Michael Brecker’s Visit to the USN’s Atlantic Fleet Band
Michael’s one day workshop came about through the hard work of MU2 (Musician 2nd Class) Jeremy Bustillos and the permission of LCDR (Lieutenant Commander) Mel Kessler, our band officer.
On or about September 2, 2003 we had a surprise visitor at the Atlantic Fleet Band in Norfolk, VA. Michael Brecker was in the boss’s office. We were asked to go to the Concert Band Room and be seated. First Michael talked to us for about an hour. We then broke for about 15 minutes. He listened to the Jazz Ensemble perform first. Then he spoke to the group. After lunch he listened to and made comments to the Rock Band and Show Band Combo. Finally he came into my office where I showed him the Runyon Pad Dope and my reed soaking solution that he expressed interest in earlier in the day.
It is 0900 and the band is on edge waiting for our special guest to enter the room. Michael enters the room carrying his tenor sax case. He is introduced to us by LCDR Kessler. The band members applaud.
Michael took the deck and started talking about his background. His family lived in Philly where he grew up. His father was a lawyer who played piano well. At night he would invite whoever was playing in town to come by for a jam session. It was the 1950’s to mid 1960’s and Philly was still a hotbed of jazz activity. Michael said his Dad sued by day and swung by night. He was in awe of both his Dad and his brother Randy. He talked about them a lot.
His first instrument was the clarinet. He said when he was a kid he liked the way it looked. Michael said his first musical hero was Jimmy Giuffre of Four Brother’s fame. He said he used to practice by playing into a metal trash can to try to get the reverb that he heard on Giuffre’s recordings. I researched this and indeed on his record entitled The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet (1956; Atlantic 1238) there is indeed some reverb present. Not as much as Elvis, but the reverb is there.
The clarinet lasted only until Michael started to play basketball. This was from around the age of 12 until maybe 16 years old. Then he started to play alto sax. Around the age of 17 his teacher suggested he switch over to tenor sax. Michael didn’t give a reason but I assume it was because he was already quite tall.
First off Michael encouraged the free exchange of ideas and questions. While some people did make a comment or asked a question most of the comments and questions came from three sax players. This was MU2 Trae Cummings, MU2 Gresh Laing and myself MU2 Larry Weintraub. I felt that a lot of people just did not know what to say. For some, especially the people who knew who he was it was like either Elvis or Sinatra came back to life and was in the room. For the others who had no idea who he was they just did not know what to say.
So of course you always have the gear question. Michael said his gear wasn’t anything special. He played a Selmer Mk VI tenor, a Dave Guardala mouthpiece made especially for him and LaVoz medium reeds. He said that prior to playing the Guardala mouthpiece he was playing a more resistant mouthpiece with a harder reed. However he had throat problems and a lung collapsed. He had throat surgery to correct the problem. Michael showed us the scar that ran from one side of his throat to the other side of his throat. So he asked Guardala to make him a mouthpiece that was less resistant than his previous mouthpiece but with a sound that was close to his previous mouthpiece, a metal Otto Link. So after much trial and error they finally came up with a mouthpiece that was comfortable for him to play. This point is important, he really wasn’t a gear geek. His advice was to use what worked for you. He felt that a lot of musical advertising was just a bunch of hype.
So the question was asked, “how does he practice improvisation?” Michael said the following, “that he would take any melodic idea, phrase or lick and play it through the keys. He starts the idea at the bottom of the horn and works it all the way to the top of the horn going into the altissimo if possible.” He then said, “I have compiled tons of notebooks full of ideas that I have played through the keys.” He further stated “that an idea may not sound good in every key or in both the upper and lower registers but play them there anyway. It’s good practice.” Michael stressed, “do not write the idea out in every key, only in one key. Learn it by ear or by relating the scale or chord degrees. If you write it out in every key you’ll never learn the idea completely.”
Reeds and Warm-Ups
He then proceeded to put his tenor sax together, complained about his reed and demonstrated what he just talked about. He played an idea starting on low Bb and took it through all the keys over the whole horn. He started on low Bb, then low B etc until he was way past high F. All this on a reed that he said was starting to go. Not only did he do this flawlessly he also did it at a fairly brisk tempo. This got a nice round of applause from the band.
Someone asked him how he prepares for his day. He said, “I call my service before hand to see what gigs I have, where they are and the type of gig. Is it a studio session for a record, commercial or a jazz, funk or rock band gig? Then I never leave the house without testing out my equipment. I make sure I have at least two really good reeds and that my horn is working right.” This was important for me to hear. I cannot tell you how many times on a gig I have seen a reed player going through a box of reeds before the downbeat hoping to find that magic reed. That should be done before you leave for the gig.
