[JPL] A Sax Virtuoso's Final CD
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Wed Jun 13 10:19:02 EDT 2007
June 13, 2007
A Sax Virtuoso's Final CD
By ASHLEY KAHN
June 13, 2007; Page D8
Among the jokes musicians share while filling time on the road, there's one
that asks, "How many saxophonists does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
The wry answer elicits knowing smiles and speaks a truth that almost every
modern-day reed-player must face eventually.
"Twenty-one. One to screw it in, and the rest to discuss how Michael Brecker
would have done it."
Mr. Brecker -- who died this past January at age 57 while putting the final
touches on "Pilgrimage," his last studio album -- was arguably the
best-known and easily the most influential saxophonist to come of age in the
rock era. From his point of arrival in 1969, he grabbed the ears of his
generation with a fluid virtuosity on the tenor saxophone. He had an uncanny
ability to construct passionate solos that slid seamlessly into pop ballads,
rock tunes and funk workouts. He was just as dexterous adding shade and
intensity to radio hits by Aerosmith, James Brown and Paul Simon (his
20-second solo on Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" is considered
a miniature masterpiece) as he was playing with jazz giants like Chick
Corea, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.
Perhaps Mr. Brecker's most singular achievement was garnering star-like
status among general music fans while maintaining the respect of jazz
purists -- not to mention the highest regard of his fellow musicians. Many
of Mr. Brecker's recordings, as a leader or as a member of jazz-rock fusion
ensembles like the Brecker Brothers and Steps Ahead, are now considered
primers for serious instrumentalists. To those who chose to pick up the
saxophone after Mr. Brecker, his astounding technique and emotional depth
remain required listening.
"I began studying in the '80s, and there were only a few modern-day
saxophone players that most of us focused on," says saxophonist Ravi
Coltrane. "Michael was just another caliber of musician. What he was playing
nobody else could play technically, and conceptually he was very
Pianist Brad Mehldau, who performs on Mr. Brecker's final album, stands as
proof of the saxophonist's sway beyond reed players. "In high school there
was a group of us -- we had what we called 'Breckeritus.' The tenor players
were playing Brecker licks verbatim, or trying to, and it was all rubbing
off on my very fledgling vocabulary. We were all trying to figure out what
he was doing."
Mr. Brecker's approach was widely imitated, to a fault according to some.
"We used to call them 'Brecker-heads' -- guys who would play in a Brecker
style, just being brash and doing whatever they could do to play all those
licks," Mr. Coltrane recalls. "But Michael always maintained an elegance and
a dignity about what he was doing. It wasn't just a hyper-development of
technique, out of proportion with the emotional connection. Every note he
played made sense."
So, what made Mr. Brecker's style so distinctive and dangerously seductive?
The answer, as is often the case with musicians, lies in his history.
Born in 1949, Mr. Brecker grew up at a time when walls between musical -- as
well as political and cultural -- categories were crumbling at a rapid rate.
>From the late 1960s into the '70s, rock bands were jamming over extended,
modal passages, while jazz groups -- like those led by trumpeter Miles Davis
-- were breaking ground by adding rock and funk rhythms to their acoustic
mix, along with electric guitars and keyboards. In the best sense, Mr.
Brecker's musical priorities reflected the prejudice-free ideals of the day.
To him, music, played in any style or in any key, offered an equal
opportunity to improvise.
To his contemporaries, like former Davis saxophonist Dave Liebman, Mr.
Brecker was among the first of his generation to successfully translate the
jazz innovations of the 1960s. Especially those of John Coltrane.
"He was able to take the incredible detail, the language of Coltrane, and
find a place for it in rock and popular music without betraying either
side," recalls Mr. Liebman, who later co-founded the group Saxophone Summit
with Mr. Brecker. "In the early '70s, his sound became the thing: Every
musician, every producer wanted it on their record, and Michael was the one
to give it to them."
Guitarist Pat Metheny -- who also performs on "Pilgrimage" -- was 18 when he
heard one of the saxophonist's most celebrated contributions to rock radio
in 1972. "I was driving by a major intersection in my town, Lee's Summit,
Mo. I heard James Taylor's single 'Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight' with this
tenor player on it. I just had to pull over. I was like, that's the best
tenor sound and best tenor conception -- who is that playing that
post-Coltrane style of saxophone?"
