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Randy Brecker

Otto Gardner

Dave Calarco

Randy Brecker, Otto Gardner

Randy Brecker

Jon Werking

Photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk

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The Van Dyck
Schenectady, NY
February 6, 2010

by J Hunter

I had just stepped into the Van Dyck Lounge’s club area, and was getting directions to my table when Rosemary Latagano walked up and told the manager, “He has a seat down front.” Hey, who was I to argue? All together now: “It’s not what you know – it’s who you know.” Now, the table Van Dyck management had reserved for me was perfectly cool; it had a clear shot at the stage, and the waitresses didn’t have to worry about blocking the view of the entire audience. That being said, a choice between “a clear shot at the stage” and “three feet from the bell on Randy Brecker’s flugelhorn” is no choice at all.

Brecker was playing the back end of a two-set night at the Van Dyck, which has been booking some pretty sweet talent into their re-vamped performance space: The Julian Lage Group’s transcendent gig was my last show of 2009; blues diva Rory Block played acoustic there last month; and unless someone parachutes in over the next week or so, Steve Smith’s Vital Legacy (featuring members of Smith’s fusion group Vital Information and his trad outfit Jazz Legacy) will be the next show I cover. Even if all those shows hadn’t happened or wouldn’t happen, seeing a legend like Brecker in a small club like the Van Dyck was enough to make my year.

The whole band was in black – right down to Brecker’s Kangol cap (worn forwards) and drummer Dave Calarco’s beret – when they stepped onstage. Brecker’s wardrobe sharply contrasted his short white beard, but he quickly showed us his chops haven’t aged at all as he counted the quartet into “There’s a Mingus a-Monk Us.” The piece swung irresistibly as it mixed compositional elements of the two jazz greats referenced in the title, and Brecker was simply blowing the place up as he tore off note after note. I first heard Brecker in Blood, Sweat & Tears way too many years ago, and if there’s a difference in how he played then and how high, hot, and tight he was on this night, it’s small enough to be considered invisible.

Brecker was clearly digging the scene, and he told us so. “I’m really happy this club opened up again… It’s just a stone’s throw away on the train!” (There’s a marketing slogan for you: “The Van Dyck Lounge: Cool and convenient!”) Brecker’s upbeat mood was reflected in the entire set, which jumped even on “The Marble Sea”, a sumptuous bossa Brecker wrote over forty years ago on a beach in Beirut; his flueglehorn brought a sense of romance to the piece without taking away its edge. Brecker wrote the grooving “Shanghai” in the city of the same name, and he laughed when he told us about the Russian musicians who that he pronounced the title “Shang-HIGH!” Brecker and pianist Jon Werking gave “All the Things You Are” a “Night in Tunisia” vibe, and the bebopping “Dirty Dogs” let Brecker reference the long-gone JazzTimes Super Band.

Somewhere in my notebook it says, “Otto – Just like Always.” That pretty much sums it up, because no matter who Otto Gardner plays with, you’re going to get deep, fat, sonorous bass lines and an unerring sense of lyricism. His solos on “Mingus” and “All the Things” were top-notch, and he swung a mean counter to Werking’s bubbling solo on “Marble.” Werking was hitting it like a hammer all night long, serving up percussive lines that matched Brecker’s energy. And speaking of hitting it, Calarco was absolutely devastating, bringing the noise on his counters and solos, and then bringing it down with brushes and rims. This may have been a pick-up band, but they caught everything that came their way and threw it back like it was on fire.

“Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” was the “official” encore” (“Since I’m too old to walk all the way there and all the way back…”), but the crowd kept howling and clapping, so he took that long walk back to the stage and finished us off with “an as-yet untitled slowwwwwww blues to take everybody home.” If there’s a better instrument than tenor sax for the blues, the flugelhorn must be it. Its singular tone says, “I got the blues so bad, they’re RED!” Nobody had the blues when Randy Brecker was done – and thanks to Mike, Rosemary, and Mabel, I got to watch from three feet away.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.