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For fans of saxophonist Michael Brecker, his passing in January of 2007 at age 57 — from the bone-marrow disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, which eventually developed into leukemia — felt like a death in the family.
Brecker started a session career in the late 1960s that bloomed to encompass a staggering list of stars; navigated the influential group the Brecker Brothers, with trumpeter and brother Randy Brecker, from the mid-1970s; and had a 20-year recording career as a leader. Even non-jazz aficionados had heard his work in some form, as the prolific session player had laid down memorable solos on hit songs by the likes of Steely Dan and James Taylor. Fans watched helplessly as prospective marrow donors, including his brother, proved unsuitable matches. Brecker had first noticed his symptoms because of back pain in late 2004, so his descent became a slow, tortuous and public ordeal.
For San Francisco-based trio Charged Particles, the memories are vivid. Its three musicians — keyboardist Murray Low, bassist Aaron Germain and drummer/bandleader Jon Krosnick — were joined by tenor saxophonist Tod Dickow in Los Angeles for a 2019 live Brecker tribute performance. The resulting album, Live at the Baked Potato! on which they interpret Brecker’s music, bristles with the passion and energy of the moment, and of Brecker himself.
“I wrote Michael a letter back then, thanking him for providing such a powerful voice within the soundtrack to my life,” says Krosnick, who spoke along with Dickow from separate locations during a late-August Zoom videoconference, “and that I hoped that I could be the donor who made the difference. There was a worldwide effort, with so many people sending in cheek swabs from jazz festivals and elsewhere, and I remember getting the disappointing news that I wasn’t a match.”
“You couldn’t help but think about it then,” Dickow says. ”We were all hoping for a miracle.”
Animated, gregarious and scholarly, the bearded Krosnick looks and sounds every bit the professor at Stanford University, where he teaches political science and psychology. Dickow, a full-time musician in the Bay Area, sports a contrasting shaved head and earring. The saxophonist is also more measured, thinking about his word choices within his more economical phrasing.
Such is not the case on Live at the Baked Potato! Captured at the renowned L.A. nightclub, it features Dickow’s prodigious, Brecker-like technique as he alternately burns, darts and finesses through challenging arrangements of eight of the late saxophonist’s compositions, plus one by his late-1980s pianist Don Grolnick. The material runs from the African-themed “Not Ethiopia,” from the 1981 Brecker Brothers release Straphangin’, through the complex “The Mean Time,” from Brecker’s posthumous 2007 solo outro Pilgrimage, heroically recorded during his decline in 2006.
Through it all, Dickow tackles the challenge of channeling Brecker’s tone, phrasing and technique, yet at once maintains his own voice on the instrument. The saxophonist first performed with the trio in 2015.
“Charged Particles is nearing 30 years old,” Krosnick says of the group, which released three albums with different personnel while he was based in Ohio. “And we’ve been fortunate, since I came to California, to have wonderful recurring performance opportunities nearby. One has been at Potrola Vineyards, where they have a summer concert series. The purveyor there wants Charged Particles every year, and I felt like I couldn’t keep going back to that audience with the same trio. So we introduced our collaboration with [saxophonist] Paul McCandless, with whom we also have a forthcoming CD, and another year was with singer Rocío Guitard. I thought the music of Michael Brecker would be fantastic, and talked to Murray and Aaron about it. They know the scene in the Bay Area much better than I do, and they both said that Tod was the guy.”
The understated Dickow has no recordings under his own name, but plays steady bebop, big band and standards gigs around the Bay Area, and has shared stages and studios with luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Joe Henderson and Harry Connick Jr. during his 45-year career.
“Other than Michael, my influences are John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Bob Berg,” Dickow says. “There’s also Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and many others. The technical things that Michael did, I’d say, are unmatched. So it’s a tough call, and hard to compare him to others, but I’d put him right at the top. He’s influenced generations that came after him and took music in directions where it hadn’t gone before.”
The Baked Potato tribute recording almost didn’t happen, the result of a scenario that practically every veteran musician can relate to.
“It was a series of near-misses,” Krosnick says. “We showed up that night, and I said, ‘OK, who’s doing the recording?’ And they said, ‘What recording?’ The message had never gotten to the recording engineer. But the soundman there said, ‘It’s OK, I can do it,’ and produced a multi-track recorder. The Baked Potato is a landmark venue, but it’s tiny. The bleed among the channels was a challenge, but we brought in engineer Dan Feiszli, and he worked wonders in the mixing.”
When Krosnick still questioned whether the recording should be released, he ran it by drummer Peter Erskine, who gained fame with Weather Report and recorded and toured with Brecker in Steps Ahead.
“Peter’s first statement was, ‘Wow, who is that saxophonist?’” Krosnick says. “That level of enthusiasm is what I’m hoping to see, people saying, ‘How could I not know about this guy?’”
If Dickow is the brain, and the classically trained Krosnick the propulsive heartbeat for Live at the Baked Potato!, their even more versatile band mates encompass every other vital organ. Low, also employed by Stanford as a jazz piano lecturer, unearths piano, organ, synthesizer and sampled sounds — sometimes simultaneously, through complicated splits on his Kurzweil keyboard — to approximate the variety of keyboardists in Brecker’s catalog (from acoustic pianists McCoy Tyner and Joey Calderazzo to electric players Larry Goldings and Jim Beard). It’s a dexterity that practically requires a disclaimer for listeners who might otherwise do an audio double-take.