Coltrane was indeed a guiding influence at the start. "I remember going out
and buying 'A Love Supreme,'" Mr. Brecker said, in 2001, of Coltrane's
popular album. "I listened to that record every day in my bedroom. It's
still etched in my psyche." Though he developed a lifelong enthusiasm for
other sax-based improvisers like Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Sonny
Rollins, Mr. Brecker remained primarily focused on Coltrane. In a number of
ways, his own history paralleled that of his inspiration.
Both reached maturity in the Philadelphia area and relocated to New York
City, all the while studying and practicing on the sax with the intention of
knowing the instrument completely. "I'm constantly discovering more things
that the acoustic saxophone can do," Mr. Brecker once said. "I don't feel
it's been pushed to the limits yet." Both became hooked on hard drugs during
their 20s, then kicked their habits after reaching 30, rededicating
themselves to their musical path.
Like Coltrane, Mr. Brecker initially established himself as a sideman,
sessionman and band member, hesitating to strike out on his own until he was
in his 30s. "I quite honestly was scared to do it -- I [preferred] sharing
the pains and successes," he admitted around the time his first solo album
finally appeared in 1987.
And as Coltrane added soprano sax to his creative arsenal in midcareer, Mr.
Brecker also expanded to a more demanding one and pioneered the use of the
EWI -- or electronic wind instrument -- essentially a reed-driven
synthesizer. "There's a part of me that feels like I'm playing this museum
piece," Mr. Brecker said of the saxophone. "Now the tables are turning.
Partly because of the new technology . . . I'm very happy to be in the time
Mr. Brecker was happiest when creating music, and averse to most
career-oriented activity. He accepted accolades and accomplishments (like 13
Grammy awards) with extreme humility, and agreed to interviews only
reluctantly, preferring to spotlight those who inspired him. He spoke of his
deepest passions through his horn: In 2001, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and
keyboardist Herbie Hancock toured with Mr. Brecker as Directions in Music, a
tribute to the music of Davis and Coltrane. Mr. Brecker's solo rendition of
the latter's "Naima" was the show-stopper, eliciting standing ovations as he
hopped from the saxophone's lower to upper register and back with fervent
During a Directions tour in 2005, Mr. Brecker discovered he had developed
myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare cancer of the blood marrow. A
well-publicized, two-year search for a stem-cell donor ensued. A
partial-matching transplant from his daughter allowed him to gather his
strength, and last July he made a surprise appearance at the JVC Jazz
Festival in New York. It was his last public performance.
A month later, Mr. Brecker was strong enough to revisit some compositions he
had been working on with the arranger Gil Goldstein and return to the
studio. "Pilgrimage" is the happy result of those sessions, a nine-track
album that bristles with the band Mr. Brecker assembled: not only Messrs.
Hancock, Mehldau and Metheny, but drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John
"Pilgrimage" is an inspiring tour de force that measures up to the promise
of its all-star cast: Vibrant and edgy solos abound, and varying moods and
memorable themes color much of the album. In its energy and upbeat, visceral
flavors it transcends any tendency to hear it as an epitaph. There's but one
slow ballad ("When Can I Kiss You Again?") that is more soaring than
doleful. Listening for the variance between Mr. Hancock's and Mr. Mehldau's
keyboard styles is a delight in itself.
There's a playful piece of abstraction that slyly suggests a funky groove
("Loose Threads") and a fast-lane romp that relies on a dizzying series of
rhythmic shifts ("Anagram") that Messrs. DeJohnette and Patitucci deliver.
Mr. Brecker's muscular tenor ("The Mean Time") and urgent, EWI-triggered
vocal cries ("Tumbleweed") testify to the restorative power of music. The
lyrical heart of the album reveals itself on the title track: opening with a
Coltrane-like benediction, passing through a series of uplifting
improvisations, and closing with a bold and confident thrust.
"Pilgrimage" also captures Mr. Brecker's startling growth as a composer,
already suggested in 2003 on his album "Wide Angles." Significantly,
"Pilgrimage" features all new material written by Mr. Brecker alone, flush
with a feeling of risk-taking and a strong sense of moving forward. Had he
not departed, who knows what steps lay ahead?
Mr. Kahn is the author of "The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse
Records" (W.W. Norton).
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