Friday, December 1, 2023
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© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Every twenty-five years a musician like Michael comes along. He reminds me of Glenn Gould, because Glenn played everything very brisk but extremely clear. No wishy-washy statements with him. And this also applies to Michael. He has a pristine sense of execution where you can follow every note. No matter how fast Michael plays, you can follow him perfectly. Stan Getz once told me, 'Just put a piece of music in front of me, and I'll give you a masterpiece.' This also applies to Michael. I think he's pretty phenomenal in terms of sight-reading, his command over the instrument, his improvisational and interpretive abilities . . . everything, really."
- Claus Ogerman
In 1977, I happened upon a copy of Claus Ogerman’s Gate of Dreams LP [Warner Brothers] and the track Caprice was my introduction to tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker. The two followed this up with Cityscape in 1982 [Warner Brothers].
I was curious about the background of this association and found out more about the details after reading the following in Bill Milkowski’s wonderful memoriam Ode To a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker .
We wrote to Bill to ask his permission to share these excerpts with you and he graciously consented.
© Copyright ® Bill Milkowski, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
“[Following his trip to Japan in 1982 with Steps Ahead], … Michael jumped right back into circulation by tackling Claus Ogerman's achingly beautiful Warner Bros album Cityscape, which was billed as a concerto for saxophone and orchestra with jazz rhythm section. It was the first album that Michael recorded where he shared coequal billing on the cover, his name prominently displayed right alongside maestro Ogerman's. Mike had previously played on Ogerman's 1976 album Gate of Dreams, another marvelous classical-pop-jazz mix that was called "a reminder of finer things" by no less an authority than legendary pianist Bill Evans, who contributed the liner notes. Michael appeared on only one of the eight tracks from Gate of Dreams, blowing through myriad changes on the surging pop-jazz number "Caprice." His solo, which begins at the 2:40 mark, showcases his signature facility and exhilarating flights into the high register, a prime example of crafting a Trane-in spired "sheets of sound" aesthetic to a slickly produced pop-classical format.
Michael's playing on the brooding three-movement suite "In the Presence and Absence of Each Other" from Cityscape is an astounding showcase that ranks among the finest recorded moments of his career. "Pt. 1" opens with Ogerman's lush strings before Mike enters at the :54 mark, carrying the memorable melodic theme in a robust, vocal manner. No pyrotechnics here, just warm, relaxed, and breathtakingly beautiful. He continues with some glorious melodic improvisation until finally unleashing the first of many fusillades at the 4:40 mark, nonchalantly double-timing while following the harmonic contour of the piece before culminating in some high-register Breckerisms. And although he only appears on the last 52 seconds of "Pt. 2" and the final minute of "Pt. 3," Michael's passionate contributions on each are deeply impactful as he covers the full range of the horn with signature virtuosity.
His most direct nod to John Coltrane comes on the pensive title track, where his references to Trane's opening nine-note figure from "Pt. 1: Acknowledgement" from A Love Supreme can be readily heard at the 3:40 mark and again at the 4:48 mark of the piece. Michael turns in another toe-curling performance on the soothing, Gadd-paced groover, "Habanera." There's a little bit of funk and swagger on this one, and Mike digs in accordingly, summoning up some Grover Washington Jr., a touch of Sanborn, and bits of King Curtis along the way.
Some years after the recording, Ogerman himself said, "Every twenty-five years a musician like Michael comes along. He reminds me of Glenn Gould, because Glenn played everything very brisk but extremely clear. No wishy-washy statements with him. And this also applies to Michael. He has a pristine sense of execution where you can follow every note. No matter how fast Michael plays, you can follow him perfectly. Stan Getz once told me, 'Just put a piece of music in front of me, and I'll give you a masterpiece.' This also applies to Michael. I think he's pretty phenomenal in terms of sight-reading, his command over the instrument, his improvisational and interpretive abilities . . . everything, really."
