Heads Up – HUCD 3095

The music world suffered a very big loss in January, 2007 with the passing of Michael Brecker. Simply put, Brecker was one of the most important musicians to come onto the jazz scene in at least the last fifty years. His singular, innovative style on the saxophone has had a tremendous influence upon thousands of musicians the world over.

For readers that might not be familiar with Michael Brecker, the following biographical information should help to get you acquainted with this great musician.

Brecker was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1949, into a family that embraced the arts. His father was a lawyer and jazz pianist, mother an artist, brother (Randy) plays trumpet and his sister is a concert pianist. Michael began his life in music on the clarinet then alto saxophone. The discovery of the music of John Coltrane caused Brecker to switch to the tenor saxophone. After graduating from high school, Brecker attended the University of Indiana before moving to New York City. In 1970, Brecker co-founded the innovative fusion group Dreams, which included his brother Randy, Barry Rogers, Steve Kahn, John Abercrombie and Billy Cobham. Following the breakup of Dreams, the 2 brothers became the frontline for the Horace Silver Quintet, which lead to the formation of their own highly successful fusion-jazz group, The Brecker Brothers.

During the 70’s and 80’s, Brecker performed and recorded with virtually every major jazz and pop artist in existence including, Eric Clapton, Chick Corea, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, George Benson, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, McCoy Tyner, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Metheny, Frank Zappa, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus and Mel Lewis among many, many others. In 1979 Brecker became a founding member of one of the most forward looking jazz/fusion bands ever, Steps (later renamed – Steps Ahead) with Mike Mainieri, Eddie Gomez, and Steve Gadd (eventually replaced by Peter Erskine).

Brecker recorded his first solo album in 1987, simply titled Michael Brecker, which was voted “Jazz Album of the Year” in both Downbeat and Jazziz magazines. His next recording, Don’t Try This at Home, brought Brecker his first Grammy. Subsequent recordings by Brecker include, Now You See It…Now You Don’t, Tales From the Hudson, Two Blocks from the Edge, Time is of the Essence, Nearness of You: The Ballad Book, and Wide Angles (Saxophone Journal, Nov/Dec 2003) which featured his Quindectet.

In addition to these recordings, Brecker was a featured soloist on many other albums and CDs, starting with The Brecker Brothers, Back to Back, Don’t Stop the Music, Heavy Metal Be-Bop and Détente. Additional major recordings include Cityscape with Claus Ogerman, Three Quartets by Chick Corea, American Dream by Charlie Haden (SJ, Mar/Apr 2003), The New Standard by Herbie Hancock and Directions in Music/Live at Massey Hall (SJ, Jan/Feb 2003), a collaborative recording featuring the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, with Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

When you look at this partial list of musicians with whom Brecker worked, examine the variation of styles and genres, it is hard to believe that any one person could really make a meaningful contribution to each musical assignment; yet Brecker did. Whether playing a rock n’ roll solo on a Bruce Springsteen CD, a straight-a-head burning solo with McCoy Tyner, or a brief solo on a Paul Simon recording, it was always exactly right, just what was necessary at that moment. Is it that quality, the ability to hone in on the ‘right thing,’ that caused the world to sit up and take notice? Was it his unbelievable chops, the blinding speed with which he played his lines that got everyone’s attention? Was it his personal sound, which could be identified in half-a-note? Was it his capacity to manipulate harmony, whether playing through the changes of a given piece, substituting changes or super-imposing changes over static harmony, that made people bow towards “Michael?” I think all those aspects of Brecker’s playing have helped elevate him to icon status, but the one thing that truly sets him apart from others was the passion in his playing. Brecker never played a note that was not soaked in passion. Non-musicians probably could not connect with his technique, advanced harmonic or melodic knowledge, but they could and did connect with the intensive delivery of his musical thoughts.

There have always been musicians who were able to communicate on a very deep level in a heart-felt, emotional way, with only a fraction of the technical and harmonic acumen of a Michael Brecker. People like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Billie Holiday were and are held in the highest regard for their personal musical voice, a reflection of their heart and soul. Even though Brecker was an absolute virtuoso saxophonist, could play anything at the speed of light etc., I think his real genius is manifested in the fact that he was totally committed to whatever he played, and that commitment was transferred to the listener in the form of passion.

