If tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker were cast in a jazz version of The Wizard of Oz ( The Jizz , let’s call it), he’d be the Dorothy sidekick looking for a soul. Mr. Brecker was one of the pioneer 70’s funk-jazz fusioneers (along with trumpeter brother Randy, the other half of the Brecker Brothers group) and the studio cat through the mid-80’s. (All right, it’s Phil Woods’ alto on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” but it’s Mr. Brecker on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”). So it’s not surprising then that this saxophonist’s stylistic malleability as well as his own unthrilling balding-white-guy-from-Westchester persona have made it tough for him to be accepted by the jazz cognoscenti. They hear the dark-hued tenor sound and the fleet chops, inspired by John Coltrane and in turn copied by a generation of young-lion horn players, but they wonder about the soul thing. Is he a master or a master ventriloquist? (The industry hacks who award the Grammys are untroubled by such thoughts-Mr. Brecker has won seven (seven!) of the things over his 13-year, six-album career as a solo leader.)
Mr. Brecker’s latest, Time Is of the Essence (Verve), answers the soul critics, partially anyway, by turning to an updated 60’s soul-jazz sound. With Larry Goldings’ bluesy, still-unhackneyed Hammond B-3 organ chords merging intriguingly with Pat Metheny’s electric-guitar lines, the buttoned-up Mr. Brecker lets loose with some of his most unself-consciously hard-edged blowing to date. (What the hell, give him his eighth Grammy.) Of course, because Brecker is Brecker, he doesn’t want to stay too long in the spotlight, so he creates a conceptual diversion having to do with the element of musical “time,” employing a rotating cast of three star drummers with three different time feels-Elvin Jones, Jeff (Tain) Watts and Bill Stewart. I’m not sure what all this proves except that every drummer who is not Elvin Jones has another reason to feel bad.
Mr. Jones manages the uncanny feat of sounding like two drummers by himself, a classical percussionist laying down a bed of shimmering cymbal sound and a “skins” adept extracting a stirring and unpredictable beat. When Mr. Brecker is paired with Mr. Jones, Coltrane’s rhythmic muse, nothing less than the saxophonist’s A game (as the athletes say) will suffice. The most dramatic demonstration is Mr. Brecker’s own tune, “Outrance,” which turns into a naked horn-drum duet that should banish the memory of the Brecker Brothers’ slicker fare.
Another Brecker original, “Dr. Slate,” stands out, this time with Mr. Watts in the drummer’s chair. However, the band is mixed so low, the saxophonist sounds like he’s playing a cappella, and indeed there is a purity in the way he varies timbre and line that is decidedly at odds with his image (in some quarters) as a studio gun running on muscle memory and can’t-miss licks. In fact, if you were to toss out two tunes in the middle of the album, the tenorist’s own “The Morning of the Night,” which substitutes airy noodling by Mr. Metheny for real ballad passion (I suspect ballads just embarrass Mr. Brecker), and “Renaissance Man,” an unnecessary glance back at 70’s funk-jazz, you would have a pretty great album. The qualifier is intentional, just in case I’ve been deceived by Mr. Brecker and he’s not as good as he sounds.