After four long days of tracking sessions with a taut jazz quartet along with pop-ins from a few marquee musician friends, everyone cleared out of Brian Bromberg’s home studio nestled in the valley over the hill from the Los Angeles basin. The Grammy-nominated bassist popped the cork of a fine adult beverage, grabbed his 300-year-old acoustic bass and sat down next to tenor saxophonist Mike MacArthur. With the studio lights dimmed, they began to play Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” The somber sax and bass duet is stark, visceral, and deeply affecting. It was the final cut recorded for MacArthur’s “Feel Like Home” album produced by Bromberg.
“Brian (Bromberg) was very inspirational and motivational to me throughout the recording process. He was kind of a father figure for this album and it all started with him. This track is intimate and after all the other musicians left, I wanted to be alone with Brian in the studio and just play,” MacArthur shared. “In fact, I have looked up to Brian for years thus I got quite a charge out of the fact that I was playing a duet with him for my album. It was almost surreal.”
The track turned out to be one of the highlights of the album, MacArthur’s fifth solo collection, but first disc focused and purposed for mass consumption. The seed of the project was planted four years ago at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday when Bromberg asked “When are we going to make a record for you?” The time arrived in April 2012 when MacArthur packed a suitcase and his horn, hopped a jet from Tampa to LAX, and camped out at Bromberg’s home. The quartet was completed by a couple of friends from Tampa: pianist-B3 organist Ron Reinhardt and drummer Frank “Third” Richardson.
The sessions were filled with jazz, friendship, food, wine and fun. Stopping by to play their parts were pioneering fusion keyboardist Jeff Lorber and noted percussionist Alex Acuna. Friends Rick Braun (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Jeff Golub (guitarist) were also invited to participate. MacArthur said, “The whole album is simply friends making music because they want to. These guys are friends and family who I’ve worked with over the years and it felt like home hanging out playing what we wanted to play. Working with musicians of this caliber makes you a better player. It was a fun and enjoyable hang.”
MacArthur penned three originals – the title track, “Around The Corner,” and “Sydney Style” – and selected most of the classic jazz tunes to cover before trekking west. “We picked tunes that fit the vibe of the record. I didn’t want an overproduced electronic album. I wanted to make a marketable record, but it had to be real players making real music on real acoustic instruments. It had to be a fun record doing anything we wanted to do as long as it’s organic and real. I wanted to play it like I heard it.”
Regarded as a master bassist, Bromberg is respected on both sides of the jazz fence having released successful recordings in the straight-ahead and contemporary jazz realms. His forte is using state-of-the-art technology to record live-sounding albums, thus perfectly aligned with MacArthur’s vision. With Bromberg helming the production and exclusively playing upright bass on the album, the tracks swing soulfully seared with deep fried funk while maintaining their footing on the tightrope tethering contemporary and straight-ahead jazz. And it sounds live.
“I felt completely relaxed and safe knowing Brian was at the wheel. The trust factor was huge. He put his heart and soul into it (the album) and he captured my unique sax sound,” said MacArthur.
On “Feels Like Home,” MacArthur’s sound and style exhibit power and passion, gentility and finesse deployed with dexterous athleticism. Opening the set with Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty,” MacArthur demonstrates that he’s a team player on the number that strikes with a swinging groove from the start. Lorber’s ferocious piano, Braun’s fiery trumpet and Bromberg’s walking bass are given equal billing with MacArthur’s sax. “I’m a humble player simply trying to convey the tune. It’s got to be about the entire band and with players like this, let’s use everybody for what they’re worth. Let them all breathe. I’d like to be respected as a good player who gives each player their time to blow - the freedom to fly. What people seem to relate to most of all is the whole band coming together, which is where the magic is. People can feel that,” said the saxman.
The tension builds before erupting into a joyous celebration sparked by Bromberg’s swinging bass on Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland.” “It’s tricky messing with this Weather Report classic so we played it safe before letting loose. It’s got that shuffle vibe and we really let it swing,” MacArthur stated.
An original tune that Bromberg found for MacArthur that was written a decade ago by Alec Millstein yet never recorded, “Sanctified” is both sultry and soulful possessing crossover gospel elements thanks to the churchlike vocal runs belted out by Alva Copeland. MacArthur said of the first radio single, “’Sanctified’ is kind of the mack daddy track on the album because everyone is on it. It was the most labor-intensive tune to record. We called the troops and got everyone possible on this album to make it the big song on the album and to push it to radio. It came across with a feeling of earthiness, and it’s really organic and real, and something that I hope the whole album portrays: that it’s just real people making real music because we love playing. That’s what the whole thing (album) is about.”
