How Michael Brecker Reinvented the Concept of Jazz Hero
Michael Brecker was a legend among saxophonists and practice room fanatics, but 15 years after his death, the music media still undervalues his artistry
Tomorrow marks the 15th anniversary of Michael Brecker’s death at age 57. That gives me a good excuse to reassess his legacy. The release of Bill Milkowski’s new book on the saxophonist was another useful prod, providing me with additional information and insights.
I hope the essay below raises Brecker’s reputation a notch among critics—although it’s safe to say that saxophonists have long known what a formidable presence he was on the horn.
I note with regret that Brecker never got named a NEA Jazz Master, and only made it into the Downbeat Hall of Fame after his death, when readers (not critics) voted him in. Even today, you won’t find Brecker in the Jazz at Lincoln Center jazz hall of fame. None of his recordings are included among the hundreds honored by the Library of Congress in their National Recording Registry. And his name is conspicuously absent on many other honor rolls and ceremonial lists.
I’ve been guilty myself of undervaluing his contributions—maybe I simply took Michael Brecker for granted too long, or perhaps paid too much attention to the prevailing groupthink. So this essay is also a way of making personal amends.
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How Michael Brecker Reinvented the Concept of Jazz Hero
by Ted Gioia
When I was learning the ropes as a jazz writer, I studied all the leading critics in the field. But I soon learned that each had a different take on the same art form. If I sought a traditional opinion, I read Whitney Balliett or Stanley Dance. If I wanted a more avant-garde perspective, I turned to Amiri Baraka or Valerie Wilmer. For analytical approaches, I studied Gunther Schuller or Martin Williams. For subjective reportage, I opted for Gene Lees or Nat Hentoff. Or if wanted a consensus view, someone who pitched it right down the middle, I consulted Gary Giddins. or Dan Morgenstern. On the contrary, if I wanted someone to shake me up and start an argument, I picked up a book by James Lincoln Collier or Stanley Crouch.
But there was one thing they all had in common.
That was the curious fact that none of these critics, as far as I could tell, had ever written at length about sax hero Michael Brecker. I’ve been guilty of that same omission too—although I now hope to make up for it.
Why is this surprising? For the simple reason that almost every saxophonist I met in the closing decades of the 20th century treated Brecker as a superstar at the pinnacle of the jazz craft. This was especially true of students at college jazz programs, where Brecker was a revered name, not far below John Coltrane in the hierarchy of jazz saxophony. And Coltrane, even back then, was a distant historical figure none of these jazz students had ever seen perform live. Brecker, in contrast, was a horn-playing god who walked among us.
That was probably the first glimpse I had at the wide gap between the experts who write about jazz, and the musicians who create it. I’ve now grown used to this divide, but I still struggle to understand it. How can Michael Brecker be the jazz sax hero among other hornplayers, but get so little respect from the critical establishment?
“Michael Brecker’s most significant coverage in Time magazine came with one paragraph devoted to his obituary. He was never mentioned in Newsweek during his entire lifetime. My search of The New Yorker archive comes up empty-handed. If there was full-scale profile in Rolling Stone or The Village Voice, I must have missed it. . . .”
A fascinating new book on Michael Brecker by Bill Milkowski, Ode to a Tenor Titan, goes a long way toward answering that question, but even better, this star tenorist is finally treated at length with the kind of discerning analysis he deserves—and has long received, but only in the practice rooms of his acolytes. Their numbers are many.
For guidance on this subject, Milkowski wisely consults the musicians, who are unambiguous in their assessment—especially those who shared the stage with him. “In terms of just pure technique, there was nobody who could touch Mike,” remarks David Sanborn, who knew from firsthand experience what it was like to engage in a horn battle with Brecker. “He had so much more technical ability than any other saxophone player I’ve ever known or even heard about in my life.” Guitarist Pat Metheny emphasizes the same point: “The most treacherous position in jazz is being the guy on the bandstand who has to take a solo right after Michael Brecker.”
Off the bandstand, Brecker neither looked nor acted the part of the jazz hero—if I told you to pick the “next Coltrane” out of a police lineup, you would pass over Michael Brecker as merely an innocent bystander. His mastery came from hard work, not swagger and posturing. In the preface to this book, trumpeter and sibling Randy Brecker even points out that his brother Michael “spent the better part of his life in basements.” Here he “studied, studied, and studied some more.”
