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A remarkable technician and a highly influential tenor saxophonist (the biggest influence on other tenors since Wayne Shorter), Michael Brecker took a long time before getting around to recording his first solo album. He spent much of his career as a top-notch studio player who often appeared backing pop singers, leading some jazz listeners to overlook his very strong improvising skills.
Brecker originally started on clarinet and alto before switching to tenor in high school. Early on, he played with rock- and R&B-oriented bands. In 1969, he moved to New York and soon joined Dreams, an early fusion group. Brecker was with Horace Silver during 1973-1974, gigged with Billy Cobham, and then co-led the Brecker Brothers (a commercially successful funk group) with his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker, for most of the 1970s. He was with Steps (later Steps Ahead) in the early '80s, doubled on an EWI (electronic wind instrument), and made a countless number of studio sessions during the 1970s and '80s, popping up practically everywhere (including with James Taylor, Yoko Ono, and Paul Simon).
With the release of his first album as a leader in 1987 (when he was already 38), Brecker started appearing more often in challenging jazz settings. He recorded additional sets as a leader (in 1988 and 1990), teamed up with McCoy Tyner on one of 1995's most rewarding jazz recordings, and toured with a reunited Brecker Brothers band. Two Blocks from the Edge followed in 1998, and a year later Brecker returned with Time Is of the Essence. The early 2000s saw the release of Nearness of You: The Ballad Book and Wide Angles in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
However, after experiencing some mysterious back pain during a concert in 2005, Brecker was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a cancer of the blood marrow. A failed search for a matching bone marrow donor eventually led to an experimental partially matching blood stem cell transplant via his daughter in late 2005. He passed away on January 13, 2007. Brecker's final album, Pilgrimage, featuring pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, was, ironically, his first of all-original material. It was released a few months after his passing.
Michael Leonard Brecker (March 29, 1949 – January 13, 2007) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Acknowledged as "a quiet, gentle musician widely regarded as the most influential tenor saxophonist since John Coltrane", he was awarded 15 Grammy Awards as both performer and composer. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2004, and was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2007."Michael Brecker 3/29/49 - 1/13/07 | Dusty Wright's Culture Catch". Culturecatch.com. 2007-01-16. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "Directions In Music – Michael Brecker/ Herbie Hancock/ Roy Hargrove | Jazzbo Notes". Webcache.googleusercontent.com. 2012-06-09. Retrieved 2012-06-25. Gans, Charles J. (AP). "Saxophonist Completes Final Pilgrimage". The San Francisco Chronicle. May 24, 2007. Retrieved 2013-03-30. Small, Mark. "Saxophonist Michael Brecker—11-Time Grammy Winner, Session Player with Jazz and Pop Legends—to Welcome Entering Class, Accept Honorary Doctorate at Berklee College of Music Fall Convocation". Retrieved 22 August 2012.
ContentsBiography1.1 Early life & career1.2 Sideman and leader1.3 Later career
Early life & career
Michael Brecker was born in Philadelphia and raised in Cheltenham Township, a local suburb, Michael Brecker was exposed to jazz at an early age by his father, an amateur jazz pianist. He grew up as part of the generation of jazz musicians who saw rock music not as the enemy but as a viable musical option. Brecker began studying clarinet, then moved to alto saxophone in school, eventually settling on the tenor saxophone as his primary instrument. He graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1967 and after only a year at Indiana University he moved to New York City in 1969, where he carved out a niche for himself as a dynamic and exciting jazz soloist. He first made his mark at age 21 as a member of the jazz-rock band Dreams—a band that included his older brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker, trombonist Barry Rogers, drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jeff Kent and bassist Doug Lubahn. Dreams was short-lived, lasting only a year, but Miles Davis was seen at some gigs prior to his recording Jack Johnson.
Most of Brecker's early work is marked by an approach informed as much by rock guitar as by R&B saxophone. After Dreams, he worked with Horace Silver and then Billy Cobham before once again teaming up with his brother Randy to form the Brecker Brothers. The band followed jazz-rock trends of the time, but with more attention to structured arrangements, a heavier backbeat, and a stronger rock influence. The band stayed together from 1975 to 1982, with consistent success and musicality.
Sideman and leader
Brecker was in great demand as a soloist and sideman. He performed with bands whose styles ranged from mainstream jazz to mainstream rock. Altogether, he appeared on over 700 albums, either as a band member or a guest soloist. He put his stamp on numerous pop and rock recordings as a soloist. His featured guest solos with James Taylor and Paul Simon are excellent examples of this strand of his work. For example, on Taylor's 1972 album, One Man Dog, Brecker's solo on the track "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" complements the other acoustic instruments and sparse vocal. On Simon's 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years, Brecker's solo on the title track is used to a similar effect. His solos are often placed in the bridge, or appended as a coda. This combination of musical structure and instrumentation typifies (and to some extent defines) this jazz-rock fusion style. Other notable jazz and rock collaborations included work with Steely Dan, Lou Reed, Donald Fagen, Dire Straits, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, John Lennon, Aerosmith, Dan Fogelberg, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Daltrey, and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Brecker also recorded or performed with leading jazz figures during his era, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Chet Baker, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, McCoy Tyner, Pat Metheny, Elvin Jones, and Claus Ogerman.