Listen to the title track on Cityscape with Clause Ogerman; Brecker’s clear, unadorned statement of the theme is beautiful, heartfelt. He never plays anything faster than a quarter note for a full four-and-a-half minutes, yet you are hooked immediately. On My One and Only Love, from his first solo album, Brecker plays an amazing tour-de-force chorus/cadenza and yet it is his fervor that grabs you. Brecker’s performance of Naima, on Directions in Music, is an absolute masterpiece on every level. For more than seven minutes, the saxophonist plays this Coltrane anthem unaccompanied and dazzles in every possible way, yet, it all comes from the heart. Finally, if you have never heard In a Sentimental Mood, from the Steps Ahead Magnetic album, you are missing one of the great recordings of that wonderful Ellington opus. Here Brecker plays the piece on EWI. Now I’ll probably take some heat for this, but I barely consider the EWI to be a musical instrument. In the hands of Michael Brecker it became an entire symphony orchestra. Suffice it to say, Brecker’s performance is a technical and musical masterpiece. How he was able to extract warmth and tenderness from this inert object, is a total mystery.

In August 2004, during a performance at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, Brecker began to experience a great deal of back pain. An initial diagnosis revealed a cracked vertebra, a subsequent diagnosis identified the cause to be the bone marrow disorder known as myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). An extensive search began for a matching bone marrow donor, in which tens of thousands of potential donors registered at Brecker-sponsored donor drives throughout the world. At about the same time, Brecker began treatment in an experimental blood stem cell transplant. While in the midst of the two-and-a-year battle with this disease (and eventually leukemia) he began work on what would be his final project, Pilgrimage. According to Brecker’s longtime friend and manager, Darryl Pitt, “The recording almost didn’t happen. There was only the briefest of intervals in which this recording was possible. We didn’t know until the first day of rehearsal whether Mike would feel up to the task that lay before him – and we never knew what tomorrow would bring. Shortly following the sessions, Mike again became quite ill.”

Pilgrimage was recorded only 5 months before his death, and by this time Brecker was very ill from the disease that dogged him, as well as from the effects of the measures taken to try and save his life. Yet, Brecker’s playing is at the highest level for which he has been identified for nearly forty years. The music consists solely of originals by Brecker, a first for the tenor saxophonist.

The group assembled for this CD is quite amazing, starting with the leader on tenor saxophone and EWI, Pat Metheny – guitars, Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau share piano duties, John Patitucci – bass and Jack DeJohnette – drums.

The CD opens with The Mean Time, a straight eighth tune with the jagged melody played by unison tenor and guitar. Brecker is up for the first solo which moves back and forth between swing and straight eighths. The tenor sound is as strong and forthright as ever, and Brecker’s chops and energy level are off the charts, as you might expect. Long-time musical partner, Pat Metheny is in for the next solo, picking up the leader’s line as he goes. At the memorial tribute for Brecker held in New York, Metheny said one of the most difficult things he ever had to do in his career was to solo after Brecker: Amen. Hancock is up next in the solo spotlight for a brief but wonderful energy-filled excursion. Besides being a great soloist, Hancock is one of the greatest accompanists anywhere. Here, his comping is reminiscent of the work he did with Miles Davis, always complimenting the soloist while encouraging for more at the same time. Five Months from Midnight, a mellow, straight-eighth, Latin groover follows, featuring that characteristic high register cry/wail for which Brecker is so well known. Mehldau plays a wonderful solo chorus after the statement of the melody on this one.

The promotional material sent by the record company states, “Those present in the studio recall moments when the rigors of recording were so physically taxing – nearly to the point of collapse – for the leader whose health was compromised.” I’m sure the reference made is in connection with the recording of Anagram and Tumbleweed, for the energy level of both pieces, especially as concerns Brecker’s performance, is not to be believed. In fact, after I listened to these 2 tracks for the first time, I had to lie down for a half hour. Brecker’s solo on Anagram goes for what amounts to about 3 choruses in this multi-layered piece, and if you rate the energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, he starts at about 5 and ends at approximately 17! Brecker pulls out all the stops, overtones, long, fast cascading runs into the altissimo, primal screams et al. Metheny and Mehldau follow the leader for excellent solos, as does the great Jack DeJohnette over the ostinato bass line and counter line played by tenor and guitar.

