By the 1990s, smooth jazz had become such a commercial powerhouse that some established jazz artists were tripping over themselves to get in on the action. It had its own format on the radio, and records were selling briskly. Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington, Jr., George Howard, Gerald Albright, Jeff Lorber, and countless others were knocking out near platinum discs almost without trying. As a band, the Brecker Brothers were part of the initial contemporary jazz flowering in the late '70s and early '80s, with their seamless, driving mélange of jazz, funk, pop, soul, and fusion. Saxophonist Michael and trumpeter Randy had issued a slew of records between 1975 and 1982 as the Brecker Brothers, but studio and touring commitments with other units and individuals kept them from recording as a band again for 12 years. Return of the Brecker Brothers was released in 1992 on Dave Grusin's GRP imprint. Michael on saxophones and the Akai EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) and Randy on trumpet and flügelhorn were supported by a rhythm section that included drummer Dennis Chambers, George Whitty on keyboards, and bassist James Genus. The set's guests include guitarists Dean Brown and Michael Stern, percussionist Don Alias, saxophonist David Sanborn, and bassist Will Lee. This star-studded affair delivers an excellent jazz-funk record that has far more teeth than other smooth jazz efforts of the period.
While some of the big, programmed beats soon sounded a bit dated, Chambers' drums and tough horn work more than compensate, and the quality of these compositions -- written by the Breckers either singly or together -- is almost timeless. These guys understood the value of employing a catchy melody as a jumping-off point for improvisational excursions. Check "Song for Barry," the opener, where Armand Sabal-Lecco's piccolo bass begins a pattern to be further unfolded by Michael's EWI and then layered with a polyrhythmic entrance by the rest of the band, before he takes off with Whitty on a Caribbean-touched melody that resembles the work Weather Report were doing in the mid-'70s. The production is clean, and each instrument has its own voice in this meld. The solos are tough, big, and quite tasty. By contrast, the big drum funk in "King of the Lobby," with its samples, clashing synth programs, and three-horn front line (with Sanborn) teamed with a pair of electric guitars, delivers a groove so infectious that it's almost impossible to resist. The sheer imagination on this set reflects the Breckers' immersion in all schools of popular music, but they retain their identity as jazz musicians. The rhythmic palette on this disc is rich, varied, and inventive. Rather than simply blow melodic solos over fixed rhythms, these cats get into the knottiness they established a reputation for -- Randy's adventurous hard bop voicings and phraseology are especially attractive, even though Michael was at one of his creative peaks in 1992. Other standouts include "On the Backside," with its roiling piano groove; the labyrinthine "Spherical"; and the elaborate fusion tune "Above and Below." This set marked a fitting return for the Breckers, who never let the fashionable tenets of the smooth jazz '90s totally appropriate their creativity or their sound.