Low plays piano and organ on the waltzing “Arc of the Pendulum,” from Brecker’s 1999 recording Time Is of the Essence, and introduces the ballad “Never Alone,” from 1990’s Now You See It ... (Now You Don’t), on synthesizer. On “Not Ethiopia,” he blends piano with synth sounds. Other highlights include his classically influenced piano solo during the downshifted middle section of the otherwise galloping “Slings and Arrows,” from 1996’s Tales From the Hudson; his piano impressions on the challenging “The Mean Time”; and his work throughout the closing “Song for Barry,” from 1992’s Return of the Brecker Brothers. Brecker’s ode to his 1970-71 Dreams bandmate, trombonist Barry Rogers, it sports a marimba sample, plus a synth double solo with Dickow in which both are in overdrive.
“Murray is very computer literate,” Krosnick says. “He can take a laptop and do all kinds of things with it.”
Germain shifts between acoustic upright and four-and-six-string electric basses on the live recording, providing everything from organic wooden tones to guitaristic phrases à la frequent Brecker acoustic/electric doublers like Jeff Andrews and John Patitucci. The bassist paces the blazing opener “Peep,” from Now You See It ... , on electric; switches to upright for the subsequent “Arc of the Pendulum”; and then introduces and contributes a stellar electric solo to the 12/8-timed “African Skies.” Augmented by guest conga player Omar Ledezma, the Brecker composition appeared on both the Brecker Brothers’ Out of the Loop (1994) and Brecker’s Tales From the Hudson.
To pare down the mountain of Brecker material to nine tracks, Krosnick, Dickow, Low and Germain decided to concentrate on the 1987-2007 output under his own name and the Brecker Brothers’ handful of releases. As for Pilgrimage, for which Brecker recorded overdubs on EWI (the soprano-sax-like Electronic Wind Instrument, a wind-controlled synthesizer) only days before his death, its compositions and performances outshone any sentimentality listeners approached it with. The saxophonist’s sublime writing — and the ensemble of guitarist Pat Metheny, pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, bassist Patitucci and drummer Jack DeJohnette — resulted in one of the best albums of Brecker’s career, regardless of the circumstances. Which, as Krosnick points out, presented inherent challenges.
“It wasn’t just another record,” he says. “Everyone knew it was more significant. The pieces on Pilgrimage are among my favorites of Michael’s. But they’re different from everything else in their compositional intricacy.”
“I’ve always loved Pilgrimage,” Dickow says. “I thought his compositions were amazing, almost a breakthrough for him in terms of their depth, and the lack of a guitarist makes it more difficult for us to cover that material. But it’s amazing that Michael could play as well as he did. I love all of his albums, but it’s probably my favorite.”
As Bill Milkowski notes in his new biography, Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker (Globe Pequot/Backbeat Books), the saxophonist’s multi-genre recorded sessions over his 38-year recording career are staggering. A small sample includes John Lennon’s Mind Games, Steps Ahead’s Modern Times, Parliament’s Mothership Connection, George Benson’s Good King Bad, Metheny’s 80/81, Steely Dan’s Gaucho, Chick Corea’s Three Quartets, Frank Sinatra’s L.A. Is My Lady, and Hancock’s The New Standard. Among live albums, there are brilliant performances on the Brecker Brothers’ Heavy Metal Be-Bop, Frank Zappa’s Zappa in New York, Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light and Jaco Pastorius’ The Birthday Concert.
“I think Wynton [Marsalis] would say that, in some ways, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was conceived as a repertory ensemble to celebrate the music of Duke Ellington,” says Krosnick. “A huge institution has grown out of that, but I think that was the concept at the beginning. And in a way, I feel like we’re doing the same thing. Tod is the curator, analyst, chart writer, transcriber and rehearsal director, and we’re trying to stay faithful to the spirit of what Mike did. All while hopefully maintaining unique voices and creating our own take on it.”
When Dickow relays that his limited performance calendar has included mostly weddings since the onset of COVID-19 and its delta variant, Krosnick is able to deliver good news in real time.
“I’ve been offering a package to colleges and universities around the country,” the drummer says, “of Bill Milkowski talking about his new Michael biography as a lecture, along with us playing a concert of his music. Around 70 schools have expressed interest, with some wanting to book right now and others saying, ‘We don’t know what COVID’s going to do, and our budgets are limited. We want to do it, but don’t know exactly when.’ So what Tod doesn’t realize is that I may be calling him for a lot of dates soon.”
Live at the Baked Potato! includes photos of Brecker from the collection of his widow, Susan Brecker, within Milkowski’s liner notes. After her husband’s death, the Michael Brecker Family Foundation was instituted to support research toward a cure for his and other forms of cancer, and Susan is quoted thanking Charged Particles for donating a portion of the album’s proceeds to its cause.
“To have Susan’s support for this project means the world to us,” Krosnick says. “We’ll do a tour of Europe in March, and it looks like we’ll also have a couple of gigs coming up where we’ll be playing with Randy. Maybe we can incorporate trumpet into some of the Pilgrimage material.”
Randy Brecker also attests to the authenticity of Live at the Baked Potato! The trumpeter, who knew his brother’s compositional and playing prowess better than anyone, gets the last word in the album’s liner notes.
“Smoking and intense from beginning to end,” he writes. “I found myself pinching my arm to remind myself that Mike is sadly no longer with us.” - Bill Meredith