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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: HGV Fitter - Technician

£16 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for someone ...

Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW London

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW Londo...

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence