Artist Spotlight: Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker was the Great Jazz Saxophonist of the 1990s and 2000s. (Sorry, Branford.) His stylistic and harmonic innovations have been studied by musicians for years, and the Internet is full of videos demonstrating how to replicate his sound, or featuring transcriptions of his most influential works.

That “influential” tag almost doomed him to being one of those musicians whose fanbase consists mostly of other musicians—say, a Jaco Pastorius of the sax. It did not help that he played jazz, which is now little more than the withered stump of a limb amputated from the body of popular music decades ago. But Brecker refused to turn up his nose at pop, rock, or funk, and he played with some of the best in the business during a career that spanned nearly 40 years.

More importantly, he created some incredible music, and I’m excited to share and discuss it here. Because of his huge output, I can only focus on a few highlights. I’ll post additional recommendations in the comments.

Michael and his brother Randy formed the aptly named jazz fusion band The Brecker Brothers in the mid-1970s. They’re probably best known now for their use of guitar effects on wind instruments. Ever heard a trumpet played with a crybaby wah-wah pedal, or a saxophone with an octavider and Mu-Tron III? Actually, I bet you have, but at the time, this was a divisive practice among jazz musicians. In 1976’s “Grease Piece,” above, Michael solos (beginning at 1:35) with a pickup stuck in his saxophone’s neck, and the recording splits the acoustic and electric sounds across the left and right sides of the stereo channels.

More representative of Michael’s future output is “Some Skunk Funk,” from the brothers’ first record in 1975. You’ll notice the band takes what could have been a simple funk groove and complicates it with overly long and unexpected melodic lines. That’s typical of Michael—his music is typically more cerebral than groovy. Fun fact: future Lethal Weapon soundtrack-hog David Sanborn played in this band as well.


The Brecker Brothers released their last record in 1981, around the time Smooth Jazz started driving yet another stake into real jazz’s bloated corpse. Fuck you, Kenneth Gorelick.

This is also the time that Michael’s career as a session musician really took off. It’s funny for me to picture him working on call for anonymous studio sessions, because I got into him after his later solo career made him a big name in jazz. Why would a star of his magnitude, I wondered, waste time playing on some crap record for very little money? It’s the equivalent of Sting doing vocals on a Sugababes record , or Slash playing on an Insane Clown Posse release . Then again, both of those things really happened, so …

You have undoubtedly heard Brecker’s saxophone. He played on the soundtracks for The Wiz, The Warriors, and Footloose. He played (with Randy) on Aerosmith’s “Same Old Song and Dance.” He played the sax solo on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” He played for James Brown, Billy Joel, Lou Reed, Karen Carpenter, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan, John Lennon, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Donny Osmond(!), James Taylor, Frank Zappa, and several iterations of Parliament/Funkadelic. He was briefly in the Saturday Night Live band. He even played on a goddamn Jane Fonda workout video, and you should really only listen to about twenty seconds of it below.

Brecker finally went solo in 1987, and Michael Brecker nabbed Album of the Year in both Down Beat and Jazziz magazines. I’m sure you have copies of these fine publications sitting on your coffee table right now. Anyway, the songs on this record offered a preview of what Brecker’s solo compositions and performances would come to sound like:

· Experimentation with saxophone synthesizers, such as the Akai EWI
· Chord substitutions based on John Coltrane’s legendary “Giant Steps” sequence
· Heavy use of augmented and diminished scales
· Groundbreaking application of advanced saxophone techniques like harmonic overtones and multiphonics

All of these characteristics are present on “Itsbynne Reel,” a track from Brecker’s second solo album, 1988’s Don’t Try This At Home. The song is famous among saxophonists as a modern update of the traditional Irish reel that is also extremely difficult to play. A lot of 1980s music that relies on synthesizers has aged poorly, but we’re talking about Michael Brecker here, not some big-haired keytarist with a John Oates moustache. Not only does he blow through a musically interesting and technically demanding song, he uses the EWI to play a duet with himself at the end of the track—again, something easily achievable using common recording techniques in pop and rock music that most serious jazz musicians would not admit to employing at that time.

After his first three solo albums, Brecker dialed down his pop and rock session gigs. He did go on tour with Paul Simon, but from this point on, he otherwise limited his appearances on other artists’ records almost entirely to jazz musicians. Sorry, Jane Fonda.

While Brecker was becoming more popular and, perhaps, respected than he had ever been, the criticisms of his style didn’t change. Many listeners and critics felt he was a virtuoso who played difficult music for the sake of showing off rather than being musically eloquent or fun. A decent rejoinder to that claim would be “Delta City Blues,” from 1998’s Two Blocks From the Edge. While it showcases Brecker’s use of technically challenging harmonic overtones (on a sax, this is playing one note with your fingers while forcing another note out by changing your airflow and mouth position) it’s also a rollicking blues number that remains one of his most popular tunes.

Brecker had mostly dropped the saxophone synthesizersand effects pedals from his recordings by this point, choosing to push the envelope through more traditional means, such as the aforementioned sax techniques, or, on 2003’s Wide Angles, by forming a “quindectet” that melded a standard jazz rhythm section with strings, flute, oboe, and bass clarinet. While this opened up a new tonal palette for him to work with, and gave greater voice to all those extended chords, it wasn’t exactly innovative—jazz musicians have been doing this for decades, notably artsits like Lalo Schifrin, Charles Mingus, and, of course, Miles Davis.

Even as Brecker continued to dazzle with his virtuosity, those same criticisms remained. Compared to the historic sax greats, Brecker’s catalog felt shallow somehow. Charlie Parker had heroin-fueled explosions like “Now’s the Time”; John Coltrane created a whole series of spiritual exaltations; Cannonball Adderley sang like who knows what on “Autumn Leaves.” But what about Brecker? His career was reaching its peak, yet he still lacked his own A Love Supreme.

Then he got cancer.

The diagnosis in 2005 was myelodysplastic syndrome, and Brecker had to stop playing due to acute muscle pain. He underwent chemotherapy and sought a matching bone marrow donor. None materialized. While the effects of chemo wore off, the cancer did not go away. So Brecker decided to cut a new album.

He pulled together a handful of greats—Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, John Patitucci, and Jack DeJohnette—and started recording in 2006. Listening to the songs, there is no indication that one of the musicians is dying. Brecker sounds as good as he ever did. It was also around this time that he became a follower of Nichiren Buddhism, and that may be why the album is called Pilgrimage rather than something defiant, like Immortal, or defeated, like Legacy.

The title track on Pilgrimage has all the hallmarks of a Michael Brecker song. It’s technically challenging and compositionally advanced. But it’s also much more. Is it cheap to suggest that pending mortality finally gave Brecker the chance to write and perform something transcendent? Because this is the last track on the album, and it was recorded with the knowledge that it would likely be the final song he would ever share with the world.

And it was. A who’s who of jazz turned out for Brecker’s funeral in 2007, along with other collaborators like Paul Simon and James Taylor. Herbie and Wayne Shorter led a buddhist chant with Brecker’s son. The New York Times covered the service. Everyone was sad. I’m sad. But then I think about the music that Brecker left behind, and that even now there’s still a lot of it I haven’t heard. And that makes me feel okay again.