Michael Brecker and James Taylor would seem to be an unlikely combination. But, not so. Nearly 30 years ago, Brecker's tenor saxophone solo was an unexpected highlight in Taylor's Top 20 hit "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight."
That encounter is celebrated and revisited in Brecker's "Memories of You: The Ballad Book" (* * * 1/2, Verve). The combination once again works magic, with Taylor's utterly original voice doing an even better job of interpreting the song's lovely musical phrases, and a more mature Brecker finding ways to paraphrase while still remaining in contact with Taylor and the song's message.
The other Taylor feature on the album is a bit more surprising--a sweetly lyrical rendering of the Hoagy Carmichael-Ned Washington classic "The Nearness of You." But the bulk of the recording features Brecker in an appealing collection of material--less familiar but attractive items such as Herbie Hancock's "Chan's Song," Joe Zawinul's "Midnight Mood," Pat Metheny's "Sometimes I See" and Brecker's intimate "I Can See Your Dreams." There's also a pair of standards--Kurt Weill's "My Ship" and Irving Berlin's "Always."
Performing, as he frequently does, with a virtual all-star ensemble--guitarist Metheny, pianist Hancock, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette--Brecker not only plays at the top of his game, he also creates an environment that triggers first-class work from his associates. Hancock's solos are filled with floating, lyrical lines, and Metheny--who typically has a range of sounds--offers a stunning blend of texture, color and imagination.
I've sometimes been critical of Brecker's excessive reliance on his unquestioned technical virtuosity. Too often he seemed reluctant to allow his music to breathe, to find an affecting balance between sounds and silences. Here, however, he takes a far different stance. Willing to let his warm tone to take precedence and expressing his phrases with a vocalized sensuousness, he produces some of his finest playing. Like John Coltrane's ballad albums, "Memories of You: The Ballad Book" affords emotional insights not always present in more aggressively outgoing efforts. (It's in stores June 19, three days after Brecker appears as a headliner at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.)
Like Brecker (and a high percentage of the tenor saxophonists who arrived on the scene in the past three decades), Mark Turner reveals distinct Coltrane influences. But he also has been affected by a somewhat cooler saxophone stream. His new album, "Dharma Days" (* * * , Warner Bros.), again includes passages reminiscent of Warne Marsh and--reaching back--of floating, largely vibrato-less sound flowing from the Lester Young fountainhead.
His partnership with Kurt Rosenwinkle has had mixed results (here, as on the guitarist's recordings). While there is no denying the intellectual fascination of their interaction, the coolness of the playing too often verges toward chilliness. "Myron's World," with its long solo saxophone introduction and later duet between the two players, is attention-grabbing for the sheer musicality of what is taking place. But ultimately the lack of emotional engagement allows it to drift out of focus.
Turner is clearly a potentially major talent. And he deserves both praise and attention for his persistence in pursuing his path. But he has yet to make the album that offers a level of communication to match the high quality of his essential creativity--an album that would leap out of the pack to announce the arrival of an artist who demands to be heard.
To switch gears dramatically, listening to tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum can be a tricky deal for most mainstream jazz fans. "Unconditional" (* * 1/2, Warner Bros.) reveals his mastery of the smooth jazz idiom. Pieces such as "Now 'Til Forever," "Can't Stop the Rain" (written and sung by Shai) and "Real Love" (featuring a Wendy Moten vocal) have been crafted by producer Paul Brown with precise attention to the details of radio-play hit-making.
But tracks such as the appropriately titled "Groverworked & Underpaid" and "I Try" provide a bit more stretching-out room for Whalum's hard-driving, blues-based improvising. And his lyrical alto playing on "Waltz for David" has a deft, lightness of touch not always found within the idiom. Ultimately, much of the album drifts into soporific background sounds. But in those rare moments, it's hard not to wonder what Whalum could do if he ever risked placing himself in a more demanding musical setting.