Michael Brecker

Dazzling jazz saxophonist who applied the Coltrane sound to the music of his own generation


Michael Leonard Brecker, saxophonist: born Philadelphia 29 March 1949; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 13 January 2007.

Michael Brecker was widely considered to be the most influential jazz saxophonist of the last 30 years. Having thoroughly absorbed the sound and harmonic approach of John Coltrane very early on, as well as the influences of other saxophone masters such as Eddie Harris, Dexter Gordon and Ernie Watts, Brecker applied this wide learning to the music of his generation, lending his large, authoritative tone to more than 900 jazz and pop recordings and collecting 11 Grammy Awards along the way.

He was responsible for some of the most superior jazz fusion of the 1970s and 1980s: alongside his trumpeter brother Randy in their group, the Brecker Brothers; with the pianist Don Grolnick and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in Steps (later known as Steps Ahead); and on the solo albums he led from 1987 onwards. He was also one of the most ubiquitous, and certainly the most distinguished, of studio musicians, appearing on albums by Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Elton John, Aerosmith, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Lou Reed and many others.

At one point, he was playing so many studio dates that he was barely aware of what the recordings actually were. "I remember when one producer called us to play on five different records in one day," Brecker told me in 2003:

We didn't know one from the next. A few months later I'd hear something on the radio and I'd be like, "Oh, that's what it was."

His readiness to appear in settings other than pure jazz, and a natural reticence and generosity of spirit that led him to praise others and to back away from any personal aggrandisement, meant that some underestimated his achievement as a jazz musician. His eloquence was on the saxophone, on which he combined vitality, dazzling technique, a persuasive, gorgeously rich tone, enormous inventiveness and a commanding presence.

From his early twenties onwards, he operated at the highest musical levels. A brief, concise solo from him elevated any pop song on which he played, and it is a testament to him that he could perform unaccompanied, solo sets at both the London and Cheltenham Jazz Festivals in recent years and keep the audiences entranced. He was, without doubt, the leading tenor saxophonist of his generation, a position none could challenge during his lifetime; nor can we expect anyone to match his stature for many years to come.

Michael Brecker was born in 1949 in Philadelphia, into a musical family. His father, a lawyer, played jazz piano, while his sister was a classical pianist. Michael started on drums, taking up the clarinet aged six, and then moving first to the alto (after hearing Cannonball Adderley) and then the tenor saxophone (under the influence of Coltrane). He and his brother Randy, three years his senior, used to practise in the bathroom because, he said later, they liked the acoustic.

Michael followed Randy to Indiana University, but left after a year to join his brother in New York, where the two formed the jazz rock band Dreams. Michael and Randy were to work together throughout the Seventies, providing the horn section for Horace Silver's quintet on the Blue Note album In Pursuit of the 27th Man (1972), and with the Brecker Brothers, the nucleus around which many other leading musicians clustered.

The list of those who appeared with the band is a virtual Who's Who of players of the time, including the alto saxophonist David Sanborn, drummers Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd, bassists Neil Jason and Marcus Miller, and guitarists Jeff Mironov and Hiram Bullock. One 1978 album title characterised the sound as "heavy metal bebop", which is a good description for the virtuosic, angular lines of the brothers' compositions, underpinned by weighty, electric rhythm sections, and featuring the ever-more powerful and complex yet accessible solos of Michael Brecker in particular. The band came to an end in 1982, but the brothers united to tour in the early Nineties, sometimes refreshing the sound by playing their material with an acoustic backing band. Their concerts were always marked by the humour and joy that led both the brothers to be thought of with such affection by their audiences.

It was not until he was 38 that Michael Brecker recorded his first album as a leader. "I waited a long time to do this," he explained, "because I never felt ready." It is likely that this was partly due to the comfort of performing in collaborative groups, and partly due to a lack of self-assurance. "It makes me feel good that people are moved by my playing," he said, when his fourth album, Tales From the Hudson, was released in 1996, "but I've never considered myself an innovator or a major jazz figure."

As an innovator of musical form, he may have been right. Brecker's solo albums are essential because of his playing rather than his compositions, which were always interesting and intelligent. Their often questing structures reflected elements of his solos; while such an approach was eminently suitable for improvisation, however, it didn't necessarily make for tunes that stuck in the mind.

In terms of harmony, Brecker may not have been a lone innovator, but he was part of a wave of musicians (particularly in the early Eighties with Steps) who refined jazz fusion, taming it of its electric excesses, and who went on to produce a body of work that showed that jazz did have a valuable route forward. Their work was proof that the neo-conservative Young Lions movement was wrong in its assertion that jazz had reached a dead end from which the only rescue was complete reimmersion in the past.

And Brecker was definitely wrong in saying he was not a major jazz figure. He was a towering presence (quite literally, as he stood at well over six feet tall) who defined a new paradigm for what the tenor saxophone could be. His fluency was unequalled, as was the range of his playing, from twisting, Coltrane-esque sheets of sound, to yelping, funky licks.

There was a greater sense of contemplation in his later work, even before the sharp pain he noticed in his back while performing at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in 2004 which was the first outward symptom of the disease myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). He and his family hoped that a bone marrow match could provide a cure. Tens of thousands of donors responded to appeals but all treatment failed, and Brecker died two weeks after completing a final album.

Sholto Byrnes

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