‘Live and Unreleased’ Brings The Brecker Brothers’ Long-Lost Fusion/Funk 1980 Concert (ALBUM REVIEW)

Unreleased albums from iconic names are usually a treat and fusion lovers will bask in this high energy 2CD set from the Brecker Brothers at a live show in Germany in 1980. Trumpeter Randy Brecker is still thriving, delivering projects consistently, having won six Grammys, the latest as recently as 2016. The venerable Brecker, who will turn 75 in November, has released countless records as a leader and a sideman but many would argue that the unit that propelled his career was his co-led jazz fusion band, The Brecker Brothers, with saxophonist Michael Brecker, who passed way too soon due to leukemia in 2007. In the ‘70s Randy played with the first version of Blood, Sweat and Tears led by Al Kooper. He and Michael played in another strong, less-heralded jazz-rock band Dreams (also included Billy Cobham), who released two albums. Yet, it was Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and Weather Report that garnered most of the ink for jazz-rock fusion in the early part of the ‘70s. The Brecker Brothers came slightly later but recorded seven albums for Arista from 1975 -1981 at the height of their popularity. These live tracks are culled from those seminal albums.

The 1980 recording at the legendary Hamburg music club Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall captures the group at perhaps its highest peak. On Live and Unreleased, the two leaders are accompanied by guitarist Barry Finnerty, keyboardist Mark Gray, bassist Neil Jason and drummer Richie Morales, as fiery a sextet as any that delivered the mix of jazz, rock, and funk. Randy recalls “Young and ready to create havoc wherever we performed, we usually left our audiences in tatters…Brother Mike was at the top of his game (well, he never wasn’t at the top of his game!) and we were clicking as the Brother Horn Section or ‘Hawn’ Section as they would say in Long Island. So, enjoy this ‘long lost’ live concert which brings back to life a lot of pleasant memories of great music, late nights ‘on the hang’, and many a story a little too risqué to repeat here.”

After a European summer tour of festivals, the intimate Onkel Pö was a familiar, comfortable setting for the band.  This show occurred just one month after tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker had played on Pat Metheny’s heralded post-bop studio album 80/81.  Guitarist Barry Finnerty had recorded on the band’s 1978 Heavy Metal Bebop and was taking a break from the Crusaders and “Street Life” to do this tour.  Keyboardist Mark Gray, a first-call NYC musician who, like the others, knew the language of bebop and post-bop, but also embraced the latest keyboard technology, moved well beyond the initial forays of Fender Rhodes and synths employed by Hancock, Corea and Stevie Wonder in the early part of the decade. The rhythm tandem of drummer Morales and bassist Jason and it all made for a very potent, thick sound that helped define the ‘80s fusion, a kind of second generation of fusion.

The first CD in this double CD set begins with an extended version of “Straphangin’,” a song that later became the title of their final studio1981 album. This Michael Brecker composition carries a kind of tongue-in-cheek classical overture (perhaps a polite nod to being in Europe) before segueing to stone-cold funk.  Randy takes a masterful solo on this track, beginning with wah-wah trumpet exclamations before bursting out with a barrage of bristling, piercing high-notes, his signature sound which is still very much evident today.  Michael’s solo is well-paced, growing in dynamics and intensity, with the fervor and virtuosity that was his calling card. (To understand just how great he was, check out his Impulse catalog in the mid-late ‘80s-‘90s, Tales from the Hudson, a 1997 double Grammy winner, being one of this writer’s favorites).

“Sponge”, a Randy Brecker composition from the band’s 1975 debut album The Brecker Brothers also carries blistering energy, engaging the whole ensemble, featuring a call-and-response from Randy with brother Michael, as well as trading between Finnerty and Gray, along with filthy bad-ass bass playing from Jason. This 18 minutes plus version of “Funky Sea, Funky Dew” features some of Michael’s earliest experimentation with the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), taking an unaccompanied solo that continues for a full nine minutes, perhaps the strongest electronic saxophone now on record. Had this album been released at the time, folks might be talking about this solo in the way they talk about Paul Gonzalves’ famous solo from “Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue” from Duke Ellington at Newport (1956).

There are six selections on Disc 1 and five on Disc 2. Among the highlights on the latter is the opening “Inside Out,” (from Heavy Metal Be-Bop), a showcase for Finnerty and Gray before the horns join. Morales blasts away on “Baffled.” Of course, we have the signature “Some Skunk Funk,” also from their debut album and a live staple, delivered at a typical blazing tempo. Randy notes “That tune has become like a rite of passage for young musicians. There’s just something about the challenge of it that always made it appealing to musicians. It’s a difficult tune and it just became part of the fusion repertoire, so young players always want to have a shot at it.”  Performances like this typify how they exhausted live audiences. There are vocal parts on the last two pieces, “East River” (from Heavy Metal Be-Bop) and the humorous closer “Don’t Get Funny With My Money”,  (from Détente) with lyrics co-written by Luther Vandross, and performed here by Randy. The track closes with fiery exchanges of eights between Mike, Randy and Finnerty; a fitting ending to a stirring performance that will likely leave steam spewing from your player. 

It’s interesting because fusion was the bridge for many from rock to jazz in the ‘70s. Others, like this writer, were selective about fusion and grew weary of much of it, turning instead to the more straight-ahead or even avant-garde jazz recordings during that period. Yet, we’re now 40 years past the time of this recording and it sounds surprisingly refreshing. The energy alone is the reason both to listen and savor it.


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