A marked contrast after all the swinging soul, “Feels Like Home” is a heartfelt ballad with a gorgeous melody gracefully emoted from MacArthur’s tenor sax. MacArthur wrote the boisterous blues joint “Around The Corner” specifically with Golub’s gritty guitar chops in mind. An iconic Miles Davis tune that MacArthur has been playing live as set closer, “Jean Pierre” again gives the members of the talented ensemble a chance to let loose on the free form funk-jazz cut that possesses an edgy, “get down groove.”
Written on piano in his daughter Sydney’s playroom while the then 5-year-old was gleefully dancing around the room, MacArthur refers to the frenetic “Sydney Style” as the “up tune on the album. The groove came first, then the melody and it comes at you from the beginning. It is hip hop with a funk feel and swings with a backbeat.”
MacArthur elected to record Sonny Rollins’ “Blue Seven” “because I had the players. It was chosen in the studio over dinner and wine mostly for the melody. Rollins is another icon and this tune pays homage to the people I love to listen to and play.” Edgy and disjointed beats coalesce with guitarist Gannin Arnold’s funk riffs, which spike the simmering brew before Bromberg’s bass pummels the sweaty groove.
Concluding the record with a rousing romp, MacArthur played “Mo Better Blues” in his high school big band and selected it for the album because the song “has been part of me going back to my roots and it feels like home. We put our own little twist on it and had fun with it. Rick’s (Braun) trumpet packs a punch. Throughout the entire album, Brian’s bottom end bass playing was the glue. Combined with Third’s (Richardson) drums – well, it was kind of magic.”
MacArthur grew up in Rochester, NY and played alto sax through college. “I switched to tenor (sax) in order to make a living and it became my voice.” Shortly after attending Florida State University and the Manhattan School of Music, MacArthur booked his first professional gig in 1998: playing in and touring the U.S., Asia and Europe in Maynard Ferguson’s big band. During the two years he spent on the road with Ferguson, MacArthur was tapped to play concert dates on the heels of the release of an album of duets by the trumpeter and Grammy winner Diane Schuur. The vocalist subsequently invited him to play her Florida shows, which led to a full-time gig in her band.
MacArthur played spot dates as a sideman with headliners including Braun, Bromberg, Golub, Peter White, Craig Chaquico, Chieli Minucci, Jeff Kashiwa, Rick Derringer and Roger Waters, and was recruited to play in Frankie Valli’s horn section. When his schedule permits, he returns to Fairport High School in Rochester to mentor young sax players and big band musicians. “Those clinics made quite an impression on me when I was in high school so I know how much it means when professionals take time to offer encouragement, instruction and guidance to players in their formative years,” explained MacArthur.
After the Ferguson and Schuur gigs, MacArthur assembled his own 5-piece jazz band and kept the outfit working for years playing dates in the Tampa area. To have product to sell at shows, he began recording albums consisting of smooth jazz covers sprinkled with some of his original compositions. The first, “Paradise Point,” was released in 2000 followed by “Deal Me In” (2002) and “That’s What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout” (2006). His 2009 release, “Live ‘N Kickin’,” was recorded with Tower of Power keyboardist Roger Smith live in front of 30-40 invited family members and friends.
“These recordings, which were never marketed, promoted to radio or released beyond the merch table at my local shows, provided valuable experience and enabled me to learn the process of recording, playing and producing in the studio as a frontman. Before that, the root of my professional experience and education had come from touring and sideman recording dates.”
MacArthur is anxious to support “Feels Like Home” with live shows backed by his own band and he’s already booked several, including an opening slot for superstar Queen Latifah. And he’s begun to contemplate his next album. “It might be a horn section project. I’d like to really focus more on songwriting to show what I can do as a player. I want to show that I’m an entertainer and continue to surround myself with real players. In a live setting, the music is funkier, grittier and looser.”
A dedicated father and husband, MacArthur puts family first, which inspires him to become a better musician. “That’s number one: being a father, being a husband. But that also fuels the fire to become a better player, to be more successful, to make the music more real…just to have a lot of heart and soul in whatever you do. And I think my family gives me that grounding - the motivation that I need to go forward and push, and push and push to be the best player that I can be.”
At 30,000 feet on the flight back to Tampa, MacArthur gazed out at the horizon below reflecting upon the experience of creating “Feels Like Home” at Bromberg’s home hanging out with a gifted group of friends. “It felt like the beginning of a lot of things to come - like I’ve finally moved away from the kids’ table with my own (musical) offering. It confirms that I can stand alone as a frontman. I think the album is a good representation of me, my craft, and where I’m at right now,” MacArthur concluded.
If home is where the heart is, MacArthur’s home and heart are filled with jazz and friends.