June 19, 2024

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CD review: Michael Brecker – Naima (Live) 2022: Video, CD cover

Michael Leonard Brecker (March 29, 1949 – January 13, 2007) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. He was awarded 15 Grammy Awards as both performer and composer. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2004, and was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2007.

If you’re a jazz fan, you’re familiar with the music of Michael Brecker. Along with being a highly prolific artist, the tenor saxophonist was that rarity of rarities, a high-profile jazz musician who bounced seamlessly between genres and ended up playing small clubs, stadiums, and everything in between. Brecker led his own ensembles, was a member of well-known jazz and jazz-rock groups, collaborated with a number of famous pop stars, and the list of jazz musicians he played with could fill the rest of this page. If, between 1969 and 2007, you bought jazz records, read Down Beat, and visited jazz clubs, you might think you have an appreciation for how ubiquitous Michael Brecker was. I know, because I followed both jazz and pop music closely during that period—but it wasn’t until I read Bill Milkowski’s new biography, Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker, that I truly began to appreciate what an outsized presence Brecker achieved during those years. (By the way, if the biographer’s name seems familiar, there’s a reason; along with publishing books on Jaco Pastorius, Keith Richards, and others, Bill has been writing for Down Beat and other magazines for decades—and has been a long-term contributor to the music section of TAS.)

Michael Brecker was born on March 29, 1949, and died on January 13, 2007, from complications related to leukemia. Seeing him silenced at the height of his powers—he was only 57 when he passed—was a huge blow to the jazz community. One can only imagine how much music he had left in him. That said, he spent nearly 40 very busy years performing and recording music, and he has the discography to show it. As a result, there are many dots to connect in Ode to a Tenor Titan, and Milkowski does an excellent job of diving into the details while keeping the narrative moving at a fast clip. Quotes from dozens of musicians give you a sense of what made Michael Brecker stand out, and even at an early age. An abundance of natural talent didn’t hurt, but a strong work ethic also contributed. For much of his career, and especially early on, Brecker was a harsh self-critic, but in his case that only made him more determined to improve. It didn’t take long for this overachiever to self-actualize. “When he began playing, I was blown away,” guitarist John McLaughlin said of a 1969 New York loft performance where he first witnessed the saxophonist in action. “I really couldn’t believe a young player could play with such maturity and elegance.” Brecker was only 19 at the time.

During the first half of his career Brecker was involved in three bands that combined elements of jazz with rock, R&B, and funk. Formed in 1969, Dreams was bursting with talent (bandmates includes brother Randy Brecker on trumpet and Billy Cobham on drums), but they didn’t generate much of a buzz, and the group folded in 1971. The Brecker Brothers, whose front line included brothers Michael and Randy Brecker along with David Sanborn, released their first album in 1975, were more successful. An all-star band with shifting personnel, Steps (they later changed their name to Steps Ahead) stayed busy through the 80s and parts of the 90s. Collaborations with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and dozens of other pop artists also kept Brecker in the spotlight. Milkowski devotes several pages to Brecker’s participation in Simon’s Born at the Right Time tour, which began in 1991 and lasted two years, and that section sheds considerable light on the music industry as it existed at that time. Although the tour was lucrative for Brecker, this wasn’t the case of a jazz musician selling out to the pop world. Brecker learned a lot about Senegalese and West African music during that tour, and he was given an opportunity to explore in greater detail the EWI, a breath-operated electronic instrument. In retrospect, it’s intriguing that music as ambitious and forward-thinking as Simon’s could leave that much of an imprint on the music world, and kudos to Simon for appreciating Brecker’s talent and offering him a solo spot in the middle of the show.

It seemed inevitable that someone of Brecker’s stature would record a solo album, and while he discussed the possibility with Clive Davis as far back as the early 1970s, the first Michael Brecker-led album didn’t appear until 1987. After that his work as a bandleader played a central role in his career, and it says something about the stature of his playing that sidemen on these projects included such artists as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette. Milkowski describes these sessions in detail along with pointing out other highlights. Some of the albums Milkowski focuses on are well-known titles, but Milkowski’s description of Claus Ogerman’s Cityscapes, collaborations with Hal Galper, and Randy Brecker’s Score had me digging into my vinyl collection and remembering what impressive titles these were.

Biographies can be a tough slog if the subject is offputting, but Brecker was not only a likable person who was quite modest about his talent, he was an inspiration to other musicians. After battling a heroin addiction, Brecker ended up offering support to musicians fighting the same battle. He was a true jazz mensch, and Milkowski writes about him with the level of engagement that an artist of Brecker’s caliber deserves. This book deserves all the attention it’s going to get.

1. Delta City Blues
2. Naima
3. Hot House
4. American Dreams
5. Silence
6. Chan’s Song
7. First Song
8. Turnaround

Naima (Live) par Michael Brecker sur Apple Music

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