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Concert Review: “The Nearness of You” at Jazz at Lincoln Center

An all-star ensemble and special guests pay tribute to Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker (photo: Michael Piazza)
Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, Dianne Reeves and James Taylor at the Michael Brecker tribute concert, JALC, NYC, 1-15
James Taylor at the Michael Brecker tribute concert, JALC, NYC, 1-15
John Patitucci at the Michael Brecker tribute concert, JALC, NYC, 1-15
Paul Simon at the Michael Brecker tribute concert, JALC, NYC, 1-15
Randy Brecker at the Michael Brecker tribute concert, JALC, NYC, 1-15

Musicians outside of the jazz universe used to really like saxophone solos. Think Wayne Shorter’s rallying cry from Steely Dan’s “Aja,” or King Curtis’ urgent soul poetry midway through “Respect.” Tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who died in 2007 from leukemia and worked with jazz immortals like Horace Silver and Elvin Jones, produced improvisations like these for Paul Simon and James Taylor, and both of those classic-rockers appeared at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert on Jan. 20 that both celebrated Brecker and raised money for the fight against cancer. Also boasting the vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Dianne Reeves, “The Nearness of You” was beautiful and unexpected, much like the sax speeches that used to pop up in pop songs.

The high point of the evening arrived near the middle, with Taylor’s two-song set. Wearing a golf hat and sitting on a stool, the singer-songwriter first crooned “The Nearness of You,” which, as he noted onstage, he had recorded with Brecker. (The track is featured on the saxophonist’s 2001 LP, Nearness of You: The Ballad Book.) Taylor sang the standard with a charming, humble grace. Next came the singer’s own “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” the studio version of which includes a solo from Brecker. With Taylor adding acoustic guitar on this one, the reading was emotional and gorgeous. Brecker’s trumpeter brother and Brecker Brothers accomplice Randy improvised instead. Like McFerrin and Simon, Taylor was backed by Michael Brecker’s Quindectet, an almost laughably impressive band led by Gil Goldstein and featuring six horns, four string players and a rhythm section centered around Adam Rogers on guitar, John Patitucci on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. The band was perhaps a bit loose for Taylor and Simon-too jazz, maybe, or too good-but it did a fine job during its time in pop territory.

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