Before getting the call from Paul, session pro Michael Brecker figured he had pretty much squeezed every kind of music imaginable out of his trusty tenor saxophone. Besides recording three highly acclaimed jazz albums on his own and another six with his brother Randy under the moniker the Brecker Brothers, Michael had rocked with John Lennon, united under a groove with Parliament-Funkadelic, popped up on a few Billy Joel albums, walked on the wild side with Lou Reed and even swung with Frank Sinatra.
Then Paul Simon invited Brecker to play on the sessions for his latest world-beat excursion Rhythm of the Saints and accompany him on the road as part of his multinational eighteen-member touring band.
"Now, suddenly, I feel like I'm back in school again," says the Indiana University alum from a stop on the Simon circuit. "We're touring with musicians from Cameroon and various parts of Brazil and Africa, and every day I'm learning something new. I've always been interested in African music, and I've been listening to it for years. But now I have the opportunity, for the seven months to a year that this tour will last, to really delve in and study it firsthand. Last night I started learning one of the Cameroon dialects to understand more about the way `talking drums' work, because they're based on various indigenous dialects. And it's really fascinating."
If Brecker's description of life on the road with Paul Simon sounds a little bit like Foreign Music Appreciation 101, the scholarly overtones are fitting. For much of his 25-year career, Simon has been widely regarded as pop's most literate singer-songwriter. After bringing his Simon-ized versions of South African townsmith jive to the masses with 1986's Grammy-winning Graceland and capturing the bracing candomble percussion sounds practiced on Brazilian streets on the recently released Rhythm of the Saints, his role changed. Many pop fans have started coming to Simon shows for a kind of ethnological education. Not everybody, of course, has signed up enthusiastically for Professor Paul's cultural field trips. Many critics and political activists have suggested Simon's work with oppressed African musicians smacks more of exploitation than exposure (even though Simon reportedly worked for free on his Graceland tour so that the 24 South African singers and musicians in his road troupe could receive maximum paychecks).
But others laud Simon. Black issues spokesperson Julian Bond helped promote the Graceland tour. Even the United Nations finally excused Simon for violating its ban restricting the travel of entertainers to South Africa. Brecker himself believes the end products of Simon's cultural collaborations more than justify his means. "I haven't given that issue a lot of thought," he admits, "because I think the final result is just so wonderful. Plus I guess I've had the opportunity to see him work, and see how serious and genuinely careful he is in handling the music of these other cultures. The issue almost disappears when you have a chance to see his creative process close-up. It's painstaking and very inspired."
If nothing else, Simon's current cross-country trek has broadened the musical palettes of seasoned regulars. He's tossed leading studio vets like Brecker, drummer Steve Gadd and keyboardist Richard Tee into the same private jet with players who had never before ventured out of West Africa or Brazil. Brecker raves: "Aside from the pleasure of just being around Paul and getting to kind of absorb what he does when he's making music, the opportunity to be around musicians from these other cultures is just an amazing treat. I know I'll be using the things I'm learning on this tour in all my future work, and I'm just scratching the surface right now. It's been an education for me," he reiterates. "And I've been around for a long time!"
WHILE BRECKER IS well-known in jazz circles, regularly ranking at or near the top of the "Best Tenor Sax" category in down beat's annual readers poll, his status among pop audiences is akin to that of the veteran character actor: You probably don't recognize the name, but you know the work. He's the master of melancholy taking James Taylor's 1972 hit "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" home in style--the product of his first big-star session, as it happens. With his trumpet-playing brother Randy and Bruce Springsteen's sidekick Clarence Clemons, he helped provide the horny punch on Born To Run's "Tenth Avenue Freezeout." And that transcendent tenor-sax bridge on Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years"? That moment belonged to Michael Brecker alone.