Perhaps you can already start to understand why the best student musicians would idolize Michael Brecker—he was a practice room fanatic just like them. By the same token, jazz critics want a more exciting backstory than the slow, exacting discipline that Brecker imposed on his craft over a period of years and decades. There are no arrests or violent escapades or strident controversies in his biography, and that’s part of the reason why you will never see a Brecker biopic.
And then there were the embarrassing facts that (1) Brecker sold lots of records, (2) he enthusiastically embraced commercial and crossover styles, and (3) he played on a bunch of records with famous pop musicians. I hate to have to remind you of this, but each of those are problematic achievements among jazz insiders.
The Breckers may not have been approved hipsters, but they were part of a musical family—Michael’s great uncle Louis Brecker founded the iconic Roseland Ballroom—but of an unassuming kind that stayed behind the scenes. The future sax star was born in Philadelphia in 1949, and grew up in the suburbs. His father Bobby Brecker was a lawyer who played jazz on the side, and would take Michael to hear jazz stars who came to town and lead family jam sessions in the living room.
“Instead of taking us to the baseball game or football game, my dad took us to hear live jazz concerts,” Brecker later recalled. “So, by the time I was thirteen, I had already heard Miles Davis a couple of times, I heard Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman’s band, Count Basie’s band. . . . on and on and on.”
Brecker learned his craft in the most banal way possible—in school bands, at music camps, and in private lessons. But he advanced rapidly. A teacher from his teen years recalls that another star pupil, who had the slot right after Michael, asked to change the time of his lesson—because it was so intimidating to follow this sax hotshot, even if only on the teacher’s calendar.
At age 19, Brecker recorded alongside other huge talents for a major label in the rock-with-horns band Dreams. This served as a prototype for the high-energy fusion band he would lead with Randy, called the Brecker Brothers, which released six albums on the Arista label between 1975 and 1981.
From the start, this band grabbed the attention of music fans with a mixture of funk, rock, and modal-oriented jazz that pushed at the limits of the acceptable fusion sounds of the day. Brecker was like a funkier Coltrane, more groove-oriented but with wild quasi-polytonal licks you just didn’t hear in commercial music back then. The band’s unison horn lines were far more complex than your typical fusion outing, and the whole ensemble played with a kind of effortless virtuosity that still managed to rock heavy.
No one else was combining these ingredients in the same way. So it’s hardly surprising that a lot of influential folks started paying close attention.
Consider these entries from Michael Brecker’s appointment book for 1977:
January 9—Norman Connors date—$140
January 12—Bette Midler, Atlantic Studio
January 14—Hank Crawford, A&R Studios
January 19—J. Geils Band, Record Plant
January 27—Toyota commercial, 1 PM
January 28—Noxema commercial, 10AM
February 16—Chet Baker/Sebesky, Sound Idea Studios
February 23—Charles Earland, Soundworks Studio (three sessions)
March 20—TV bumpers
March 31—Average White Band, Atlantic Studios
April 20—Arif Mardin, Atlantic Studios, 9-12
April 26—Will Power, three songs
June 27—Wild Cherry, Suma Recording Studio
June 28—Beach Day
June 30—Bob James, A&R Studios
July 26—Rupert Holmes, Power Station
August 2—Toyota commercial
August 8—Phoebe Snow, A&R Studios
August 13—Phoebe Snow, Central Park, 6:30
August 16—Players Association (leaders fee—two sessions)
August 19—Patti Austin, Electric Lady (double scale)
August 31—Fred Wesley, United Sound Studios
September 1—Paul Simon, 7-10 PM (tenor)
September 2—Dan Weiss, Sigma Sound, 7-11 (bring lyricon)
The names are, of course, impressive, but the range of activities is almost too wide to comprehend. That year found Brecker on major jazz, rock, pop, disco, and funk albums, as well as on TV commercials and high profile live performances alongside superstars in various genres.