He directed some questions to the sax players. He wanted to know if anyone had a good solution to the sticking pad problem. No one piped in, so I suggested that he look into Santy Runyon’s Pad Dope. I mentioned that Chris Vadala endorses it. By the way, this was before the so called non-stick pads were being made.
Next Michael said “he liked his reeds moist and kept them in a plastic lunch baggie. However his reeds got this black mold on them.” No one spoke up so I again offered a solution. I learned this solution from a Master Class I attended given by MUCS ( Senior Chief Musician) Scott Silbert at the Saxophone Symposium at George Mason University. MUCS Silbert was a former member of the Navy Jazz Commodores and then a Staff Arranger for the Navy Band in Washington DC.
MUCS Silbert said the following, “take an old leak proof pill bottle, fill it halfway with water then fill the rest with mouthwash. Close the lid and shake it up. Then soak your reeds in the solution for under a minute. When you are finished playing take the reed off, soak it again for a second, wipe it off and then put the reed in your reed guard. Next and this is the important part – put the reed guard with your reeds in a ziplock baggie but do not close it all the way, leave it open about a quarter of an inch to let air in. This prevents mold, keeps your reeds slightly moist and it will give your reed that fresh minty taste.” Michael said that he would try it and that he was learning things from being with us. Again he really liked the exchange of ideas. He said “that he was interested in both the Pad Dope and the reed soaking solution.” I told him I would show it to him at the end of the day.
The Jazz Ensemble
It was now 1000 hours and we were the first group up. Every group played two tunes. The first tune we played was “Deedles Blues” written for Diane Shur and the Basie Band. It is a nice medium up blues in Db with a vocal by MU2 Kim Haynes and solos from various band members. If you think that some of us weren’t nervous think again. There was Michael Brecker sitting not 15 feet away from us ready to listen to us and critic us. Okay “Deedles Blues” was up and I had the first solo on alto sax after Kim sang a chorus or two. I said to myself, “alright Larry, don’t even look at him. You know what you can do, just stand up, do not face him and play when the time comes.” I will also say that halfway through the chorus there was a turn around in my part that went Dm7, G7 for 2 beats a piece. Then the next bar was Cm7, F7. Then back to Bb. So I stood up and played using some of the stuff I learned from my current teacher Marty Nau, a retired Navy Jazz Commodore alto player. Over the turn around section I played a pattern and it’s sequence. After my two choruses I sat down not looking at Michael. Someone from the trumpet section shouted out, “look, Brecker is giving Larry the thumbs up.” I looked over at him and he was giving me the thumbs up with a big smile. Talk about a rush, wow I felt great.
So we played the next tune, an instrumental blues that feature different soloist. The band was really grooving and guys were yelling out encouragement to each other during both tunes. Okay we were finished. Michael brings his chair in closer to talk to us. We waited with bated breath to hear what this very humble giant of jazz and NYC studio playing was going to say.
Michaels Comments to the Jazz Ensemble
- “You guys play in tune better than what I hear in most studio sessions in New York.”
- “However, as far as solos go, most of you need to go back and really Listen to the music.”
- “Most of you are not speaking the Jazz Language.”
- “The band was swinging, nice job by the drummer (MU2 Ricky Micou). Saxes really nice blend, really nice ensemble playing all around. I can tell that you guys play together a lot. You encourage each other, that’s good.”
- The lead alto player asked Michael what he thought of his sound on his solo. Michael said, ‘it was nice.”
- Finally Michael walked over to Kim and told her nice job on the vocal.
We were finished. It was close to 1130 and the band broke for lunch but not before Michael agreed to have a picture taken of him and I. Our Public Affairs Petty Officer (PAPO) was taking photos all day.
The Rock Band and the Show Band Combo
The Rock Band convened at 1300, in their room. The Rock Band is small, basically a rhythm section led by a sax player. They played a rock version of “The Nearness of You” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Afterward Michael made his comments, again coming in close with his chair. He was critical but he said everything in a nice way.
To the group as a whole, “nice rock version of “The Nearness of You. Nice sound alto player.”
To the alto player he said, “I can tell that you are a lot more comfortable playing and soloing in the rock idiom than in the jazz idiom. You need to work more on your jazz playing if you are going to play jazz too.”
