Brecker’s Giant Steps

Mike Brecker wasn’t only recognised as a great player, but as a great writer. He liked to rework (and reharmonise) the standards that he played regularly. He did this in a clever way with Giant Steps, which he was gigging in his own band in the early 2000s. His reworking of Giant Steps is clever in two ways: in the A section, in between the two four-bar phrases that Trane joins kind of abruptly, Brecker slips in another descending-major-thirds sequence (as if Trane’s original idea wasn’t complicated enough!). It makes me think of the weird circular complexity of an Escher sketch, which we know from Brecker tunes and an album cover, he was already curious about.

The other change is in the B section. Here Brecker gives the original two-bar segments different tonal centres. It makes the B section – the most “in” section of the original Giant Steps – sound like the most “out”.

And then there’s his soloing. He makes it all sound so easy! Check it out on YouTube: “Michael Brecker (Giant Steps)”

Sonny Rollins – A Night in Tunisia

Sonny turned 91 this week. Good reason to celebrate him again, and have another close look at his incredible playing. His solo on A Night in Tunisia, and all his solos, from A Night at the Village Vanguard, shows his brilliance in full flight. My transcription of it is below. Enjoy!

Grand & Union

Thanks to all those who’ve wanted to know more about the background to my album Grand & Union.

Here it is … 

There are two influences running through it. One comes out of a project I have been doing for a while now with a NYC colleague, and which we call the Stravinsky Jazz Project. We’ve been touring it around the world, up until the pandemic hit. For this project we each produced a set of original compositions, informed in various ways by the music of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. You see, Igor’s early ballet scores had a huge influence not only on classical music but on western music more generally. Jazz, for example, fell under their spell almost immediately. And certainly by the time of Bird, jazz was taking from Igor in all sorts of ways. 

In the Stravinsky Jazz Project I’ve been especially interested in Igor’s thinking about rhythm. The Rite of Spring uses a radical rhythmic approach; that’s what made this music infamous. It came about because the drama of the ballet—the actual fantasy it enacts on stage—is set in human prehistory. Igor was asked to imagine a sound and a rhythm for a primitive, prehistoric fertility ritual. Letting his imagination run wild, he came up with intense, disjointed, pulses that were heavily planted in a (prehistoric) ground.

But what happens when we take the ballet’s imagined “ground”, and reimagine it as the “street”? What if we hear Igor’s groove as a rhythm of the street, before we had streets! In other words, I wanted to see how Igor’s rhythmical ideas would stand up if they were transplanted from the make-believe, mystico-babble, street scene of the original ballet, to a contemporary street scene — from a fictional rhythm to a real one — to wit, hip hop. And so, the tunes “Grand & Union” and “The Rite Stuff” use a groove coming out of hip hop. I think Igor’s ideas stand up great in this setting.

If you want a bit more background on the Stravinsky Jazz Project, check out . 

The second influence on the album is more personal and autobiographical. This is the tune “Ruby Mei”, which is played both as a duo and a quartet. Why the personal touch? Because Grand & Union is an Andy Sugg Group album, not a Stravinsky Jazz Project album (that will come at a later date).

I recorded Grand & Union in NYC in 2019 with some powerful young New York musicians who I’ve known for a while. The pianist/keyboardist, Brett Williams, has been in Marcus Miller’s band for many years. The drummer, Jonathan Barber, has toured with Pat Metheny and bassist, Alex Claffy, has toured extensively with Kurt Rosenwinkel. So, it’s a wonderful band; the guys got into the zone of the music straight away and dug in deep.And finally, a word about the artwork, which was designed by AlisaTanaka-King, the granddaughter of Inga King. Inga, of course, was one of Australia’s most important sculptors; a child of German Expressionism, Inge was born there two years after The Riteof Spring was first performed. As an artist, Alisa follows in her grandmother’s footsteps. My brief for Alisa was simple: listen to the music and capture visually what it captures in sound: that like the raw grunginess of Igor’s prehistoric “ground”, so too is our “street” a grungy place. Alisa has envisioned the grunginess of Grand & Union perfectly.