David Demsey, who has a copy of Michael's score to Cityscape at the Michael Brecker Archives at William Paterson University, explained Michael's approach to Ogerman's imposing opus: "His sheet music is all marked up. He was very studious about it, very detailed about what scale to play here, and how he was going to attack that passage there. And he circled things to practice. It looks like how a classical soloist would mark up a concerto part. And a lot more is written out than you would think. He just made it sound like he was making it up. Mike had a way of making written-out parts sound like his own voice. I was surprised by looking at the score, and I know a number of other individuals have reacted the same way. They looked at it and said, 'Oh, that's Ogerman's line? I didn't realize that.' It sounds like Mike's improvising it, but Ogerman actually wrote all that out. That's an amazing statement, that you can't really tell what Mike's improvising and what the composer wrote. It all sounds the same. And that's part of Mike's gift."
Demsey added, "Looking at his practice notes pre-rehab and post-rehab, there's no difference. That's an important thing to know, too. It's just as detailed, just as studious, just as much notating. Like, for example, there's a note with three stars in parentheses: 'Learn this in all keys.' And the handwriting is super neat. His manuscript is unerringly neat."
In his four-star review of Cityscape for AllMusic.com, James Manheim wrote, "The key to Ogerman's success has been his ability to stay in the background behind the musician he's working with and yet create something distinctive. This 1982 collaboration with the jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker is one of his most successful works, not least because the overlap between the extended harmonies of jazz and the chromaticism of the late German Romantic polyphony in which Ogerman was trained is large enough to allow Brecker to operate comfortably — his improvisations seem to grow naturally out of the background, and the intersections between jazz band and orchestral strings come more easily here than on almost any other crossover between jazz and classical music. The mood is nocturnal and reflective. Brecker at this point had not yet made an album as a bandleader; he was primarily known to those who closely followed jazz and R&B session musicians. The album was originally billed as a release by Claus Ogerman with Michael Brecker. Yet, notice how skillfully Ogerman eases the fearsomely talented young saxophonist into the spotlight."
(Ogerman and Brecker would collaborate once again, on their 1991 GRP album, Corfu.)
Richie Beirach called Michael's performance on Cityscape "stunning and unbelievable." As he said, "It's so revealing, it's almost like you don't want to see it, you know? Coming out of rehab, all his nerve endings were exposed and vulnerable, but his technical command was so unconscious, so deeply embedded in his DNA, that he never had to think about intonation, technique, time, chords. All that intellectual shit that we have to struggle with, it was all intuitive for him. So, all he had to do was keep it together on that session. And can you imagine how good he felt not being strung out and looking for the next fix? So, I'm hearing even a little bit more joy in his playing there than he usually has because that pressure has been lifted. To me, he sounds liberated on that record."
Steps Ahead compatriot Mike Mainieri said Michael expressed some trepidation before going into The Power Station to record Cityscape. "When Mike came out of rehab, he called me, and he said, 'I don't know if I can do this. What do you think it's going to be like?' He was asking about being in that orchestral scene, because I had done a lot of dates like that [most notably George Benson's 1979 album Livin' Inside Your Love]. And I said, 'Man, you're gonna f**king walk through it.' He was always worried about sight-reading. Randy was a great sight-reader, but he did a lot more sessions than Michael. Randy really was fearless and could just sight-read anything, including difficult big band stuff, which he had done with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and with Clark Terry's big band and Duke Pearson's big band. The harder the charts, the better for Randy. Whereas Michael wasn't really doing big band stuff all that much, and he was just a little skittish about sight-reading. Because to be really sharp, it's something you have to do almost every day, not like once every three months. You gotta get with a rehearsal band or get on a session where the music is really hard, and that's how you learn. And because Michael hadn't done as much of that as Randy had, he always questioned his sight-reading chops. But he did spectacularly on that album."
(Ogerman's composition "In the Presence and Absence of Each Other, Parts 1, 2 & 3" from Cityscape lost out to John Williams's "Flying" (Theme from E.T. the Extraterrestrial) in the Best Instrumental Composition category at the 25th Annual Grammy Awards.)"
Monday, November 27, 2023
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In memoriam - Larry McKenna 1937-2023.
Saturday, November 25, 2023
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Larry McKenna passed away on Sunday, November 19, 2023. I am reposting this piece as a tribute to his memory and as a way of saying "thank you" for all the wonderful music he shared with us over the years.