Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Brecker, Michael (Leonard)

Michael Brecker's rare imagination, versatility and tone made him one of the most influential saxophonists to emerge after John Coltrane's untimely death. Sadly, Brecker's career was also cut short, when he succumbed to a rare blood disease in 2007.

Michael Leonard Brecker was born March 29th, 1949, in Philadelphia, PA, and raised in Cheltenham Township, a nearby suburb. His father, Robert, was a lawyer and amateur jazz pianist who introduced Michael and his older brother Randy to jazz early on. John Coltrane was a mainstay on the family turntable.

Brecker studied clarinet and the alto saxophone before settling on the tenor as his main instrument. After graduating from high school, he followed his brother Randy to Indiana University, where he spent a year before moving to New York City in 1970.

Randy and Michael founded a jazz-rock band, Dreams, which made two recordings before disbanding. Brecker cited the atmosphere of New York then as being very open to experimentations with jazz and rock, in the wake of Miles Davisís album Bitches Brew. For a musical searcher like Michael, he air was alive with experimentation.

In 1972, both Breckers joined the band of hard-bop pianist Horace Silver. While Silverís band was considerably different from Dreams, Michael staked out his own musical territory, in a distinctly post-bop way.

Brecker became an in-demand studio session player, and recorded with many of the era's pop, rock, and R&B artists. Among the many artists he recorded with are Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Parliament-Funkadelic, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and Aerosmith.

Randy and Michael founded the Brecker Brothers band in 1975. They continued to meld jazz, funk, and rock, and the group recorded seven albums over the next two decades.

Michael solidified his tenor saxophone sound at this time, which was brighter than the average playerís. His distinct timbre spawned many imitators, but no equals. During this time he recorded with acoustic jazz pianist Hal Galper, proving that he could effortlessly switch between jazz and rock settings.

In 1979, he recorded and toured with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. The band, which included guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Jaco Pastorius, keyboardist Lyle Mays, and percussionist Don Alias, was featured on Mitchellís live album, Shadows and Light.

Around the same time, Michael and Randy opened a jazz club in Manhattanís West Village named Seventh Avenue South. Not only did many great musicians perform there, but Michael and vibraphonist Mike Manieri formed a new group, Steps, which appeared frequently at the club.

Steps began with drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Eddie Gomez, and keyboardist Don Grolnick. They recorded three albums, and with some shifting personnel, became Steps Ahead in 1983, when they recorded their eponymous album.

Steps Ahead was influential in its experimental use of electronics, as can be herd on the 1983 album Modern Times. During this period Brecker began experimenting with an electronic wind controller, or EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), a saxophone-keyed synthesizer. He pioneered the use of this instrument, producing unprecedented sounds and timbres.

Most musicians would have been swallowed up by the technology, but Breckerís technique and consummate musicianship controlled the sound, rather than vice versa. He can easily be acknowledged as the master of this instrument.

Surprisingly, Brecker waited until 1987 to record his first and long-waited solo album. It featured Pat Metheny, Kenny Kirkland, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette, and was produced by Don Grolnick, who also added the G minor blues composition, ĎNothing Personal.í

Brecker toured in support of the record, which began the solo career that lasted the rest of his life and through seven more albums. His musical force is evident throughout, and his prowess with the EWI is demonstrated on "Original Rayís" from the album Michael Brecker and "Itsbynne Reel (Donít Try this at Home)," a Brecker composition which pairs his EWI with the sounds of Nashville violinist Mark OíConnor. Brecker also collaborated with composer/arranger Claus Ogerman at this time.

The Brecker Brothers reunited in 1992, and recorded two more albums and toured the world. In 1995, Brecker joined Coltraneís pianist McCoy Tyner for the album Infinity. The next year, critics lauded his next solo album Tales From the Hudson, featuring Tyner, longtime Brecker pianist Joey Calderazzo, Pat Metheny, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

More recording followed, including 2001ís The Nearness of You, which showcased Breckerís tender and lyrical side. Later that year, Brecker teamed up with pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpet player Roy Hargrove for the album Directions in Music, where he paid musical homage to John Coltrane.

While playing at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan in 2004, Brecker felt a sharp pain in his neck. Doctors eventually discovered that he was suffering from a blood disorder called Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or MDS. His condition worsened, but in 2006 he recorded Pilgrimage, his last album, and his only recording with all original compositions.

Suffering from complications of leukemia brought about by the MDS, Brecker died on January 13th, 2007. On February 20th, 2007, friends and fans packed Town Hall in New York for a memorial concert. Pilgrimage was released on May 22, 2007.

In the course of his career, Brecker appeared on more than seven hundred jazz, rock, funk, and pop recordings. Pilgrimage won two Grammy awards, bringing his career total of Grammys to fifteen.

Michael Brecker will be remembered not only as a master of the saxophone, but as a true innovator in terms of musical concepts and sound. Many of his ideas picked up where Coltrane left off, but he could never be thought of as an imitator. His kind and caring nature endeared him to his friends and compatriots in the music community and beyond.

SELECT DISCOGRAPHY

Dreams Dreams 1970

Hal Galper Quintet Reach Out! (1976)

The Brecker Brothers Band Back to Back (1976)

The Brecker Brothers Heavy Metal Bebop (1978)

Joni Mitchell Shadows and Light (1979)

Chick Corea Three Quartets (1981))

Steps Paradox (1981)

Steps Ahead Steps Ahead (1983)

Steps Ahead Modern Times (1984)

Don Grolnick Hearts and Numbers (1985)

Michael Brecker Michael Brecker (1987)

Michael Brecker Donít Try This at Home (1988)

McCoy Tyner Trio featuring Michael Brecker Infinity (1995)

Michael Brecker Tales from the Hudson (1996)

Michael Brecker The Nearness of You (2000)

Herbie Hancock/Michael Brecker/Roy Hargrove

Directions in Music (2001)

Michael Brecker Pilgrimage (2008)

Contributor: Jonathan Dryden