Talking saxophone with Michael Brecker: a different set of sensibilities



I’m going to interview Michael Brecker. A legend, he’s the most recorded saxophonist in jazz.

I expect him to be busy, our arrangements for meeting complicated. They are. Eventually our respective work commitments mean that our paths cross – in Hong Kong! Many plans, emails and telephone calls go between us in Leeds and New York. We agree on a provisional date to meet.


Once in Hong Kong I make the first of several boat trips back and forth on the legendary Star Ferry from Wan Chai to Kowloon, where the musicians are staying. First, I catch the opening Directions in Music concert. A superb performance, the 2,100 seat Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon is sold out for all three nights. Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, John Patitucci, Willie Jones and Michael Brecker are on form.


It’s easy to understand why Brecker is the most influential saxophonist in the post-Coltrane tradition, an eight-time Grammy-winner, and the first to win both the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo two years in a row. His playing is sensational.


After the concert we meet backstage. Despite the robust applause fresh in his ears, Michael Brecker is unhappy. His saxophone is leaking and, in a word, he’s bugged. On his manager Rob Griffin’s advice I decide not to bother Mike for an interview until his horn is fixed. The next night the saxophone has been mended. But again Rob counsels that I postpone the interview. There is the possibility that if I return tomorrow, something can be arranged. I contact Rob next morning. He gives me Mike’s number. I call. Great, he agrees on a rendezvous.


Eventually, in the polite surroundings of the Marco Polo Hotel, Kowloon, on a busy Sunday afternoon, Mike’s imposing figure looms through the crowded foyer to greet me. We sit down with a cappuccino. Clearly he is now much more relaxed, as he tells me how he began.


“I started playing the clarinet when I was six years old. I studied with Leon Lester, who was principal clarinettist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I eventually switched to alto sax when I was in the eighth grade, then changed to tenor by the time I was in the tenth grade. I don’t think I possessed much natural ability on the clarinet, at least towards classical music. I was interested in trying to play jazz clarinet. At the time I was listening to Jimmy Guiffre. I loved his approach to the instrument. I loved his dark sound, the fact that he played in the low register. He had a kind of soulful approach. I didn’t really gravitate towards players like Benny Goodman. This was in the late fifties, early sixties. I remember taking Jimmy Guiffre solos off of records when I was ten years old. I can still remember some of those solos today.”


What about classical music on the saxophone? Some jazz saxophonists openly state their dislike of the stereotypical classical saxophone tone.

“I enjoy listening to classical saxophone players.  I particularly admire Eugene Rousseau. I appreciate the classical approach more and more these days. I enjoy hearing a classical sound on the saxophone.

I like that it’s played quite a bit softer. It’s often a more contained and concentrated sound. I also enjoy the phrasing of classical saxophone players, the dynamic range as well as the vibrato and approach to pitch.”


Knowing that this will surprise some saxophonists, I pursue the subject of tone quality.

“Jazz saxophone involves a different set of tools and sensibilities. Certainly one has to address a personal sound. I have a natural concept of how I want to sound. Some of it is about how I don’t want to sound. Part of my tone is dictated automatically by the way my body and throat are shaped and by the direction of the air column. All of that helps to predetermine the nature of the sound. I can’t separate sound from articulation and phrasing. For me it’s all connected.”


Can the sound be attributed to his saxophone, an old Selmer Mark VI 86,000 series?

“I have an array of saxophones at home – mostly Selmers – that are probably better than the horn that I usually play. However, I continue to gravitate back to this one. I’m so familiar with it. It’s as if I’m able to own every molecule of the instrument. It’s not a particularly remarkable instrument, but I really feel at home on it. Unfortunately, it’s gradually falling apart from age, and wear and tear, so I’d better start getting used to playing another instrument!”


And the mouthpiece?

“My mouthpiece is made by Dave Guardala. Dave’s an old friend of mine and we’ve been working together for many years. He created it with my particular eccentricities, as well as tone, and resistance in mind. The reeds I use are LaVoz, medium strength. I go through a lot.


