are pleasant memories but not landmarks. Their first hit, "Sneakin' Up Behind You", is a vaguely embarrassing legacy. The horn licks are hip, James Brown-y stuff, but the vocals -- just the title of the tune crooned backgroundishly by bassist Will Lee -- seem ridiculous. The groove is the tasty kind of thing that Steely Dan was doing at the time, but the Dan used this kind of thing as a bed for ironic storytelling and cascading guitar solos. This track contains nothing so substantive, alas. Preferable is "Some Skunk Funk", but the wah-synth effects on Randy Brecker's trumpet solo are mood-ring-ishly trapped in their time.

Speaking of dated: how about the album title Détente from 1980? On these tracks, keyboardist George Duke is producing and playing the Prophet V synth in a manner extremely reminiscent of Joe Zawinul of the Weather Report albums of the time. It is not bad music, perhaps, as much as it is a strange cul-de-sac. The pleasures of jazz -- interactive improvisation, rhythmic conversation -- are washed away in the cold production, yet the fun of pop music is buried in orchestral/synthy mush. "Squish" is painted up with synth woooooshes and echoey electric pianos, while "Baffled" is awash in faux-exotic percussion and walls of classical sounding keyboard sound. This kind of music -- so accomplished yet so unfriendly to the ear -- seems like the mark of a band that wanted to be serious while still selling records. Death in the middle ground.

A few of the tracks move in an even less promising direction. "Funky See, Funky Dew", for example, is almost as stoooopid as its title -- some proto-smoove jazz from 1977. Michael Brecker puts out tremulous sound on his tenor, and the groove is a kind of Funk Lite that gets supplemented by strings all too often. "Straphangin'" itself floats on a similar R'n'B groove that goes soft as soon as the solos start. The future is foretold: Endless sessions featuring lower quality saxophonists noodling pentatonic licks over processed drum grooves in heavy rotation, with Sade on FM stations targeted toward people who work in cubicles.

"Threesome" is the kind of gospel-juiced groove that closes out Saturday Night Live every week, and it features it grandly expressive plunger-muted solo from Randy Brecker and a Michael solo that avoids clichés even while inhabited well-trod space. Even more different, is a live track from the last BBB album, Heavy Metal Bebop. "Inside Out", recorded at a club on Long Island, feels like some actual blues, with Terry Bozzio on drums and Barry Finnerty's guitar doing some damage. Randy's wah-ed trumpet works here because it's not propped up by a bunch of too-easy funk-gunk, but by some actual rockin' blues. Michael cuts loose harmonically, substituting weird chords and generally testing the listener. The disc is at an end, but you think: finally.

Looking back, these were oddball pop records with too much jazz to really sell the way "Pick Up the Pieces" did, and they were watered down jazz records. The Breckers would go on to make some considerably more sophisticated jazz later on [See my review here of the recent Some Skunk Funk by Randy Brecker featuring Michael Brecker], but their stepping stones to musical credibility remain commercially compromised and limited. For jazz fans at the time, these were fun records -- even the kind of thing that was surely useful in luring some teenagers or other pop fans to check out Art Blakey or Horace Silver.

But, on their own, perhaps these sides sounded better on vinyl during the Carter administration. Détente, indeed.


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