To the drummer he said, ” you’re not grooving, do you mind if I sit behind your set and show you what I mean?” Of course the drummer let him. So Michael starts to lay down a groove and asks the rhythm section to join him and to listen to what he is doing.
To the rhythm section in both the Rock Band and Show Band Combo he said, “you guys need to listen to each other. You are all playing like each of you is in your own world and not part of a cohesive group. When you are each in your own world the group doesn’t swing or groove. You guys need to listen to and play off each other.”
The Show Band Combo played a standard and a blues. I do not remember which ones.
- To the Show Band Combo he said the following besides the above statement.
- “You guys need to listen to your bass player (MU2 Carl Jackson) he’s really laying down the feel, time and groove . Guitar player, lay out some, leave some space. Let the piano player fill more. Okay, let’s try it again.” The combo restarts, Michael says, “that was much better, way to go guitar player.”
- To the tenor sax player he said, “I know you are using plastic reeds because you told me so. However if I was you, I’d rethink the use of plastic reeds and go back to cane reeds.”
Michael’s final words to us in the Show Band Room
Unfortunately not everyone was in the room at this time. Present were some of us diehards from the Jazz Ensemble, some of the Rock Band, the Show Band, the LCDR and the Master Chief.
Hear is what Michael said:
To everyone, “first off, you guys are to hard on each other. I’ve heard people making comments about this guy or that guy. Help each other out. If one guy is weak in one area , help him. Maybe he can help you with something else.” He said, “this is music man, not corporate take overs. There is no reason to be hard on each other.”
- He continued “man, guys in New York would kill to have the situation that you have. Look at all your gear, the rooms, the fact that you get paid to play everyday. ( He didn’t mention the medical benefits for us and our families and the pension). Guys in New York are sweating it out from gig to gig.” With those statements he was alluding to some of the unprofessional behavior that some people exhibited during the day. People leaving early and not coming back. One guy saying, “why did they get him, why not Grover?” Actually by this time Grover had already passed away. However I think Michael may have heard that guy make that comment. To me he was an inspiration, however I cannot speak for everyone.
- To sax players in general he said “he liked a little resistance in his setup.”
- To everyone he reiterated, “be prepared before you play.”
- Finally he said, “Keep doing the music and be nice to each other.”
With that I approached him and asked him if he was still interested in seeing the Pad Dope and my reed solution. He said he was so Michael, myself, the LCDR and the Master Chief all went to my office where I had my stuff in my tenor case.
I placed a drop of the Pad Dope on his finger so he could feel it. Then I shook up my reed solution and let him smell it. I had my tenor sax on it’s sax stand. I told him I wasn’t really an alto player. Then the boss chimes in, “no your really a clarinet player.” I said, “no I’m really a tenor sax major who happens to play clarinet too.” Anyway he agreed to listen to me. So I picked up my tenor and started playing “Body and Soul.” I had just finished the “A” section and started to go into the 1st bridge in E minor on the tenor. He stopped me and as G-d as my witness said, “that’s it, thats the sound, you sound great”. Wow what a rush. It showed me that all the hard work I put into playing tenor sax and jazz playing was paying off. He asked me, little old nobody me what my setup was. I showed him my metal FL Otto Link 8with a Selmer Silver Ligature and a Rico # 2.5 reed. He told me, you know what, forget the hype, just use what works for you. He held my Link in his hand and said that he was thinking of going back to a Link. He asked me where he could try some. Well he lives in NYC so I said Roberto’s on West 46th Street. He always has a bunch of Links to try.
Well that was it. In my opinion it was a great day. Yes he said some corrective things to some people but he always said it in a positive way. He was trying to help us out in his own way. The Navy Music Program is very small. At the time we were allowed 806 people Navy wide. People tend to be very critical of each other and move in cliques. The bands should just be one family of music people who are doing a great job presenting the Navy and America in a positive light.
I hope you enjoyed this article and hopefully gained some insight into our day with Michael Brecker. Many of the comments he made to us could apply to any group of musicians, especially college bands. When you get out into the professional music world you need to show up on time, be prepared, have a # 2 pencil with you, keep your mouth shut and play your part really great.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2004. Michael and his group played at Christopher Newport College in Newport News. He played great. I especially liked his take on the ballad “My Ship.” I hung around after the concert to say hello and to give him a disc of photos taken during September, 2003. He remembered me asking how I was etc. I gave him the disc of photos and he signed the photo of him and I taken together in the band room. A few years later we learned that he passed away. What a sad day for everyone, especially for those of us who got to know him some.
Until next time play well and keep your reeds slightly moist. See ya around!