Inhuman Swill : Jazz

Michael Brecker memorial mix

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Tenor of the Times: A Remembrance (1972-2003) of Michael Brecker (1949-2007) Five years ago today, Michael Brecker—one of my favorite saxophone players, and a pioneer on the instrument in many ways—passed away of complications from leukemia. He had suffered from the rare blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, and never found a matching donor for a successful stem cell transplant.

Brecker was one of the most in-demand session players of his time, besides being a consummate jazz innovator in his own right. He was also instrumental in promoting and pioneering the use of the EWI (electronic wind instrument). Back in 2007, I put together a Michael Brecker tribute mix as my contribution to the CD Mix of the Month Club I used to belong to in New York. Called Tenor of the Times, it contained a sampling of some of his best work both as sideman and band leader. On this anniversary of his passing, I thought I'd make a zip file of the mix available. Grab it quick—I won't leave it up for long. Some liner notes are here.


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A trumpet demon

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RIP Freddie Hubbard, 1938-2008. He was probably the best trumpeter from the hard-bop era next to Miles Davis, though some poor choices starting in the '70s derailed a career that could have made him as much of a household name today.

But whatever. I'm going to put on Open Sesame and then Red Clay to work to this morning—not to mention that track "Zanzibar" from Billy Joel's 52nd Street where Hubbard lays down an amazing solo on the outro—and wish there were a heaven (or hell) where I could look forward to hearing him play like in his prime.

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The Bad Plus
Sunday evening Laura and I went to see jazz trio The Bad Plus play at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. First of all, that theater on Lincoln Avenue is a great place to see a show—comforable, intimate, and acoustically welcoming (though it would be even better if people weren't coming in late all the time and if the ushers would keep their voices down). Second, I knew I liked these guys on wax, but holy shit they're great live.

The Bad Plus are masters of intricate time signatures, with an interplay that seems (clich´ though it is to say) telepathic. Ethan Iverson on piano hardly breaks a sweat, indeed hardly moves, as his two hands blur off in opposite directions performing contrary tasks and pounding out dangerous decibels, only to jump up from his seat just when you think he's too cool for school. Reed Anderson anchors things in the middle with a fat, woody bass sound that gives the music a fulcrum even as it hares off in unexpected directions. But the real show is drummer David King, who looks improbably awkward holding a pair of sticks but still manages to emulate the world's craziest clock mechanism, holding the beat in his teeth while it seems to explode with a flurry of jabs and kicks in every impossible directions, maybe even at right angles to spacetime itself. Laura said, "I've never understood before this how drums could be a voice of their own."

The band was excruciatingly tight, nowhere moreso than on their cover of the Ornette Coleman/Pat Metheny freakout "Song X," with its nervewracking periods of long silence. The originals were idiosyncratic and strong—and it was nice to be able to match each of the three players with his compositions in person—and the rock covers, including "Life on Mars?" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," turned the source material inside out to expose the pulsing life inside to the light. (Was that sweat they wiped off their faces, or was it blood?) One of two enthusiastically received encore numbers was Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." You could have heard a pin drop as the players took their hands off their instruments and sang the chorus in sweetly hushed three-part harmony. A startlement on top of a surprise wrapped in citrus rind.

The Bad Plus are justly famed for their cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and while I'm sure many in the audience were hoping to hear it, my only mild disappointment was that they didn't play their version of "Tom Sawyer," from their new album Prog. But maybe that's for the best. Having heard Rush play it two weeks earlier, and with the harmonic disturbances still lingering in the ether, The Bad Plus adding their take might have set up sympathetic vibrations of awesome that would have melted Chicago to a plain of bratwurst-colored glass. We should simply give thanks for the miracles we did witness, and lived to tell.

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September's CD mix of the month

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I'm not sure how good the turnout was at this past Thursday's CD Mix of the Month Club meeting in New York City, but attendance was 100% at the Chicago chapter—me. My mix, providing my own idiosyncratic take on Muzak programming, was Rock Paper Jazz, a collection of various jazz versions of rock songs.

I'll send you a free copy of the mix if you're the first to identify the provenance of the hand drawings in the album art.

(The story so far.)

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In a silent way

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R.I.P., Joe Zawinul. Hope the weather report is good on the other side.

