If 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.