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He was a generational talent. After John Coltrane, there was no more revered and profoundly influential saxophonist on the planet than Michael Brecker. For those of us coming of age in the 1970s, during that transitional decade when the boundaries between rock and jazz had begun to blur, Brecker stood as a transcendent figure. He was our Trane.
In preparing to write the definitive Michael Brecker biography — a labor of love that took two and a half years to complete — I reflected back on the galvanizing performances I witnessed during 40 years of covering the jazz scene while fondly recalling the several interviews I did with Mike through different phases of his career. He was always soft-spoken, articulate, thoughtful in his responses. But more than that, I remember the humor — the playful grin, the easy laugh, the deadpan Jack Benny-inspired takes and the distinctly Yiddish shtick he could affect at the drop of a hat. There was a touch of Mel Brooks, Myron Cohen and Mickey Katz in this gentle, funny man, who also happened to be the baddest tenor sax player on the planet.
I first witnessed Michael in concert on Joni Mitchell’s 1979 Shadows and Light Tour, which rolled into the Alpine Valley Music Theatre on August 17 that year in bucolic East Troy, Wisconsin, about 35 miles from where I grew up in Milwaukee. He was tall, slender and bearded, and he blew with focused, Herculean authority on “Free Man in Paris,” “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” and Joni’s version of the melancholy Charles Mingus ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” as he mixed it up on the bandstand with kindred spirits Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Don Alias and Lyle Mays.
After moving to New York City in 1980, I saw Mike more frequently, often at Seventh Avenue South, the jazz club that he and brother Randy had opened in 1977. There I caught Mike in the early ’80s playing with Steps, Don Grolnick’s Idiot Savant, Jaco’s Word of Mouth band and Bob Mintzer’s big band. I finally got the chance to meet Michael face-to-face in January of 1982 when I landed an assignment to interview him about Cityscape, an impressive opus that had just come out on Warner Bros. Conceived by the renowned German composer-arranger-conductor Claus Ogerman, it showcased Mike’s commanding tenor voice over some dense, sometimes dissonant and very demanding orchestral music. Conducting the interview at the Warner Bros. offices in midtown Manhattan, I found him to be reserved and unassuming, almost introverted. His bashful persona seemed incongruous to the towering figure emitting torrents of notes with blast furnace intensity on the tenor sax that I had witnessed in concert. But he spoke eloquently, weighing each question before he spoke, and reeling off articulate and insightful answers.
I caught Mike in concert numerous times after that interview — with Steps at Seventh Avenue South and later with the newly christened Steps Ahead at the Bottom Line; with John Abercrombie’s group featuring bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine at the Village Vanguard; at Seventh Avenue South’s New Year’s Eve party in 1985 when Mike played with Jaco, Hiram Bullock, Kenwood Dennard and Mitch Forman (a.k.a. The Seventh Avenue South All-Stars).
Later I saw Michael leading his own band with guitarist Mike Stern, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Jeff Andrews and drummer Adam Nussbaum in their New York City debut in May 1987 at Fat Tuesday’s, the Manhattan club run by Stan Getz’s son Steve. A subterranean venue on 18th Street & Third Avenue, Fat Tuesday’s was the home to legendary guitarist-inventor Les Paul, who played there every Monday night. The club also showcased jazz greats like Betty Carter, Jimmy Smith, Chet Baker, Pepper Adams, Kenny Barron and Freddie Hubbard. And since I lived on 29th Street just off Third Avenue at the time, I was there all the time. On this particular night that Michael unveiled his new band, I was seated at a ringside table along with wives and girlfriends of the band members. And I still have a distinct memory of his 6-foot 4-1/2 inch frame bobbing and weaving on the bandstand during one particularly scorching solo, his head nearly scraping the ceiling every time it jerked back in the throes of full beast mode.
In subsequent years, I saw Mike lead groups at the Blue Note, Joe’s Pub, Iridium and Birdland, and also caught him with brother Randy in Return of the Brecker Brothers gigs at the Blue Note and Town Hall. So many gigs now flood my memory — his special guest appearance with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters II band in 1988 at the Beacon Theater; his premiere of the Saxophone Summit, the Trane-inspired group with fellow saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano that played Birdland in 1999; the unveiling of his 15-piece Quindectet at Iridium in November 2003. And I was also in attendance at Carnegie Hall the night Michael made his surprise appearance at Herbie Hancock’s 66th birthday gala in June 2006, long after he had been sidelined by a life-threatening bone marrow disease.
But it was a performance five months after that Michael Brecker Band debut at Fat Tuesday’s in 1987 that carried the most personal meaning for me. I had just come off cancer surgery that summer, and a regimen of followup radiation therapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital (the same place that Michael would be visiting regularly nearly 20 years later). And since I, like many other freelancers at that time, didn’t have health insurance, a few kind colleagues helped organize a benefit concert for me at the old Tramps nightclub, a blues and roots venue on East 15th Street. Proprietor Terry Dunne donated the space for this Monday evening event on October 12, 1987. With fellow scribe Howard Mandel acting as emcee, several notable musicians showed up to play gratis to help raise money for my hospital bills. Mike and Leni Stern played duets. Then Michael jammed with John Scofield, Mike Stern, pianist Laszlo Gardony, bassist Jeff Andrews and drummer Danny Gottlieb on “Straight No Chaser,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Alone Together,” while a group featuring alto saxophonist John Zorn, slide guitarist David Tronzo, bassist Ed Maguire and drummer Bobby Previte explored the outer fringes. And my own band, The Pit Bulls, featuring alto saxophonist Steve Buchanan, bassist Maguire, drummer Billy McClellan and special guest Robert Quine, put an exclamation point on the proceedings with some edgy, blues-tinged punk-funk. What a night!
Thirty-two years later, I began the exhaustive process of writing this book. After being invited into people’s homes to share their stories about Michael, I was profoundly moved to see how deeply he touched the lives of so many through his music, his humility and humanity. He touched my life, as well.
Michael Brecker lived a rich life — fame and accolades, universal respect and admiration from his colleagues, as well as an abundance of unconditional love from his wife and soulmate Susan and his two adoring children, Jessica and Sam. We all miss him and still love him madly.
Longtime JAZZIZ contributor Bill Milkowski is the author of Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker (Backbeat Books).