What started out as a jazz-arrangement competition turned into a series of commissioned works, added on to composed pieces extended from several previous recordings, and ended up being an epitaph celebration for the late saxophonist Michael Brecker. Chuck Owen and Dave Stamps organized the Jazz Surge Big Band with help from several former Brecker collaborators or instrumentalists who convened at the University of South Florida to play larger-than-life versions of tunes from a 25-year period of the revered tenor man’s repertoire.
The resulting music is spectacularly expanded and explosively played in Michael Brecker’s neo-bop image, the charts rivaling even the most imaginative of current-day orchestrators. Along with the fine foundation players Owen recruited to read the charts, heavyweights like saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, section leaders Jack Wilkins and Tami Danielsson, violinist Rob Thomas, vibist Mike Mainieri, guitarist Mike Stern, drummers Dan Gottlieb or Adam Nussbaum, and especially trumpeter Randy Brecker take leadership roles as the fuel that fires this well-oiled and potent musical machine. The highly stylized sounds here are not only lovingly done with Michael Brecker’s persona in mind, but also fabulously tailored and opulent far beyond anything that might be construed as conventional.
“Peep” kicks things off with the winning competition entry among 80-plus submitted charts as arranged by Vancouver’s Fred Stride, and it leaps out of the speakers, loaded with dense, dizzying, crazed counterpoint, further enhanced by funky to boppish beats, and Randy Brecker’s moonraker electric trumpet solo. Likely the best-known tune is “Takea Walk,” an arrangement by Owen where Lovano’s lead tenor and Liebman’s soprano work well with Mainieri in a spastic, improvised intro, then jam on a two-note blues that perfectly represents the Philly-to-N.Y.C. soul-street strut that was always a Michael Brecker signature. Then there’s “Slings & Arrows” (done originally by Michael with Jack DeJohnette) and reinvented by Vince Mendoza, with layer upon layer of orchestration, a deft solo by tenor saxophonist Wilkins similar to Michael’s post-Coltrane voicings, and Gottlieb’s strident, exciting drumming as either prompt or filling.
The famous Irish jig fusion of “Itsbynne Reel” as faithfully interpreted by Owen, has the violin of Thomas on center stage, dancing through mixed-metaphor green fields and tough-paved streets. The lighter Stamps chart of “Sumo” has a harder edge but a softer core, with soaring music for Liebman’s tenor sax and Thomas’ violin sprouting wings on their solos, while Gil Goldstein was asked to contribute his version of “The Mean Time,” as flitting flutes and woodwinds with bass clarinet add color contrasts and drama to the jumpy horns and brass players, in a piece that fully captures the Brecker’s Seventh Avenue South neo-bop identity. Guitarists LaRue Nickelson and Stern are allowed some substantive solos, pianist Per Danielsson joins $Randy Brecker’s flügelhorn and Thomas during Owen’s version of the lush “How Long ‘Til the Sun,” and Lovano’s heartfelt feature via the arrangement of Owen on the somber ballad “Everything Happens When You’re Gone” seems an appropriate coda to this project, which was completed after Michael Brecker’s losing battle with MDS.
It’s good that this project forged ahead, because the resulting music should make every fan of Michael Brecker smile in perpetual appreciation for his gifts, and for the tribute this extraordinarily talented group of contemporary jazz musicians offered in his memory. It’s a truly outstanding recording, and a collection of works deserving of universal attention for the excellent music it is.