Tumbleweed has a Middle Eastern quality to it, including an odd meter bridge, all pulled together by a constant rhythmic undercurrent supplied by DeJohnette. After the statement of the mesmerizing melody and an exciting, high energy synthesized guitar solo by Metheny, Brecker once again defies gravity, and any other laws that you can think of. He begins with some of those great intervallic lines of his and then puts the pedal to the metal: truly a performance that won’t easily be forgotten. This time Mehldau has the unenviable task of following Brecker down the yellow-brick road, which he does in fine style playing a mostly chord oriented solo, over the mix-master provided by DeJohnette and Patitucci. But wait, they’re not finished, the entire band engages in an improvised vamp that could only be powered by the Hoover Dam. I’m sure they ended the piece in an exhausted heap on the floor of the studio.

For this recording, Brecker penned 2 ballads, the first, When Can I Kiss You Again?, refers to a question posed by his teenage son, Sam, when physical contact was prohibited during a hospital stay. The piece is filled with yearning, pathos and love, again a wonderful performance. The second ballad, Half Moon Lane, has a Latin double-time groove under the intriguing melody, played in a two line counterpoint by tenor and guitar. Brecker’s solo, which eventually gives way to double time, is a study in pacing and form with each musical episode building on one another to the final climax.

Brecker’s tunes generally don’t fall into traditional song forms as we know them, i.e., AABA, or ABACAD etc. Cardinal Rule is a medium-up tempo, straight-eighth tune written in 3 sections, with tenor and guitar in unison playing against a counter line in the bass and piano. To the listener the tune seems to flow as naturally as a stream in the rolling hills; it is anything but. After the eight bar piano intro, the sections are twenty bars repeated, ten bars repeated and eleven bars repeated. Patitucci is heard for an excellent, albeit too brief solo followed by Brecker and Mehldau trading odd groups of bars in diminishing numbers until the final recap of the melody. It’s funny; they make it sound so easy, like falling of a log. Most people would find themselves pinned under the log.

Loose Threads was originally written for the Directions in Music project with Hancock and Hargrove but recorded here for the first time. The straight-eighth groove tune is held together by Hancock, Patitucci and DeJohnette while Brecker engages in some of the most intense blowing of the date. Apparently Brecker was unhappy with one particular run, and groans at 5:07 of the recording. Brecker lived in a world of perfection that few others inhabit, most of the rest of the world would be proud to pull that line off. Hancock plays an equally great, take no prisoners solo before the conclusion of the track.

The title tune closes the CD, and ironically, is the last piece of music ever recorded by this great musician. After the rubato opening, in which Brecker and the rhythm section engage in some collective free association, a straight-eighth groove is established. Brecker and Metheny play the melody in two part counterpoint and suddenly you think you are back in the 1970’s as Hancock solos on the Fender Rhodes. Brecker takes a brief solo on EWI, before coming back in on tenor for the collective free, tag ending.

I’m sure that in the next few years there will be many Michael Brecker reissues, lost recordings, never before released blah, blah, blah, but Brecker knew that this CD was to be his last, and you don’t want to miss it.

Despite being aware that the likelihood of finding a matching bone marrow (or blood stem cell) donor – his only hope for survival – was almost non-existent in his case, Brecker decided to go public when he realized the potential benefit to others in a similar predicament. More than fifteen lives have been saved to date as a result of testing at “Brecker” sponsored events. The fight goes on. The Brecker family has set up a foundation to help fund the testing of bone marrow and stem cell donors. Contributors to The Marrow Foundation’s Time is of the Essence Fund, will receive a tax-deductible donation in which 100% of all donations are applied to the lab testing of new donor registrants. Please check Michael Brecker’s web site at http://www.michaelbrecker.com
for details.

One last thing: I got to hear Michael Brecker live in concert many times, and while I never really knew him, I did meet him on several occasions. Each time we met he treated me like we were old buddies; apparently he did that with everyone. I never knew anyone to have a bad word to say about him either; no small accomplishment.

I’ve been in contact with many friends and colleagues since Michael’s passing, and in each conversation we’ll talk about the variety of ways Brecker reached us. Either a recording, a concert, a story heard through the grapevine, or some personnel contact. No matter what was discussed, the conversations always end with the same phrase: “I can’t believe he’s gone.” No one can.

Michael, we will miss you, but we’ll never forget you. Rest in peace.