Arriving at a personal sound for me has been a very gradual process. It has evolved through a lot of playing with other musicians, playing both at home and in performance settings, in all kinds of situations. Gradually, I think the sound, to some degree, almost takes care of itself. You can’t help sounding like yourself, if you’re pursuing music honestly, particularly with an instrument like the saxophone, which is so incredibly flexible and expressive.


The saxophone generates a very complex wave form. It looks quite complicated when you see it graphed on an oscilloscope. Each player has great freedom to mould the sound. And it’s a tremendously creative instrument, just in terms of sound alone. In times past one could identify a saxophone player immediately by tone and articulation only, particularly players of the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. I could hear one note of Stan Getz, and know that it was him or Ornette [Coleman] or Sonny Rollins. Couple of notes…Jackie McLean. [John] Coltrane is immediately identifiable. And so on. It is a little more difficult for me to identify players in the smooth jazz idiom by sound alone.”


How did he learn to improvise?

“I was raised in a jazz environment. My father was a jazz pianist, and an attorney. He made a living in the legal profession, and played music for fun. There was always music in the house. He knew all the standards. My brother Randy was a great role model for me. He’s a bit older, and began playing music before me. He set a lot of good examples. One thing that he did, that I started doing as well, was to play along with records. We borrowed our dad’s albums and played along with them. We played a lot with our dad as well. I was initially attracted to [alto saxophonist] Cannonball Adderley. When I heard Cannonball, that was it! I asked my parents for an alto, and I started trying to learn his solos from records. Those were some hard solos to learn. But it was a good way for me to begin to learn the language of jazz.”


How exactly did he study the jazz vocabulary?

“I listened to music every day and I memorized solos so that I could sing along with them. At that time I didn’t write them down, but they were etched in my brain. I also had the opportunity and good fortune to be around great local musicians in Philadelphia. It was a wonderful time to be a young musician learning how to play. There was a kind of community feeling among the musicians in Philly who were into playing and trying to improve. I had the chance to play with guys who were far better than me. Eventually, when I was 19 years old, I moved to New York. I attended Indiana University for a short time. Weirdly enough, I enrolled for music, and then at the last minute I had a short-lived rebellion and switched to pre-med, since I had always been interested in science as well. While at Indiana, I ended up in the music school every day anyway, in the practice rooms. I had a chance to study with the great David Baker while I was there.”


Pursuing the differences between classical and jazz approaches, I ask what differences Michael sees between the various approaches to tonguing or articulation.

“It’s a very personal thing. I almost don’t know how to comment. Jazz articulation is certainly different in many ways from classical articulation, but they’re also related. Articulation is important in both areas. In jazz it’s a very personal thing. It’s a question of taste, and it further outlines each player’s approach and sensibilities on the instrument. I know I have my own particular way I articulate that feels comfortable for me. It’s something that has evolved naturally over time. There are no rules.”


Without thinking about my question, I enquire whether he ever has a consultation lesson with anyone? The reply surprises me.

“I do go for consultations. In the past, I was lucky to have had the chance to study with some fantastic sax teachers such as Joe Allard, Vince Trombetta and many more. Lately I’ve been meeting my coach.

I need to check in with another player, who can be objective and look at what I’m doing, at the very least from a technical standpoint. I’m out there touring a lot on the road and sometimes begin to develop bad habits, ever so slowly. Not only that, I just found myself wanting some suggestions for possible things I could change. So I contacted a great woodwind player friend of mine for coaching.


Gently, I wonder who this is. That information is not to be revealed. Both Michael and the coach have agreed – at the coach’s suggestion – that he remains anonymous.


I’m pretty much a professional student. I’m always looking for ways to improve and sound better, as well as ways to enhance the beautiful experience of playing music.”

Our time is up. I head for the Star Ferry – again. Michael is off to have a fitting for a shirt he’s had tailored (Hong Kong is a great place for clothes), then to prepare for his concert this evening. He’s going to practise, choose a reed. Despite the tight schedule he thoughtfully offers to pay his share of the bill.

Those different sensibilities clearly extend well beyond playing the saxophone.

John Robert Brown plays the clarinet and saxophone. He writes regular columns for the magazines Jazz Review, Crescendo and CASS (the journal of the Clarinet and Saxophone Society) and is a contributor to Classical Music.


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