And that was just the start. During 1978, Michael Brecker showed up on albums released by Frank Zappa, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Robert Palmer, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Billy Cobham, Hal Galper, Joanne Brackeen, Larry Coryell, and Jon Faddis, among others. And during this same period, Brecker was pursuing his ‘own thing’ along with brother Randy in the Brecker Brothers, and later on his own classic leader dates.
Now we’ve come to the big reason why critics never thought Michael Brecker was cool enough for that full-scale profile in The New Yorker. Jazz legends are expected to be above disco sessions and Toyota commercials. And if they do some of this work on the side, all those rock and commercial influences are supposed to disappear when they record their own albums. But Brecker had completely assimilated a populist attitude into his personal style. When he played over a rock or funk groove, he wasn’t trying to cross over, he was just being himself.
Brecker could have built an extraordinary career as a solo bandleader at this point. But instead he helped launch another collective ensemble, Steps Ahead, at the end of the decade. The fusion movement was starting to lose momentum at this juncture, and more acoustic sounds were returning to the forefront of this music. Steps Ahead was part of this shift, less rock-oriented than the Brecker Brothers, but still brandishing strong grooves and a sassy in-your-face attitude.
Strange as it sounds, Brecker didn’t start releasing albums under his name as solo leader until the late 1980s—when he was almost forty years old. The eponymous album Michael Brecker from 1987 finds him fronting a monster group, consisting of Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, and Kenny Kirkland. Brecker, by his own admission, was nervous during the recording of this project, anxious perhaps about stepping forth as a solo leader under the aegis of the Impulse label, where Coltrane, Rollins, and other sax legends had made their mark in earlier decades. Perhaps the legendary band raised the level of pressure, although Brecker had recorded with many of them before on Metheny’s 80/81 project (a very underrated album, by the way).
My candid assessment, however, is that Michael Brecker’s heaviest burden was nothing more, nor less, than the adulation and expectations of his fans in all those music school practice rooms. They looked to him as as the defining sax voice of the era, and his first leader date needed to demonstrate his jazz hero status in all its glory.
The resulting music shows Brecker completely in command, a world-beating talent in full possession of all his powers. In fact, I would tell you this is one of the most impressive debut albums in jazz history, except it’s hard to consider this an actual debut given the extraordinary credits Brecker had racked up before coming to this moment. But he was now at the peak of his career, playing in closer alignment with the jazz tradition than ever before. But even when he turned to the EWI—pronounced EE-wee, and standing for Electronic Wind Instrument, a 1970s innovation from Nyle Steiner—the end result is exhilarating. Horn fans offered their enthusiastic endorsement, and the album spent 10 weeks at the top of Billboard’s jazz chart.
Don’t Try This at Home, released by Brecker the following year, won a Grammy—and, as the name attests, solidified the saxophonist’s mystique among student musicians, many of whom sadly knew that they couldn’t try this kind of stuff at home. And not just because of Brecker’s fiery and freewheeling horn lines, but also because he had again brought an unbeatable band into the studio, this time featuring Herbie Hancock alongside Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette in the rhythm section.
In the early 1990s, Brecker stepped back from the mainstream jazz scene, working extensively with Paul Simon and recording in a more fusion-oriented vein for the GRP label. He ended up spending the better part of two years on the road with Simon, which gave him a unique chance to see the world, traveling on private jets and hanging out with people like Nelson Mandela. The resulting financial security was not the least of the benefits—touring with Simon provided “life-changing money” in the words of his wife Susan Brecker, and helped pay for their new home in Hastings, New York.
“This was only his fourth solo leader date, and—as subsequent events would sadly make clear—Brecker was already in the late stages of his career. When he recorded his 1999 album Time is of the Essence, he hardly knew the unintentional irony residing in the title.”
Fans, meanwhile, waited more than five years before a new solo leader album appeared in record stores. But Tales from the Hudson from 1996 was worth waiting for. Here again Brecker drew on some of the greatest musicians in the world, including McCoy Tyner, Pat Metheny and Dave Holland. The album won two Grammys. Brecker, for his part, was in a rare situation that wherever he went, whatever the music genre, he was playing with the greatest stars and showcasing his talents in the most prominent places.
