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Nearness of You: The Ballad Book by Michael Brecker

Upon examination of the cover of this disc, one is struck by an unusual image. A solitary figure stands on the horizon of a desert, surrounded by absolutely nothing but sand and sky. Directly over his head, in block capitals, rests the phrase: "NEARNESS OF YOU" The contrast is striking, and sits at the heart of the album's concept. After all, all-ballads, all-the-time is a strange and tricky conceit, consisting in limiting oneself to a specific tempo and badly-defined aesthetic, while presumably hoping to trigger something in the listener's ear, and avoid the possibility of simply being ignored. The assumption being that these musicians want to provide something more than glorified dinner music, success will ultimately depend on that most elusive of all musical qualities: emotional connection - between musician and listener, musician and material, musician and other musicians. So is the photo on the cover a moment of oh-so-modern irony? simple hallucination? a picture of the task ahead?

It becomes clear, particularly on the second track, that the image is meant to convey longing. In that song, singer-songwriter James Taylor's anthem of pathetic codependence "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," the author makes a guest appearance, delivering the lyrics with his best milksop whine for which he is so beloved. Doubtless, Michael Brecker's tentative yet too-polished tenor responses mix with Taylor's voice in a way that will giddily please the latter's legion of college kid followers. But overall, the performance remains unconvincing, a remarkable feat considering the other musicians involved: Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette. The title track, on which Taylor reappears, is a bit more full-bodied, but still fails to commandingly or organically grab anyone's attention; it's as if the musicians are set in separate rooms or simply overdubbed, allowing for no sense of surprise. Which is precisely why the overriding emotion of these tracks is longing - not the longing by which the listener identifies with the musician's loss, but the longing for greater risk-taking, greater commitment, greater variety in program. This "book," set up complete with two chapters and an epilogue, leaves longing that less time would be spent on pretentious organizing schemes, and more time exploring the multiple options that do exist in the ballad-playing field.

This is not to say that there are no intriguing moments - the stretch from Hancock's solo to Brecker's final chorus on the shuffling "Nascente" is simply luminous, Metheny's slippery, spiraling two-minute interjection on "Incandescence" saves an otherwise big-mouthed and slow-tongued performance, DeJohnette's brushes smoke like hot embers on Irving Berlin's "Always," and the opener "Chan's Song" entices while it resists, raises up while it deflects, reaching a congested, simmering stirring-point halfway through that the rest of the album rarely recaptures. But moments like these, and a handful of others, mixed with thoughts of the untouchable potential of this band, only intensify that feeling of longing, a mystification as to why each track isn't always just that good.

Perhaps the rendition of Joe Zawinul's "Midnight Mood" is a good indication. It seems promising, with a strong compositional base (beautiful, catchy melody ripe for embellishment, harmonies that lead the listener to allow for understatement), and the intro coda and melody statement build slowly. Brecker dangles on each note, until we are a third of the way through the tune before handing off to Hancock for the first solo. Here, however, is where problems begin. Hancock is restrained to the point of distraction, Haden only outlines the barest chords, and DeJohnette suddenly insists on only half-note accents. Brecker returns to provide a modicum of relief by way of tumbling, softly-breathed phrases, with Hancock showing more interest and more élan in his backup role. But just as they begin to interact with anything approaching warmth and invention, Haden and DeJohnette reintroduce the intro, and the track is over, listener left frustrated. Metheny has not even been used. One must only think of John Coltrane's own Ballads album to suddenly be reminded how much more gut can be placed in gut-wrenching.

For Brecker's fans, this may satisfy some and frustrate others. Much of the rest of the jazz fan world will continue to long for newer tenor players who can bring variety to the slippery syrup of traditional tunes at a slow trot. And on a general note, it will be a fine day when the major labels start worrying less about "all-star ensembles" and more about all those varieties of newer talent.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Michael Brecker
  • CD Title: Nearness of You: The Ballad Book
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Verve
  • Musicians: Michael Brecker (tenor sax), Pat Metheny (guitars), Herbie Hancock (piano), Charlie Haden (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), James Taylor (vocals on two tracks)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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