Solo Transcriptions – The Michael Brecker Collection
Live in Helsinki
Video – Live at the Vanguard with John Abercrombie
Tales From The Hudson
Michael Brecker, the Philadelphia-born saxophonist star could hurl out more notes faster than almost all of his fellow-practitioners, but his 11 Grammy awards, devoted worldwide audience and status among musicians everywhere testified to artistic strengths that went far beyond technique. He was a composer, bandleader and improviser whose solo career started late, after years as a sideman and session-player; but in the two decades after he made his leadership debut, he became the most emulated jazz saxophonist on the planet after John Coltrane.
Brecker was held in such awe by students, commentators and players alike that the thought of his exit will be hard for many to comprehend. A reserved, private and undemonstrative man, who made light of his talent – he was so indifferent to onstage histrionics that he would play the most high-energy solos with almost nothing visibly moving but his fingers – Brecker inspired enduring loyalties for his modesty as much as his influence. He also inspired confidence in the most demanding of artists that his presence would make even their best work sound better. Those who hired him in his pre-leadership days included Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Charles Mingus and Jaco Pastorius.
Brecker combined the striving energy, technical ambition and sophisticated harmonic sense of Coltrane – his first and biggest inspiration – with a soulful bluesiness that allowed him to drop easily into the earthiest of blues, rock or funk bands. In his prime, he could sustain an unaccompanied one-man show by sounding like several sax players, and even parts of a rhythm section, all at the same time. But if he could tingle the spine with Coltranesque split-note wails that took the tenor sax way above its regular range as well as transforming it into a chordal instrument, he could be tender with slow music, as his performance of Every Day I Thank You on guitarist Pat Metheny’s 80/81 album confirms.
Self-revelatory emotions were not perhaps his style, in the way they were Coltrane’s. But, playing in New York in the week following 9/11, Brecker told me: «I maybe felt in touch with the true purposes of music in a way I never had been before – as a hearing, transporting, unifying force.» He seemed to tune into both his inner voices and the wider possibilities of his art increasingly in later years; that journey ends with an as yet unnamed new album completed just two weeks ago.
One of the group’s album titles, Heavy Metal Bebop, aptly described the style. Michael’s spiky, chromatically dense improvising style developed in this period – but, unlike a good many jazz players turning to funk in the 70s, he never sounded cramped by the rhythm patterns of the idiom. He burst with ideas whether the underpinning was the loose, cruising feel of swing, or the slamming backbeats of rock.
In 1987 recorded his debut album as a leader (it was jazz album of the year in both Downbeat and Jazziz magazines), and toured with Herbie Hancock’s quartet. He also briefly explored the possibilities of an electronic sax, the EWI.
That first album was well received, partly for the revelation that Brecker had an eloquent compositional talent with which to trigger his torrential saxophone variations (though he never composed extensively, and depended on a close relationship with pianist Gil Goldstein as a composer-arranger). Sideman roles still occasionally tempted him (he toured with Paul Simon in 1991-92 and with Hancock in 1997), and the Brecker Brothers were occasionally coaxed out of retirement, but it was the powerful quartet (often featuring the drummer Jeff «Tain» Watts) that was his most regular vehicle through the 1990s. Albums like Tales From the Hudson, Time Is Of the Essence, The Ballad Book and Wide Angles (2004) displayed the same improvisational verve as ever, but were also showcases for Brecker’s high-class admirers – like McCoy Tyner, Metheny, Hancock and Elvin Jones.
In his 50s, Brecker’s improvising gradually shed the grandstanding pyrotechnics, gaining subtler colours, greater contrast and a compelling narrative strength. In 2001, at the invitation of the English Contemporary Music Network, he also successfully explored leadership of a larger band, working with Gil Goldstein and an Anglo-American group on expanded arrangements of his own compositions. A bigger group also participated on Wide Angles, which won two Grammy awards.