Missing Michael Brecker

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.

10 comments on “Missing Michael Brecker

  1. Andrew Layton

    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.

    1. George Winstone

      Have you listened to Cityscape? It sounds like you’ve made your mind up but for me all aspects of his playing are beautiful. He is the example of technique being used to play what you wish to play not by convention. Considering his mastery of the instrument and his expansion of the harmonic language of jazz his place in the history of the music rests beside other innovators like parker and coltrane

  2. Steve DeGarmo

    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

    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
    =O

  4. Bruce W.

    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

    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

    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

    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

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  9. rjay

    I am mind blown that this dude gets any recognition for anything other than being a supercilious technocrat. Sure he is technically masterful but he doesn’t cut it playing jazz. Instead he makes up trash jangled jingles as some high fluting work of art. His whole following seems like a bunch of malcontent white people who cant dance and somehow need to crown a White Jazz God to stand next to the truly Great Black ones. NO cigar for Brecker. Since when does technique equal art? His tone is an abominably screechy, his rhythm without any sense of syncopation or spacing (most of his followers don’t seem to comprehend how integral syncopation is to jazz) and his harmony non existent, unless they are intellectualizing sound itself; which is a contradiction in terms. But all I seem to hear is this equating him with Coltrane. Well for one thing, Coltrane was completely lost in late stages of his career. He continued seeking but he was no longer finding. So comparing him to that stage of Coltrane may be valid but that wasn’t where Trance earned his kudos or rep. It was earlier Trane that earned that status and you don’t have to stay good because you at one time you were good. Sometimes it’s best to stay where you are. Coltrane got off track. But none of the great jazz musicians would ever be caught dead playing shampoo commercials for TV and accompanying Soppy James Taylor songs. I think Brecker is a White Man’s dreamt up marketing scheme to make give white folk their very own White Jazz Great. It hasn’t happened and I’m a white guy saying this; not a black guy. The closest we white people have come to it are players like Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper and early Stan Getz, but really they lacked the edge of Prez, Rollins, Mobley, Trane, Henderson or Shorter; to name some of the best. They had that extra intangible something. There are countless musicians and painters who are technically masterful and they make often make excellent teachers and studio musicians but they don’t have the feeling and soul to be called Great Artists. Brecker is total hype as an Artiste.

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