Michael Brecker’s ‘Itsbynne Reel’ – The Chromatic Stuff

We’re all Michael Brecker fans here, aren’t we? I mean, what’s not to like? The man was regarded as one of the greatest saxophonists of his generation, and has a back catalogue of albums, both as leader and sideman, that is largely unchallenged both in its diversity and musical accomplishments. Whether we knew it or not, we’ve all heard his playing – through his sessions with mainstreamers like Paul Simon, Christopher Cross, James Taylor, Billy Joel or Dire Straits, or through his jazz collaborations with brother Randy, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Steps Ahead etc etc. But his solo albums are fantastic as well, particularly the early ones: the self-titled debut Michael Brecker (1987), Now You See It, Now You Don’t (1990) and the album where Itsbynne Reel found its home: his second album Don’t Try This At Home (1988) on Impulse Records.

I’ve always liked this track, in particular the moments when Brecker plays ‘outside’ the usual implied notes of a chord. There are two such sections in the first minute and a half of the piece, and it’s these two passages that I’d like to look at.

Firstly, let’s have a look at the score of the first 40 bars of the track (transcribed by Wayne Ledbetter):

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 14.46.47.png

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 14.46.55.pngNow, bear in mind that this is the Tenor horn part written in Bb, so although it looks like we are firmly in A (mixolydian) the recording is in G. However, for convenience sake, I’ll talk about the music as if it were in A, as this makes it easier. Though I hope you don’t have perfect pitch as this will mess with your mind some…

Below is the track on YT:

At 1:13 on YouTube, or bar.19 of the transcription, we encounter our first instance of Brecker taking the reel ‘outside’:

Chrom 1chrom-1

This brief sojourn into chromaticism, prepares us for the longer 4 bar phrase that is about to come. But what does Brecker do here?

Well, following his brief A mixo 4 semiquaver pickup that skirts around F, he lands on F in br.19 then proceeds to loosely outline 3 beats of Bb/F quartal before taking off on a sequential 3rds and 2nds chromatic move up to Db/C# and ending on a A7 blues phrase with b5 and b3.

The Bb is there because our coursework from ‘Outside Jazz 101’ tells us to play a semitone up, then bring it back to the tonic before carrying on (Bb being a semitone up from A). The chromatic line then builds up to the C# (the 3rd of A) and he lets off a very bluesy lick in A that signals the return to the the tonic area.

This is a wonderfully lyrical example of Brecker’s artistry.

I should note here that Brecker is on his EWI throughout the track, though he does overdub some Tenor from halfway through. The EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) is/was a MIDI instrument capable of triggering synth modules and thus enabling the player to play a huge variety of sounds.

The second ‘outside’ passage occurs at br. 34 of the score (or 1:40 on YouTube):



A beautiful moment, so let’s have a look at it:

Again Brecker sets up the passage by first heading for the Fby way of E and F# and then plays a very strong downward quartal line F – C – G, repeating his semitone turn (this time on B – A – Bb) before heading off on a Db quartal run.


So, if we look at this globally, we see Brecker moving from A to F to Db – all maj 3rds apart which makes me think ‘augmented patterning’. Whatever… but I get this strong A to F quartal feel and F to Db quartal feel which I like very much.

The second bar above sees Brecker outlining quartal C-F and Bb-Eb before rounding off on an ouside Bb line (remember – Bb is our ‘go to’ outside area) and hitting the C# to bring us back to A.

He then repeats this whole idea – but this time a bit more of A at the start before he goes to F quartal – Db quartal and rounding things off firmly in the tonic area at the end of the phrase.

And all at a blistering 130 bpm.

A very special track on an album I highly recommend.



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