Musique live et Disquaire Day

Musique live et Disquaire Day

C’est un moment de confusion pour les musiciens. D’une part, il n’y a jamais eu plus de musique dans nos vies ; de l’autre, la profession est de moins en moins viable. De la sonnerie à la radio, l’ascenseur, la salle d’attente, le supermarché, le bus, l’avion (la liste est sans fin), nos vies sont saturées de musique. Pourtant, les revenus des musiciens sont en chute libre, les clubs sont en difficulté et les ventes de CD sont en diminution.

La ville pourrait  vibrer avec le son de la musique, mais c’est surtout d’une sorte grossièrement fonctionnelle – atmosphérique pour les déplacements, les files d’attente, shopping, etc. Cette bande sonore publique implacable évince l’espace libre une fois réservé pour une expérience différente de faire de la musique: la musique live.

La perte n’est pas ici juste pour musiciens. La musique live est intensément sociale et représente une affirmation de la vie que notre « bande son » publique préfabriquée, ne traduit pas, et nous pourrions tous bénéficier plus de celle-là. Si il ne semble pas que nous l’obtenions pas la numérisation, qui jusque ici a été surtout bonne a influencer notre logique de consommation privée de musique (pensez : iPods, écouteurs, téléchargements), alors nous devons trouver de nouveau moyen d’encourager la diffusion de la musique live. Comment le faire est le défi pour les musiciens et les fans de musique aujourd’hui.

Le défi du musicien fait partie d’un problème plus grave. Terry Eagleton dit que nous devons imaginer de nouvelles formes d’appartenance et que certaines de ces formes auront quelque chose de l’intimité des relations tribales ou communautaires. Parce que la musique live et la culture qui l’entoure sont si bonnes à promouvoir des formes importantes de l’appartenance, la solution au problème du musicien est en même temps une réponse à un esprit d’aujourd’hui en quête de sens.

Et une partie de la culture de la musique live est le petit magasin de disques      indépendant. Les meilleurs de ces magasins rassemblent les gens, offrent des places pour échanger des idées et des contacts, font circuler la littérature « underground », et mettent en valeur la musique et les musiciens. Dans leur calme, modeste façon ils nourrissent une communauté créative et une alternative sociale. Ils sont un asile pour les musiciens indépendants.

Une histoire récente dans un journal européen a observé qu’il n’y avait plus que 27 de ces magasins restant dans le monde ! Par exemple, il y en a seulement un restant en France. C’est Souffle Continu, et j’ai eu le plaisir d’y jouer récemment avec des musiciens australiens et français (voir photo). C’était une super expérience et je remercie Guy-Frank, Théo et Bernard pour leur soutien dans cette réussite.

Alors, la prochaine fois que vous pensez à découvrir de nouvelles musiques ou musiciens, ou si vous voulez des informations sur des lieux ou des événements, passez à votre magasin de disques indépendant. Si vous êtes à Paris, visitez Souffle Continu ( Et faites passer l’information à tout le monde à propos de « Disquaire Day ».

Disquaire Day est de 19 Avril 2014     France –      Australie –

Andy Sugg and George Garzone

George Garzone came onto the jazz scene in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, initially as a sideman – with Woody Herman, George Russell, Gil Evans and others – then as a leading post-Coltrane soloist. This emergence can be seen in a great YouTube video of Garzone doing Impressions with Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Joshua Redman ( and It’s exciting just to see these heavy tenor players up on stage together, not to mention listening closely to what they’re actually playing. And what Garzone and the others play tells us a lot about jazz since the late ‘60s.

Garzone, Brecker and Liebman represent the first generation of post-Coltrane improvisers who carried over Trane’s interest in harmonic colour (in the form of chromaticism) into the aesthetics of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Brecker’s chromatic approach, flavoured by his interest in R&B, has a direct (it’s-smart-but-you-don’t-have-to-analyze-it) emotional hit. Liebman’s emotional punch can be more abstruse because there’s the flavour of late ‘60s Miles making it more abstract (it moves you in a “what-just-happened?” kind of way). Garzone’s chromatic approach is equally hard hitting but in a slightly different way again. He explains it as a kind of play with triads – not polytonality so much, just his own take on pan-diatonic chromaticism. (Then there’s Redman, whose approach represents a break from these three, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

When Garzone gigged with me last week and I called Impressions, I had this YouTube video very much in mind. It was great to hear him up close working his chromaticism hard on this tune once again. Here’s an excerpt. The chord of the A Sections is D minor, but you don’t get any of that in his solo at this point. The thinking and playing is out.

