Friday, December 26, 2008

Some Skunk Funk

Emily, Michael, and Randy Brecker being good Jews, circa 1950.

by Ben Greenberg

This is supposed to be a fun little piece to celebrate my two uncles, (not unlike My Two Dads), a pair of highly distinguished horn players, a toast to the holidays and to ring in the new year. Yet it’s almost impossible for me to write about The Brecker Brothers without soon being blindsided by a deep sadness and a pervasive emptiness that seems intent on blocking out the good old memories. It's a downer, I know. Michael, my mom’s brother, died about two years ago and it’s still just as raw. It just feels like it’s still happening, the moment frozen in time—like he’s still dying. That instant stomach flip whenever his name comes up or his face enters my mind. Every day I spend time trying to recreate the times that were, the bond we had, like piecing together a very old jigsaw puzzle—but as soon as some pieces lock, they disintegrate just as quickly. They say he lives on through the music, his legacy, but for me, that’s just something people say. The truth is, I loved him to death, he literally saved my life, and I can’t call him anymore.

When I was young, my family and Michael’s used to go to Long Beach Island, NJ together in the summers. We would rent houses across the street from each other, and all the kids would play around. Waterskiing, barbeques, movies, beach, stories, minigolf, fishing. I never thought about him as a musician. He was just Uncle Mike--funny, charming, sweet, caring and warm. He always thought that whatever you were doing was amazing. "Wow what an incredible sandcastle!" Even though it was quite ordinary. "What a great hole you dug!" Years later, I’d say I was an assistant at some company, answering phones and doing copies. "You’re really doing it!" He’d say it with such sincerity that is difficult to replicate without sounding like a complete asshole. This, coming from someone with more Grammys than fingers, I don’t know, but it made me feel good. I took up saxophone because of him when I was in the 6th grade, and soon enough he procured me a beautiful black laquer Dave Guardala tenor. I had hoped that it had some inherent power in it, and I could be really good just because of where it came from, but turns out you have to practice like everyone else. It’s in a closet at my parents’ house in Philly.

In college I was taking a jazz history course and figured I would interview Mike and Randy for a paper I was writing. I brought a dictaphone up to Thanksgiving at Michael’s (we had Thanksgiving there every year and still do) and started asking questions. I realized that I’d never really spoken to either of them about their musician lives before. I had been to their concerts, listened to their albums, gone backstage, and the like. What emerged from that interview were countless stories that seemed almost to be about other people, not the uncles that I’d known my whole life. It was kind of like discovering an oil well in your backyard--if you were writing a paper about oil. They told me about how when recording with Parliament/Funkadelic, George Clinton would walk around with a different science fiction hardcover book every day with coke piled on top. It had to be a science fiction book, no other genre would do. They told me stories about what it was like to tour with The Plastic Ono Band (from what I recall, not so enlightening). They dropped out of college to play in NYC with nothing but a hunger and immense talent. First they started the awesome fusion band Dreams, then went on to own and operate the legendary jazz club Seventh Avenue South. They played on Born To Run (on a side note, I was in a meeting with Clarence Clemons recently and when it came up that they were my uncles, he said in that quiet commanding voice of his, “Can I get their autographs?”), and played on studio sessions for numerous big pop and rock acts in the last 20-30 years including The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, James Brown, Steely Dan, James Taylor, and John Lennon. All this, while remaining highly respected and incredibly formidable jazz musicians as well. You usually can’t have it both ways. They did.

During that interview, when I heard this all at once, it almost seemed like they had lived a thousand lives. We went down to Michael’s studio in his basement where he had an immense record collection, and I asked him about some of his favorites. He started to talk about Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Wayne Shorter. At the time, I was listening to Albert Ayler. I asked Mike what he thought of him, and he replied, "I listened to him in High School." Who listens to Albert Ayler in High School? I wish I still had those interview tapes.

Here’s a few tracks that I’ve loved over the years. And here’s to the Brecker Brothers, and to Mike, and to imagining all the good times that could have been.


"15 Miles to Provo" mp3
by Dreams, 1970.
available on Dreams

"Do That Stuff" mp3
by Parliment, 1976.
available on The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein

"Gospel Feeling" mp3
by Weldon Irvine, 1976
available on Sinbad

"Think" mp3
by James Brown, 1973.
available on The CD of JB

"Tenth Avenue Freezeout" mp3
by Bruce Springsteen, 1975.
available on Born to Run

"Tumbleweed" mp3
by Michael Brecker, 2007.
available on Pilgrimage


Anonymous said...

This takes me back to sixth grade at Myers Elementary in Elkins Park,Pa- 1857. We were asked if we'd like to playt an instrument. Randy Brecker said trumpet.

Anonymous said...

Okay 1957. Never was good at history or math.

Anonymous said...

That version of Think always kills me.

Anonymous said...

Thank You. I still have a reel to reel recording of "The Brecker Brothers". I think it was from The Bottom Line. I about wore it out. Never heard anything like it before.

chuckdafonk said...

Thanks for this post. I came to it because 'Do That Stuff' was just sampled by Royskopp, and I wanted to listen. I didn't expect a nice post on Randy + Michael!

Thank you for sharing.


Anonymous said...

I Have seen both brothers solo and also as the "Brecker Brothers".

I had a short conversation with Mike, and after that i translated the menu at the restaurant where i met Brecker Brothers, the day after i went to their concert :O)

Mike was a great artist, his spirit lives with his music.

Greetings from "reb" in Sweden