It was during that 1975 recording session, in fact, that Brecker cemented the basis for the on-again, off-again partnership which finally led to his work on Simon's current album and tour. "I loved that record very much," Brecker says of the Still Crazy LP, "and I was really impressed with Paul's knowledge of music." Indeed, many who had dumped Simon into the Sensitive Folkie category during his Simon and Garfunkel days were forced to reassess their image of the diminutive tunesmith after hearing the impressive scope of styles Simon tackled on his first solo efforts. (It was on 1972's "Mother and Child Reunion," incidentally, that Simon inaugurated his cultural exchange program, jetting back and forth to Jamaica to capture the hit's authentic reggae flavor.)
But Brecker insists he had detected the elliptical elf's musical potential all along. "I heard it," he says. "I mean, a lot of the old Simon and Garfunkel stuff was adventurous for its time. I think they were pretty revolutionary."
This mutual admiration prompted the pop poet to enlist the saxman's help while fleshing out the tracks for Rhythm of the Saints. "He called me up and asked me to come down to the studio and see if I could hear any places on the album where I could add saxophone," Brecker recalls. He couldn't, as it turned out. The unique combinations of circular West African guitar patterns and dramatic Brazilian drumming that Simon had assembled seemed ill-suited for a boisterous Brecker break. But the inventive reed man brought along another instrument to the sessions that perfectly suited the music's otherworldly feel.
"For a number of years now," says Brecker, "I've been playing this instrument called the EWI," an abbreviation for the Electronic Wind Instrument patented by Akai in 1987 which Brecker pronounces as "ee-wee." "It's a wind-driven synthesizer that can produce a basically limitless array of sounds. I suggested to Paul that he might want to hear it, so I brought it to the session and we ended up finding a lot of various uses for the instrument throughout the album."
Simon was apparently so impressed with Brecker's work on the EWI (Akai itself considers Brecker the instrument's pioneer player) that he immediately hired him for the tour and even set aside a section in the middle of each night's show for an extended EWI solo from Brecker.
"Paul actually leaves the stage and takes a break and I kind of take over for a while," Brecker boasts. And what sort of feeling rushes through the pro blower's core when he temps nightly for America's premier pop songcrafter?
"Basically fear," he laughs.
BRECKER HAS ALWAYS preferred the outer circle of the spotlight. His preference for remaining behind the scenes kept the sideman from attempting a solo album until 1987, after his name had already been listed on almost 500 different album jackets by other artists.
"Really, up until '86 or '87, I felt more comfortable working collaboratively," Brecker confesses. "Probably still do. I like working with other people."
With all those star-studded sessions under his belt, Brecker's hard-pressed to come up with a favorite horn hirer. "I loved working with George Clinton," he says. "Those were some of my most enjoyable sessions. Spending a few days with John Lennon was great fun. He had such a great sense of humor. But then some of my fondest memories are of working with James Taylor. And Donald Fagen. Jeez, there's been so many; it's hard to single any favorites out."
He does list his current employer high on the list, however--even though Brecker readily admits Simon is not always the most fun fellow to work with. "He's very serious about what he does. He's very spontaneous in the studio, yet he's also very decisive. When something doesn't work, he knows it almost immediately. And he'll take a long time and put a lot of effort into getting things just right."
Not that Brecker minds standing patiently by with horn in hand while Simon racks his celebrated brain for just the right word or note to bring his complex musical visions to life.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"He's making music, I think, that will stand the test of time, which is very difficult to do," applauds Brecker. The five-foot-five Simon may be small in stature, Brecker allows, but many players consider him something of a giant when it comes to expanding the limits of pop music.
"Put it this way," Brecker sums up Simon. "He's got big ears."
Michael Brecker will perform in concert with Paul Simon at Desert Sky Pavilion on Saturday, January 19. Showtime is 5:30 p.m.
His status is akin to that of the veteran character actor: You probably don't recognize the name, but you know the work. Brecker has always preferred the outer circle of the spotlight. Brecker's name has been listed on almost 500 different album jackets by other artists.