It was also great to hear him playing on my acoustic fusion tunes. Stylistically one step removed from modal standards (the repertoire – tunes like Impressions – that sent Trane off to the outer reaches of the tonal universe), my tunes have a bit more harmonic crunch built into them. Garzone’s soloing on them affirmed that, when it comes to colour, Trane’s direction is still the only game in town.

Check out Garzone here

The Openness of Jazz

One of the great things about jazz is that it’s so open. You can’t just “sit in” with the orchestra when it’s playing Beethoven Five, but in jazz you get to play with different people all the time. It keeps the music fresh and edgy – makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. It’s especially good when you get to hear great players perform your tunes.

This is what the photo above is about. It shows yours truly gigging at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival in Melbourne, Australia in 2010 with Bob Sheppard. Bob is an LA-based sax player and gun improviser, whose output includes work with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker’s Quindectet tours. You can find out more about him from his website

I first met Bob when he toured Australia in the ‘90s as the featured soloist with Mike Stern’s band. When I heard he would be at Wangaratta with Kurt Elling, I asked him to play my set as well.

We played (my) acoustic/fusion originals – no standards. It was a good example of jazz’s openness; no rehearsing or talk about the music for the guy sitting in, just perform the tunes cold and solo straight up.

This audio is of Bob doing exactly that on a tune of mine called Silhouette. It’s a ballad with a loose tango feel and some unusual harmonic movement, then a kind of heavy cadence that you might hear in a pop tune.

Bob solos first and gets inside the tune straight away. Like all great improvisers, his soloing speaks to the head and the heart. In this excerpt you hear that in the lyrical economy of his approach to the tune’s quirkiness and with the emotional force that he plays that final cadence.

My solo follows and it’s interesting to compare the two. I’m hearing more happening over the changes, so my solo is busier. But getting inside the changes like that means that maybe the ideas don’t carry as much weight – more head than heart. I heard more clarity in Bob’s solo and liked the balance it struck. I’m going to explore that balance more in the way I play this tune.

It was great to hear Bob up close again – to play with him and hear him doing his thing on my tunes.

Long live the openness of jazz!

International Jazz Day

Today (1 May 2012) is International Jazz Day. The first ever! And Herbie Hancock, UNESCO’s new goodwill ambassador, has been spruking the day in the world’s media. UNESCO’s decision marks yet another incredible milestone in the ever expanding reach of this most improbable art-form.
It’s interesting too for what it might have to say about a touchy subject that’s weighed heavily on jazz for over two decades. It’s the debate about what jazz really is.
On one side, articulated beautifully today by Herbie, jazz is now a truly global phenomenon. In one interview he observes that it is “in a sense, a loss for America because finally UNESCO is proclaiming that jazz is not just American but it’s international.”
The other side, often championed by Wynton Marsalis, argues that jazz has always been and will always remain an African-American music. Many sub-styles have been derived from it, and this music might have been good, but it hasn’t been “jazz”. Marsalis wants jazz’s origins honoured for all time, as an achievement that Americans (and especially a dispossessed African–American poor) can take pride in, be inspired by, learn from and celebrate.
While every person of good will would want this too, the casting of a rebel music in iron runs the risk of marginalising the very foundation narrative the centrality of which Marsalis wants preserved. The problem is that today this narrative simply isn’t the key driver of jazz; a music that continues to explode unpredictably on the world stage in ways that can only partially be explained by its New Orleans origins.
Maybe the best way to honour jazz’s unique past is to revel in every reemergence of its incredible creative power, as if now permanently at play in the present. That’s what Herbie Hancock and UNESCO are doing today.
Happy International Jazz Day!

New Site

Welcome to my new site!

The story of jazz, improvisation and contemporary music in general has always
been incredibly fascinating to follow and to be a part of – and never more so
than now, when things feel like they’re changing so fast, the ground seems to be
shifting from under our feet.

What this all means for where jazz is at right now, where improvisation might be
heading and what trends in popular music will matter are going to be recurring
themes in this blog.

I hope you find it all as interesting as I do and hope that you get involved in the