Missing Michael Brecker

14 Nov

michael-breckerIf you’ve read my blog or carried on any conversation about jazz with me, I make it no mystery that I have a certain affection for the late saxophonist Michael Brecker.

It is rare that much time goes by where I don’t drag fellow jazz host Robin Lloyd in to hear a track that I recently found that features Brecker, or that I don’t go on a massive hunt for a missing DAT that holds an interview I did with him at Jazz Alley before one of his concerts.

The response I get from some isn’t always positive. When I chose to name Brecker as one of the tenors in my “Dream Big Band” along side John Coltrane over the likes of Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, or Branford Marsalis (see Building a Dream Big Band Part III: The Sax Section) many scoffed and suggested that I was choosing a commercial studio sax player over a “true legend”.

The purpose of this entry is not to try and justify my reasons for my favoritism of Michael Brecker. Instead, I simply want to continue to remember a musician that had such an increadible impact on me, nearly three years after he lost his battle with MDS.

It is true that, for much of his career, Michael was a studio musician. There are those out there that feel that you are less of a jazz musician if you spent time as a studio musician recording for large commercial rock albums. Brecker is credited on hundreds and hundreds of recordings, including Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, some of the most legendary albums in history. Does this make him less of a jazz musician because he worked for rock stars?

Of course not. But recording for these records is not what Brecker will be remembered for.

Michael Brecker, as far as I am concerned, should be best remembered for making it clear to a generation of musicians, my generation, that jazz is not your grandparents music. Furthermore, young musicians, not just sax players, had a model musician not only to inspire them, but to show them that they didn’t need to be a jock to be cool.

And that is what Michael Brecker did. He, like Coltrane, would routinely rip mind-blowing solos that were so intense and complex that it might overwhelm you, but were so impressive that you couldn’t help but smile and shake your head in disbelief when hearing them. And, like Coltrane, there was a suggestion that Brecker wasn’t a “ballad guy”, until of course, he recorded ballads, and put that rumor to rest. Let’s not forget, he is also credited with 14 Grammy awards.

There are still great tenor saxophonists recording today. Branford Marsalis might be the most artistic musician in jazz, and along side trumpeter Terrance Blanchard, Joshua Redman is easily the coolest musician in jazz, both in personality and sound.

But I remember during an interview I conducted with Joshua Redman, I asked him to play a game with me. I would name a saxophonist, and he would say the first word that came to his mind. When I sad “Sonny Rollins”, Redman said “Colossus”. When I said “Michael Brecker”, his response was over 100 words.

Brecker doesn’t have to be your favorite sax player. But give him a listen. Try Tumbleweed of the album Pilgrimage, perhaps the best jazz album of the last 20 years. Or find a live recording of Some Skunk Funk. My hope is that you will respond the same way my old roommate, a huge rap fan did after hearing Brecker. His only word, after picking his jaw up of the ground, was “wow”.

Below, a solo that earned him one of his Grammy Awards.


8 Responses to “Missing Michael Brecker”

  1. Andrew Layton November 14, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    I was probably the most outspoken critic of your placing Mike Brecker in your all star dream big band, and I still massively disagree with you. There is no arguing the fact that Brecker was a fantastic technician on the saxophone. However, for me his playing leaves me feeling cold, as if I’ve just listened to a robot playing the saxophone(see youtube for the robot playing giant steps). His ballad album is awful, and feels contrite to even people who consider themselves “Brecker fans”. To place him above players like Getz, Rollins, and yes, even Branford Marsalis is concerning, to say the least. I’m sure Mike was a great guy, and yes, a fantastic saxophone player. But lets leave him properly placed in the history of the music.

  2. Steve DeGarmo November 14, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    I’m a huge Michael Brecker fan. I’ve played the saxophone since I was 12 and I’m 49 now. My saxophone teacher, Chuck Stentz, was huge fan of Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Stanley Turrentine, and so I listened to those guys first. Manhattan Symphony by Dexter Gordon was the first jazz album that I every bought at age 17. I had a hard time dealing with his tone and pitch back then, but I listened to that record a ton. A couple years later in college I heard Michael for the first time and he completely destroyed me. Here was a guy with all the chops, fantastic sound, and he could play funk as well as jazz. Being a kid at that time, I could understand funk a lot better than jazz, so Michael helped me to appreciate better more traditional jazz artists later on. Michael helped me to more appreciate John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderly, and now modern guys like Garzone, Weiskopf, Dick Oatts, and on and on. I loved Michael Brecker and I’m still mourning his loss and also Bob Berg.

  3. koolpaw November 21, 2009 at 11:52 am #

    Michael has been the most popular Sax player among College big bands here in Japan since late 70s b4 he has recorded his first “solo” album on impulse.

    We were always looking for any kinds of records Michael played as a sideman in Tokyo. There might be several “Only in Japan” recordings. You may be able to find Kazumi Watanabe`s mobo series but there are recordings which were almost missed in CD era ,like Japanese singer Kimiko Kasai`s album. i never have found the CD, i had it in Vynil though….

    I believe current college band players are still digging Michael`s play even now.

    Michael Brecker = Jimi Hendrix of Jazz

  4. Bruce W. November 22, 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    I haven’t always been a huge fan, but I did really enjoy his final recording, Pilgrimage, as much for the other players (Herbie, Pat, etc.) as for Michael. Pretty remarkable compositions/recordings for someone in such physical decline.

  5. Jason November 24, 2009 at 12:28 am #

    I agree with a lot of what you said here. Michael Brecker is not as appreciated because there are a lot of jazz purists out there that don’t appreciate his versatility. I think players like Rollins and Shorter are more celebrated now because so much time as passed, and their albums and signature sound has sort of been fermented into some kind of legend and reputation. While I most of their acclaim are well merited, Brecker is still relatively fresh, and I think we just have to wait.

  6. Ryan December 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm #

    I have always enjoyed Michael Brecker’s playing and I believe that he has earned a place among the giants, even if he isn’t at the very top. As far as the studio work goes, he wasn’t the first jazz artist to do this kind of work.

    So, will Three Quartets make the top 1000 list?

  7. Louis Gerrits December 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    Great piece of writing. I agree. And still there are people who disagree, but thta’s a healthy situation. If you ask any great jazzmusician about Mike Brecker, they all agree about his importance in jazzmusic. Critics, who do not play any instrument, often don’t like his playing.. There you are!

    Best regards, Louis Gerrits
    The Netherlands


  1. Keeping Jazz in the Family « Groove Notes - August 7, 2010

    […] Missing Michael Brecker […]

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