Even so, this was only his fourth solo leader date, and—as subsequent events would sadly make clear—Brecker was already in the late stages of his career. When he recorded his 1999 album Time is of the Essence, he hardly knew the unintentional irony residing in the title. At the end of that year, he performed with Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman in the Saxophone Summit project, which electrified audiences at Birdland. A few weeks later, Brecker led his own quartet at a New York gig that inspired critic David Adler to proclaim: “A hook-and-ladder company is probably still working to put out the fire that Michael Brecker’s quartet ignited last week at the Blue Note.” If you just judged by the music, you would think this horn player was invincible, a superhero saxophonist equipped for all situations.
But in 2000 he started experiencing back pains, and sometimes couldn’t even make the gig. The next year, his tour with Herbie Hancock was complicated by the onset of Hepatitis C and the need for interferon treatments that left him weakened and nauseated. Yet the live album recorded by that band at Massey Hall shows no signs of the saxophonist’s failing health. The record earned two Grammy awards, and Brecker seemed to be in the ideal setting for his horn heroics, playing again with some of the greatest musicians in the world—in addition to Hancock, the band included Roy Hargrove, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade—in front of an enthusiastic audience at a historic concert hall.
Brecker was now constantly putting himself into the most challenging musical situations. In December 2001, he recorded a sax battle with Branford Marsalis for Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts’s album Bar Talk—a blistering, take-no-prisoners encounter that deserves to be better known. A few days later, he was gigging with Chick Corea, Steve Gadd, and Eddie Gomez at the Blue Note. The next month he was doing saxophone duels again on stage with Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. A few weeks later, he was recording with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden. And if you turned on a jazz radio station around this time, you would hear Brecker’s new album with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny.
In 2003, however, Brecker’s physical condition was so fragile that he sometimes needed a wheelchair. Around the same time he received an honorary doctorate at Berklee, doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital diagnosed a cracked vertebrae, which led to more cancelled gigs. The diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a cancer that compromises the ability of bone marrow to produce healthy blood cells, wouldn’t happen until the following year, but Brecker must have already had a sense that something was seriously out of kilter in his system.
Yet even as his health deteriorated, Brecker continued to work on a final recording project. Jack DeJohnette recalls:
“It was amazing. He drove himself to the studio every day, and he offered to drive people home afterwards. At some point during those sessions he said he couldn’t feel his legs, but he never complained. I think he knew he had limited time, and he wanted to go out doing something creative.”
Herbie Hancock, also featured on that last album, commented: “He was still weak. But. . . as soon as soon as he put the saxophone in his mouth, he was like Superman. . . . It was like next level Michael Brecker on that record.” His playing was so strong, people at the session started talking about the band performing live in concert. Judging from the vitality of the music, many even believed that Brecker was going to beat this disease.
But the MDS had developed into full-blown leukemia. It wasn’t recovery, but sheer will power that got Brecker through the sessions. He died on January 13, 2007 at age 57. But just a four days before his death, he approved the final mixes for this last album, aptly entitled Pilgrimage. Four months after his death, Pilgrimage was released, and earned two posthumous Grammy awards.
Bill Milkowski has done us a great service by documenting Michael Brecker’s life with such care and understanding. Even so, it’s a shame how big a gap this book fills.
Michael Brecker left the scene as a legend, but somehow never seemed cool enough or sufficiently transgressive to get respect from the mainstream media. His most significant coverage in Time magazine came with one paragraph devoted to his obituary. He was never mentioned in Newsweek during his entire lifetime. My search of The New Yorker archive comes up empty-handed. If there was a full-scale profile in Rolling Stone or The Village Voice, I must have missed it. Online searches indicate that Brecker’s death got more coverage than any of his albums or tours.
But the musicians will tell it to you straight. Milkowski concludes his book with glowing Brecker testimonials from 24 leading jazz artists, many of them superstars in their own right. They know how good he was from firsthand experience—many of them had to match up to his awe-inspiring standards in real time on the bandstand. And they are reliable guides for the rest of us. Perhaps we still aren’t ready for what a sax hero looks like in an age of jazz schools and practice room pedagogy, but if they ever put up a statue to that new kind of horn champion, it would look just Michael Brecker. Maybe it’s time to get started on that monument.