Charged Particles w/Tod Dickow tribute to Michael Brecker story - Oct. issue of Jazziz
For fans of saxophonist Michael Brecker, his passing in January of 2007 at age 57 -- from the bone-marrow disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, for which no suitable donors could be found and which eventually developed into leukemia -- felt like a death in the family.
Brecker started a session recording career in the late 1960s that would bloom to 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. Nearly everyone owned or had heard his work in some form. And everyone mourned as prospective donors, including his brother, proved unsuitable matches. Brecker 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 CD [i]Live at the Baked Potato![i], on which Charged Particles with Tod Dickow Play the Music of Michael Brecker, bristles with the passion and energy of the moment, and of Brecker.
"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 in 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."
The bearded Krosnick is animated, gregarious and scholarly, looking and sounding 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 more measured, thinking about his word choices within his more economical phrasing.
Such, however, is not the case on [i]Live at the Baked Potato![i]. Captured at the renowned, time-honored L.A. nightclub, it features Dickow's prodigious, Brecker-like technique as he alternately burns, darts and finnesses 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 [i]Straphangin'[i], through the complex "The Mean Time," from his posthumous 2007 solo outro [i]Pilgrimage[i], heroically performed and 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 -- all the more reason that he, like Charged Particles itself, is deserving of wider recognition. The saxophonist first performed with the trio in 2015.
"Charged Particles is nearing 30 years old," Krosnick says of the group, which released three CDs 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. 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 Rocio 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 like 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. And 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."
Incredibly, the Baked Potato tribute recording almost didn't happen, the result of a scene 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, 'Okay, 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 okay, 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 started his career with bandleader Stan Kenton; gained fame with Weather Report, and recorded and toured with Brecker with Steps Ahead, bassist Jaco Pastorius, and as a solo artist.
"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 Krosnick the heartbeat for [i]Live at the Baked Potato![i], their even more versatile band mates encompass every other vital organ. Low, also employed by Stanford as a more-expected jazz piano lecturer, unearths piano, organ, synthesizer, and sampled sounds -- sometimes simultaneously through complicated splits on his Kurzweil keyboard within solos and accompaniment -- 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 organ on the waltzing "Arc of the Pendulum," from Brecker's 1999 recording [i]Time Is of the Essence[i], and introduces the ballad "Never Alone," from 1990's [i]Now You See It...(Now You Don't)[i], 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 [i]Tales From the Hudson[i], and his work throughout the closing "Song for Barry," from [i]Return of the Brecker Brothers[i] (1992). Brecker's ode to his 1970-1971 Dreams bandmate, trombonist Barry Rogers, it sports a marimba sample, plus a late 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 a la Brecker's career acoustic/electric doublers like Jeff Andrews and John Patitucci. The bassist paces the opening "Peep," from [i]Now You See It...(Now You Don't)[i], 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 his [i]Tales From the Hudson[i] release and the Brecker Brothers' [i]Out of the Loop[i] (1994).
To pare down the mountain of Brecker material to nine tracks, Krosnick, Dickow, Low and Germain had to painstakingly omit the vast majority of it, concentrating on the 1987-2007 output under his own name and the Brecker Brothers' handful of releases. As for [i]Pilgrimage[i], 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 overshadowed 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, itself presented inherent challenges.
"It wasn't just another record," he says. "Everyone knew it was more significant. The pieces on [i]Pilgrimage[i] are among my favorites of Michael's. But they're different from everything else in their compositional intricacy."
"I've always loved [i]Pilgrimage[i]," 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, [i]Ode To a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker[i] (Globe Pequot/Backbeat Books), the saxophonist's multi-genre recorded sessions over his 38-year recording career are staggering. A small studio sample includes John Lennon's [i]Mind Games[i], Paul Simon's [i]Still Crazy After All These Years[i], Steps Ahead's [i]Modern Times[i], Parliament's [i]Mothership Connection[i], George Benson's [i]Good King Bad[i], Metheny's [i]80/81[i], Steely Dan's [i]Gaucho[i], Chick Corea's [i]Three Quartets[i], Frank Sinatra's [i]L.A. Is My Lady[i], and Hancock's [i]The New Standard[i]. Among live albums, there are brilliant performances on the Brecker Brothers' [i]Heavy Metal Be-Bop[i], Frank Zappa's [i]Zappa in New York[i], Joni Mitchell's [i]Shadows and Light[i], and Pastorius' [i]The Birthday Concert[i].
"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."
[i]Live at the Baked Potato![i] 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 she's quoted thanking Charged Particles for donating a portion of the CD's proceeds to its cause. Randy Brecker also pays tribute to his brother's legacy and the recording's authenticity.
"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 [i]Pilgrimage[i] material."
If anyone has any doubts about the validity of [i]Live at the Baked Potato![i], it's the trumpeter who knew his brother's compositional and playing prowess better than anyone else who gets the last word within the CD.
"Smoking and intense from beginning to end," Brecker writes. "I found myself pinching my arm to remind myself that Mike is sadly no longer with us."
PAKT CD review - Oct. issue of JazzTimes
PERCY JONES, ALEX SKOLNICK, KENNY GROHOWSKI, TIM MOTZER
Improvisation is the essence of jazz and all progressive music. And on August 15, 2020 at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, four masked men made a PAKT to inject music with nearly two hours of completely-improvised progress. Guitarists Alex Skolnick and Tim Motzer, bassist Percy Jones and drummer Kenny Grohowski, all with reduced performance schedules because of COVID-19 lockdown rules, simply set up at the venue, socially-distanced with only minimal additional personnel present to record the event, and played whatever spontaneously came to mind.
Listening is key for improvising musicians, and the four accomplish whisper-to-scream dynamics via that credo on both disc one (subtitled The Unsilence) and two (The Sacred Ladder). Disc one's 12-minute opener, "Emergence," alone shows the yin-yang chemistry of textural Motzer (who enters on a hybrid acoustic-electric guitar) and the electrified Skolnick, and that of the veteran Jones and youthful Grohowski. The 73-year-old Welsh fretless bassist became the European answer to Jaco Pastorius in the 1970s (while sounding nothing like him) with iconic fusion band Brand X, before recently leaving the group after 45 years. But not before playing with Grohowski, the Miami-raised musician who joined a list of great Brand X drummers including Phil Collins, Kenwood Dennard, Chuck Burgi and Mike Clark.
Subsequent pieces "The Mystery" and "Night Crossing" yield further simmer-to-boil excursions in which the guitarists employ loops, samples and atmospherics while Jones and Grohowski provide pulses with the bassist's trademark harmonics and drummer's intricacies. Disc two features more of the same, albeit without repetition. The opening "Perserverence" cascades toward primal scream therapy, with no letdown leading into the subsequent "The Sacred Ladder" through the closing "Cosmic Fire." Such total improvisation is true musical democracy, and can only be achieved by intent listening to one another. Politicians could benefit from a lesson by this PAKT.