Michael Brecker (March 29, 1949 – January 13, 2007) was a popular US jazz saxophonist and one of the premier saxophonists of the post-Coltrane era. Before his premature death of leukemia brought on by a blood and bone marrow disorder, Brecker established himself as one of the most respected and admired jazz musicians of his time. He won 11 Grammys as both a performer and composer. Brecker enjoyed his role as a uniter of musicians and music fans through his profound knowledge of mixing several genres and styles into smooth performances which were peppered with fiery and impassioned improvisation. Brecker lived for the sake of composing and performing music for others.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Michael Brecker was exposed to jazz at an early age by his father, an amateur jazz pianist. Michael and his brother Randy (who would later become a renowned jazz and rock trumpeter in his own right) grew up jamming regularly with their father (Segell 2005, 123). Among the generation of jazz musicians that saw rock music not as the enemy but as a viable musical option, Brecker's first instrument was the clarinet, which he began playing at six years old. By eighth grade he switched to alto sax, before eventually settling on the tenor saxophone as his primary instrument in tenth grade. Brecker says that a 1965 Coltrane concert he attended at Temple University while in High School "literally propelled me into choosing music as a life's endeavor" (Segell 2005, 126).
After studying for a year at Indiana University, Michael Brecker moved to New York City in 1969, joining a collective of musicians in the area that played free shows for each other in their living spaces (Segell 2005, 123). He began to carve out a niche for himself as a dynamic and exciting jazz soloist not afraid to draw inspiration from rock, gospel, funk and R&B as well.
At age 21, Michael co-founded the jazz/rock band Dreams—a band that included his older brother Randy, trombonist Barry Rogers, drummer Billy Cobham, Jeff Kent, and Doug Lubahn. Dreams was short-lived, lasting only a year, but influential (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, Brecker played with his brother in pianist and band leader Horace Silver's quintet and then played in drummer Billy Cobham's group. before once again teaming up with his brother Randy to form the Brecker Brothers in 1974. As the Brecker Brothers, Michael and Randy played a brand of jazz/rock/funk fusion considered "a smart combination of extended pop forms, top-notch jazz improvisation, and sophisticated compositional techniques." With this group, the brothers followed the trail blazed by Miles Davis's 1970s bands and Weather Report, 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 critical and commercial success.
At the same time, Michael became one of the most highly sought-after saxophone session players, and put his stamp on numerous pop and rock recordings as a soloist and sideman. Among his credits are appearances on records by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Dire Straits, Frank Zappa, and Joni Mitchell. During the early 1980s he was also a member of NBC’s Saturday Night Live band. Steps Ahead, a group that formed out of jam sessions Michael participated in with Mike Mainieri among others, was another successful fusion project of Michael's.
Finally, in 1987, after more than 15 years of professional performance and recording, Brecker recorded his first album as band leader, Michael Brecker. The 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. Michael Brecker was named jazz album of the year in both Down Beat magazine and Jazziz magazine.
Brecker continued to record albums as a leader and appear on other albums throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, continuing to win Grammy Awards and amass critical acclaim, all while touring successfully, and generally adding evidence to the consensus view of him as one of the greatest saxophonists of his generation.
Brecker's instrument of choice was his Selmer Mark VI 86,000 series tenor saxophone, which he played with a highly-customized Dave Guardala mouthpiece and LaVoz medium strength reeds.
In August 2004, while performing on stage with a reunited Steps Ahead lineup at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, Brecker experienced a burst of intense pain in his back. He completed his performance despite the pain, and it was later discovered that one of the vertebrae in his back had cracked. While undergoing medical testing following the incident, Brecker was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a dangerous disorder of the blood and bone marrow that can lead to leukemia. 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 from his daughter. As a result, his condition somewhat stabilized, but the procedure would prove ultimately to be ineffective.
Despite his health issues, Brecker made a return to public performance in June 2006, making a surprise appearance at a Herbie Hancock at Carnegie Hall to sit in on saxophone for a rendition of Hancock's "One Finger Snap". In August 2006, Brecker recorded his final album, his first and only album composed entirely of original compositions, with an all-star lineup, including Pat Metheny on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau on piano. The album would eventually come to be titled Pilgrimage, and was released posthumously on May 22nd, 2007, to enthusiastic critical response, with some calling the album perhaps "the finest of his career".
On January 13, 2007, Michael Brecker died from complications of leukemia in New York City. His funeral was held on January 15, 2007, in the town in which he had made his home, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.
"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."
Of particular note was Brecker's ability to adapt to seemingly any situation, to lead his own traditional jazz group, play in a jazz/rock/funk fusion group, or contribute a part to a pop recording as a session musician:
"Having accompanied everyone from James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to McCoy Tyner and Charlie Haden, his ability to keep a foot in each camp made him an in-demand sideman. Combining John Coltrane's sheets of sound approach with funky soul, he established himself as one of the most distinctive voices of his generation."
Brecker also won 11 Grammy Awards over the course of his career, but his lasting legacy is the extremely broad and diverse body of recordings he leaves behind, the thousands of records on which he has performed, and the remarkable consistency and astounding excellence of his performances. As friend and fellow jazz musician Pat Metheny puts it:
"The most treacherous position in jazz was being the guy who has to take a solo right after Mike Brecker.”
All links retrieved September 24, 2016.
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