Brecker played tenor saxophone on two Billy Joel albums. In 1983, Brecker played on three tracks on the album "An Innocent Man" ("Careless Talk", "Tell Her About It" and "Keeping The Faith". In 1986, he played on "Big Man on Mulberry Street" on the album "The Bridge".
During the early 1980s, he was also a member of NBC's Saturday Night Live Band. Brecker can be seen in the background sporting sunglasses during Eddie Murphy's James Brown parody. After a stint co-leading the all-star group Steps Ahead with Mike Mainieri, Brecker recorded a solo album in 1987. That eponymously titled debut album marked his return to a more traditional jazz setting, highlighting his compositional talents and featuring the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), which Brecker had previously played with Steps Ahead. In 1987 he featured his new solo album at the JVC Newport Jazz Festival, incorporating the EWI. Referring to the sound that Brecker produced from the EWI, musician and opening act Ruben Riera (flautist and percussionist, performing with The Gary Pearson Ensemble) said "it was amazing". Brecker continued to record albums as a leader throughout the 1990s and 2000s, winning multiple Grammy Awards. His solo and group tours consistently sold out top jazz venues in major cities worldwide.
He went on tour in 2001 with a collaborative group, Hancock-Brecker-Hargrove. This tour was dedicated to jazz pioneers John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Brecker paid homage to Coltrane by performing Coltrane's signature piece, "Naima". This composition is a definitive work for tenor sax; its demanding solo enabled Brecker to show his complete mastery of the instrument. The concert CD from the tour, Directions in Music: Live At Massey Hall (2002), won a Grammy in 2003.
While performing at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in 2004, Brecker experienced a sharp pain in his back. Shortly thereafter in 2005, he was diagnosed with the blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Despite a widely publicized worldwide search, Brecker was unable to find a matching stem cell donor. In late 2005, he was the recipient of an experimental partial matching stem cell transplant. By late 2006, he appeared to be recovering, but the treatment proved not to be a cure. He made his final public performance on June 23, 2006, playing with Hancock at Carnegie Hall.
On January 13, 2007, Brecker died from complications of leukemia in New York City. His funeral was held on January 15, 2007 in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York."IN MEMORIUM – MICHAEL BRECKER – Jazz-Rock Artists". Jazz-rock.com. Retrieved 2012-06-25.
On February 11, 2007, Brecker was awarded two posthumous Grammy awards for his involvement on his brother Randy's 2005 album Some Skunk Funk.
On May 22, 2007, his final recording, Pilgrimage, was released and received a good critical response. It was recorded in August 2006 with Pat Metheny on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Hancock and Brad Mehldau on piano. Brecker was critically ill when it was recorded, but the other musicians involved praised the standard of his musicianship. Brecker was again posthumously awarded two additional Grammy Awards for this album in the categories of Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group, bringing his Grammy total to 15.
During his career, Brecker played a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone (serial number 86xxx, manufactured in 1960) using a customized Dave Guardala mouthpiece. Early in his career, he had played a Selmer Super Balanced Action saxophone. His earlier mouthpieces included a metal Otto Link STM (during the mid-1970s) and a metal Dukoff in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Brecker's search in the International Bone Marrow Registry for a match prompted his wife and manager to organize a series of bone marrow drives throughout the world, including the Red Sea, Monterey, and Newport Jazz Festivals. Brecker was subsequently featured in a film directed by Noah Hutton (son of Debra Winger and Timothy Hutton), named More to Live For. It documents Brecker's battle with leukemia, and the production of his final recording. By going public with his illness, Brecker raised tens of thousands of dollars for testing, and signed up many thousands of donors, but was unable to find a match for himself.
Hancock said that around nine months before his death, Brecker had started practicing Buddhism and three months later joined Soka Gakkai International, a group associated with Nichiren Buddhism. At Brecker's memorial service, Hancock, Shorter and Buster Williams (who all practice the same form of Buddhism) as well as Brecker's son, Sam, sat in a line with their backs to the audience while facing a painted scroll in a wooden shrine, and chanted, "Nam myoho renge kyo" for five minutes.Kilgannon, Corey (June 2, 2007). "''New York Times'' "A Jazzman’s Farewell Album, All Heart and Soul" June 2, 2007". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 2012-06-25. Ratliff, Ben (February 22, 2007). "Celebrating a Saxophonist's Art and Heart". The New York Times.