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Michael Brecker: Nearness of You: The Ballad Book

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Tenor titan Michael Brecker follows up his 1999 scorcher, Time Is of the Essence, with the smoldering Nearness of You, his first all-ballad project. Brecker’s burly tone and technical prowess have made him an exhilarating saxophonist on blistering postbop and funk tunes, but even when he pares down his dazzling improvisations Brecker still proves to be an enchanting performer.

For this project, Brecker rallied together a team of longtime companions: guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Charlie Haden. On songs like Joe Zawinul’s wistful “Midnight Mood” and Brecker’s own “Incandescence” it’s evident that these musicians have played together many times in various configurations. DeJohnette’s stardust brush strokes, Haden’s ghostly bass counterpoint and Hancock’s eloquent, impressionistic accompaniment cushion Brecker’s torchy tenor as he croons “Incadescence”‘s melody with just a hint of hesitation, which gives the song its seductive suspense. Brecker’s tentativeness on ballads oftentimes creates striking effects as on Hancock’s “Chan’s Song,” which moves at such a stately pace it almost threatens to fall apart. But the ultraslow tempo allows you to focus on Brecker’s beautiful tone and emotional persuasiveness when he zeroes in on the melody.

Brecker shows his love for pop by enlisting veteran singer-songwriter James Taylor on a couple of tunes. Taylor’s plaintive, slightly nasal voice glows on his bittersweet ballad “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and Brecker delivers some gorgeous, contoured asides. There are times, however, that Brecker’s pop sensibility works to the CD’s disadvantage, as on Flavio Venturini’s pastoral “Nascente”: Brecker’s tone is a bit too whispery at the beginning, and he is followed by Metheny’s synth-guitar solo, which reeks of smooth jazz.

Overall, though, Nearness of You holds together well as an hour-long romantic fire.