BRECKER BROTHERS – Live And Unreleased

Randy and Michael Brecker: legends of jazz fusion, both together and apart. Often called upon for individual session work throughout the 70s and 80s, the brothers appeared on albums by Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Dire Straits. Both were among the most gifted players in their prime: separately, they were great, but together, they could be an absolute powerhouse. This is something that comes across with abundance throughout the archive double live disc ‘Live And Unreleased’. A show newly released in 2020 that captures the second Brecker Brothers Band with bassist Neil Jason partway through a European tour in 1980, the Breckers are on fire.

Not only does ‘Live And Unreleased’ present ten performances from a night in Hamburg in complete clarity, but you get the feeling of being somewhere in the second row of a small jazz club as they play. The audience is small, but entirely attentive and completely devoted as the sextet whip up a musical storm. Opening with the still unreleased ‘Strap Hangin’ is a brave move, but the band obviously knows how good they are at this precise moment; they know the audience will be hanging off every note and this performance finds the Brecker Brothers slamming into some serious funk. Neil Jason leads the charge through a seriously funky groove throughout and the overall sound is much tougher than it’s 1981 studio counterpart. Even the introductory fanfare has some serious teeth; the studio recording sounds really non-committal by direct comparison. Also, by taking the arrangement and extending it by almost four minutes, this lengthy workout becomes a great introduction to what promises to be a great show. Sliding into the then current album’s ‘Tee’d Off’, any early suspicions of this being a first rate gig are more than confirmed. Although sticking to a really succinct five minute groove, it gives time enough for the band to play to their strengths. The introductory melody is played slightly faster than the studio recording, but by the time Michael’s sax drives the softer part of the melody, it’s pretty close to the expected sound and following a couple of hard funk interjections from Jason, his first major solo is a real corker. Smooth, yet still maintaining a great presence, his style really flows. A couple of the sax fills are so busy but flawlessly executed, it’s easy to forgive a couple of genuinely honking notes along the way. Handing over to guitarist Barry Finnerty, the mood then shifts to more of a Steely Dan and State Cows vibe and the interplay between Finnerty’s jazz fusion melodies and Jason’s funk essence is lovely.

The more familiar ‘Sponge’ (originally from 1975’s ‘Brecker Bros.’ and re-recorded in a harder, shinier rendition on 1978’s ‘Heavy Metal Be-Bop’) becomes a near-ten minute tour de force where everyone gets to stretch out. Of particular note is Randy Brecker’s aggressive trumpet work which is at constant odds with the slicker almost Cosby theme-like grooves the rest of the band have absolutely nailed. There’s some more fantastic guitar work from Finnerty too, really helping to push more of a fusion style, making this one of the show’s stand out performances. A staple of the Brothers’ catalogue and their live shows, fans will surely welcome yet another take of such a great track…and especially one as good as this.

Designed as a centrepiece for the show, ‘Funky Sea, Funky Dew’ has grown from its eight minute studio take into a nineteen minute jam. If that had been used to showcase each of the band in turn, it would have certainly joined the brilliant ‘Sponge’ as the highlight of this set, but it meanders just a little too much. Things start with a fantastic band giving their all, though: there’s some fine sax work from Michael B., and a corker of a guitar solo from Barry – easily his big moment on this night. Things waver around the eight minute mark as the great funk groove slides into an easy jazz tune and then stops completely, leaving Michael to entertain the audience on his own for what feels like a very long time. Don’t misunderstand – his playing is great; it’s easy to see why he was considered one of the best in his field, but without any visuals, it loses the set some of its momentum. It was probably much more enjoyable on the night…

A twelve minute groove on ‘I Don’t Know Either’ finds the Breckers taking a second dip into 1980’s ‘Detente’ record. The performance starts a little too smoothly, but after three minutes, Neil Jason pushes the rhythm a little harder and Randy B. drops an excellent extended trumpet solo against the kind of backdrop that Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius would’ve been hard pressed to serve up any more impressively. Things get seriously funky. Even by the time Randy steps back and passes the baton to Michael, the band shows no sign of let-up. Listening to Jason and drummer Richie Morales lock down such a serious and unwavering rhythm for such a long period is proof enough that this second Brecker Brothers band was their best ever. No arguments.

‘Inside Out’ is, perhaps, this sets most accessible offering, shifting away from serious jazz fusion into more of a jazz rock swing. A number with a slightly bluesy lilt, many of its key melodies never seem so far removed from something you’d hear in a Steely Dan live show – which is obviously a good thing. The recording here is much warmer than its ‘Heavy Metal Be-Bop’ counterpart and between Neil Jason’s fluid bass work and a solid electric piano accompaniment from Mark Gray, there’s already plenty to love before we even get to the featured performers. Randy’s trumpet work seems especially on point and you’d expect him to steal the show here. However, once Michael’s sax takes over, you realise that Mike is playing somewhere near his very best. The bluesy swing to the backdrop is the perfect accompaniment to the sax and this allows him to improvise a lot, though never in a way that loses sight of the all-important root melody. At the one moment he seems as if he is about to lose everyone in a moment of over-enthusiasm, Morales throws out a couple of massive snare hits that break up the groove and that allows everyone to refocus before Barry offers the kind of guitar solo that would make Walter Becker proud. If this tune seemed Steely Dan-esque from the outset, allowing the guitar such a dominant role to finish more than cements those feelings.
A ten minute ‘Baffled’ takes in all manner of fusion which, thanks to Neil Jason, veers towards jazz funk in more than a few places, but with some fine sax interjections and a rhythm section working incredibly hard, it retains a lot of the hallmarks that made the previous performances great. A couple of throwbacks to older Brecker material flesh out the end of the set with a great take of ‘Some Skunk Funk’ showing how well the brothers can deliver a complex riff together (the all round tightness in their brass work here is astounding) while the rest of the band drop into a kind of funk that would make Rufus and Kool & The Gang appear slack. The funk still comes with various Weather Report-esque interjections, of course, and its amazing to hear that even after an hour or more, nobody appears to show any signs of musical fatigue. Vocally, things are a different matter, as the first of the night’s vocal tunes, ‘East River’, is a little off. It’s never terrible, but certainly less than perfect. Musically, it’s all good: the main groove seems a little sassy; Michael’s sax fills are nice and high in the mix and the soul/funk sounds that have peppered a few of the night’s best performances really get to flourish. It would have been a better instrumental, especially given the mood in the room at this late stage. Finally, ‘Don’t Get Funny With My Money’ delivers on Parliament-ish funk, allowing the rhythm section one last chance to show off while various brass interjections remind us, first and foremost, this has been a cracking jazz set. Even the vocals do not intrude and everyone – band and audience – appear to be enjoying every moment.

This same European tour is partially represented on the less than official ‘Broadcast Archives’ release from 2019, but neither of those scratchily sourced radio shows do the band justice. Aside from the odd wobbly vocal during ‘East River’, ‘Live And Unreleased’ captures one of those performances that could legitimately be referred to as essential. This line up of The Brecker Brothers Band rarely sounded better. With a hard funk sound dominating at many of the key points throughout a well paced hundred minutes, this double disc set is both a fine collection filler for fans and a fantastic primer for those listeners who mighn’t be quite so familiar with the Breckers’ work as they’d like. By stepping into the middle of a great leg of a great tour, those new listeners are able to witness the band playing with real verve – and without any of the disco leanings that had already peppered the studio records. Quite how this show took so long to materialise…is both a mystery and a travesty – it could just be the best Brecker Brothers set ever.   Seriously.

March 2020