[JPL] A Jazzman’s Farewell Album, All Heart and Soul

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 4 17:22:35 EDT 2007

June 2, 2007
A Jazzman’s Farewell Album, All Heart and Soul 
It was a frail Michael Brecker who walked slowly into
a Manhattan recording studio last August, clutching a
cane and a folder of sheet music.

He did not look capable of holding, much less playing,
his tenor saxophone during a weeklong recording
session scheduled for him. One of jazz’s most
influential tenor saxophonists over the last
quarter-century and an 11-time Grammy winner, he had
been battling myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow
disease commonly known as MDS, for more than a year
and would pass away about four months later, at 57. 

But he did hold his saxophone, and played it extremely
well, for the grueling weeklong session that would
result in his final recording, “Pilgrimage” (Heads
Up), a collection of nine originals, released last
week. Among the selections is “When Can I Kiss You
Again?,” a ballad whose title comes from a question
that Mr. Brecker’s son, Sam, asked him during a
hospital visit when physical contact with his father
was prohibited to prevent infection. And the CD’s
final track is the 10-minute “Pilgrimage,” a song that
alternates between serene ensemble playing and
tumultuous soloing from Mr. Brecker. 

“In its balance of ambition and abandon,
serious-mindedness and ebullience,” Nate Chinen wrote
of the new album in The New York Times, “there’s a
crystallization of what jazz, at its best, is all

Mr. Brecker’s favorite collaborators — the guitarist
Pat Metheny, the bassist John Patitucci, the drummer
Jack DeJohnette and the pianists Herbie Hancock and
Brad Mehldau — all agreed to attend the session on
short notice. Mr. Brecker had played on more than 900
albums, including familiar pop solos on Paul Simon and
James Taylor tunes, but now it was apparent that his
days were numbered. A reporter was invited to document
a day of recording.

Not that there was anything morbid about Mr. Brecker.
He became energized immediately upon reuniting with
his longtime sidemen. He cast off his cane and began
zipping around the studio taking care of logistics.

“Even the first day in the studio, we didn’t know if
the whole thing was going to happen,” said Mr.
Brecker’s manager, Darryl Pitt. “But Mike just kept
getting stronger and stronger in spirit, and it
carried through him physically.”

The band clicked immediately. During preparations, Mr.
Metheny began running quick arpeggios, which Mr.
Patitucci mimicked on bass. Mr. Brecker followed suit
on saxophone, and Mr. DeJohnette began singing along.
Mr. Hancock, meanwhile, set up a Fender Rhodes
electric keyboard next to a grand piano and began
playing each with one hand.

“You’re doubling, Herbie,” Mr. Brecker said.

“Yeah,” Mr. Hancock replied jokingly. “I get double

Mr. Hancock winced as he struggled to finger some of
the chord voicings Mr. Brecker had written for the
piano part.

“That’s some serious stuff right there,” he declared,
prompting the other musicians to cheer Mr. Brecker.

“Iron Mike,” Mr. Patitucci yelled, a good assessment
of Mr. Brecker’s surprising strength and endurance
that week. In a phone interview after the recording
session, Mr. Brecker said, “I must have been running
on adrenaline, because I collapsed after it was over.”

Mr. Brecker had stopped performing publicly in 2005
and was often too weak to practice his saxophone.
Still, he displayed during the sessions the trademarks
of his playing: distinct tone and daring harmonic
forays. His performance seemed to reflect the urgency
of his situation. His lines were probing but
purposeful. He reared his body up and down with
emotion as he played, and often grunted midphrase.

“His whole life — all the life he had left — was
pouring out of his horn,” Mr. Pitt said. “There was
nothing left in him after the session.”

“Michael was extremely self-critical and hardly ever
felt that he played well,” he added. “This was the
first time I’ve heard him — in his career — say he was
satisfied with what he’d done.”

Mr. Brecker was so ill that he often composed music in
bed, using a portable keyboard, his electronic
saxophone and his laptop.

Yet Mr. Hancock, who has recorded and performed with
him since the 1980s, said: “Michael has gone up yet
another notch with his writing and playing. He’s taken
something that’s destructive and turned it into
something extremely constructive.”

Mr. Metheny, who appeared on Mr. Becker’s first solo
album, in the late ’80s, said, “There’s no one else
who would or could write anything like this.” 

Mr. Brecker said that in a way, his illness helped his
creative expression by giving him a sense of “extra
purpose” and a new feeling of freedom as a composer. 

Mr. Pitt said Mr. Brecker did not want the other
musicians to know the pain and discomfort he was in
during the session. During the months that followed
it, Mr. Brecker became obsessed with adding tracks and
remixing the album, he said.

“Making that album kept Michael alive,” Mr. Pitt said.
Shortly after he pronounced the recording finished,
Mr. Brecker died.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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