Ask a young jazz saxophone student who his or her favorite player is, and there's a strong possibility the answer will be Michael Brecker. Look at any of the major jazz awards of the past few years and Brecker's name is usually near the top of the list.
All of which may account for the full house that enthusiastically greeted Brecker on Tuesday at Catalina Bar & Grill in the opening set of a three-night run--his first ever as a leader in a Los Angeles club.
And there was no denying either the skill or the fluency of Brecker's playing. Working with the world-class rhythm team of Joey Calderazzo, piano; James Genus , bass (both present on his new Impulse! album, "Two Blocks From the Edge"); and Ralph Peterson, drums, Brecker was in high gear from the opening moments of the first tune.
Despite frequent mouthpiece adjustments, he ripped off solo after solo, scouring his horn to its outer limits. His opening phrases on "Delta City Blues" featured bouncing, up-and-down, Eddie Harris-like lines, tossing in funk and blues references for good measure. Calderazzo's "El Nin~o" and "Cat's Cradle" provided more source material for driving, whiplash-risking solos--some countered by Calderazzo's own fast-fingered, McCoy Tyner-esque choruses.
At the climax of the set, Brecker took on John Coltrane's classic "Naima" as an unaccompanied solo. Even though the floating qualities of the piece didn't seem a particularly appropriate subject, he nonetheless transformed it into a startling example of sheer virtuosity.
Still, there was something missing. As good a technician as Brecker is, as imaginative as his solo lines are (aside from their tendency to rely heavily on scales and arpeggios), his playing often seems devoid of personal expression. It's never quite clear where Brecker is, within all the rapid-fire phrases.
In part, the problem traces to his connection with Coltrane, his fundamental influence, which is not unlike Phil Woods' linkage to Charlie Parker. Both players are noble inheritors of styles, illuminating and expanding upon them, devoting their talent to them, finding new riches within them, without reaching the consummate level of finding their own, unique creative voices. And Brecker will not really discover that voice until he slows down the notes and begins to search for the feelings.
The Michael Brecker Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill tonight. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $20 cover, with two-drink minimum. Shows at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.