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Consigned to the Pit

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Akiko Grace
Jazz shakuhachi? That's what we heard tonight at the Shinjuku Pit Inn, one of Tokyo's legendary jazz clubs, and Doi Keisuke's playing was awe-inspiring. But the real revelation of the evening, to us anyway, was Akiko Grace, whose piano trio anchored the evening's set. Incredibly supple playing, every note clear as a jeweler's hammer tap, but with enough power behind it to blow the audience through the back of the club. After the set, I think Laura was a little taken aback to return from the women's room and find me chatting with Ms. Grace herself. The pianist had signed a CD for me, and we had moved on to talking about New York and science fiction. I think I have a little crush. Laura poked merciless fun at me on the ride back to Roppongi and our hotel.

Much more to post about Japan, and a lot more pictures too, but it will wait until we're back home. Our flight leaves first thing tomorrow morning, and we arrive in Chicago two hours earlier than we leave Tokyo.

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Themes to me...

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Music from William Shunn's ShunnCast
For the listening pleasure, perhaps, of hardcore ShunnCast fans, and as a thank you to those who stuck with the podcast through the entire year it took to complete the reading of the memoir, here is the complete theme music to The Accidental Terrorist:

Accidental Terrorist Theme William Shunn accidental.mp3 (4:08, 7.83Mb, 256Kbps)
I can't really say I composed the theme song, except in the most general sense of the term. I assembled it as best I could from royalty-free loops and snippets that came bundled with Adobe Audition 2.0, the audio-editing software I use to master and mix the ShunnCast. But if you like that jazzy little rhumba riff that opened and closed the Accidental Terrorist segments, now your first chance to hear the full track.

(I'll also include this full track in ShunnCast #43, coming next week.)

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When colossi walked the earth

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Speaking of saxophone colossi, it turns out that one of Bret Primack's gigs these days is tagging along with Sonny Rollins and producing a monthly video podcast. Check this out, you jazz fans:

The Sonny Rollins Podcast
My somewhat cheeky "Sci-Fi Colossus" icon here is based on the cover of the classic 1956 Sonny Rollins album Saxophone Colossus. The man is now 76, and still going strong.
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Michael Brecker memorial

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[info]steelbrassnwood hipped me to a Michael Brecker memorial service taking place this evening at Town Hall in Manhattan from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. Doors open at 5:15. All friends and fans are invited to attend.

More info Even more info
I won't be able to go myself, but I sure wish I could.

Clicking around following Brecker links this morning, I ran across a very nice tribute video at, which happens to have been done by Bret Primack, a jazz journalist I used to work with back in the halcyon days of N2K. My first Web job in the big city! Can't believe it's been ten years since I took that job.

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I am unable to attend tomorrow night's February CD Mix of the Month Club, since I'll be in Utah at my grandfather's memorial service. But I'm sending my mix, Tenor of the Times, along to the meeting in my absence. The disc is a tribute to Michael Brecker, my favorite saxophonist of the past quarter-century. (Sharp-eared listeners will realize that this disc follows the same program as my tribute in ShunnCast #37.)

Brecker was one of the most prolific and influential tenor saxophonists of the late 20th century. A consummate session player, he appeared on as many as a thousand pop, rock, funk, and jazz recordings, often together with his older brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker. He played with the likes of James Taylor, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Carole King, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Parliament, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Chic, and Frank Zappa, not to mention such jazz legends as Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann, Chet Baker, Don Cherry, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, and Jaco Pastorius.

His own groups included Dreams, Steps Ahead, and the popular Brecker Brothers, a jazz-funk outfit he and Randy led together. Besides innovating on the tenor, Mike helped pioneer the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), which he employed to great effect on Paul Simon's The Rhythm of the Saints. Beginning in 1987, he cut a successful string of solo albums with collaborators like Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, and Larry Goldings, emerging as one of the giants of the modern jazz scene. Along the way, he picked up eleven Grammys.

Mike was diagnosed with the blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome in 2005, and though a global search for a stem cell donor turned up no exact matches, his plight prompted thousands to sign up with the International Bone Marrow Registry. He underwent an experimental partial matching stem cell transplant late that year, but not with the hoped-for results. On January 13, 2007, he died of complications from leukemia in New York City. He was 57.

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