Michael Brecker - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


One of the most popular and influential tenor saxophonists of his time, Michael Brecker racked up an impressive 15 Grammy awards from 1988-2007. With a powerful, controlled sound and enviable technique that extended across the full range of the tenor, he combined the earthy and soulful styles of King Curtis and Junior Walker with the more rarified concepts of John Coltrane. His successful career as a “hired gun” in the pop music world was built on what Ben Ratliff of The New York Times described as his skill of condensing “exciting devices into short spaces.”


            Michael Brecker was born on March 29, 1949, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he grew up in a musical household. His father, a lawyer and jazz pianist, played jazz records at home for Michael and his older brother Randy, and took them to hear stars like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk in person. Michael started on clarinet at six, switched to alto sax a few years later, then decided, under the spell of John Coltrane’s music, to concentrate on tenor in high school. Meanwhile, Randy had been studying trumpet and they both decided to continue with formal music education at Indiana University. By the age of nineteen, though, Michael discovered his preference for playing music over academia, and he left for New York.


            As Brecker later recalled the era in Down Beat, “It was a special time to be in New York. That's when the so-called boundaries between what was then pop music and jazz were becoming very blurry.” The saxophonist quickly found work around town before joining the early jazz-rock group Dreams in 1970, an influential live act on the New York scene. The Brecker brothers formed the front line of the Horace Silver quintet in 1972 and 1973. In 1974, the pair decided to go out on their own as The Brecker Brothers Band, a unit that recorded a series of big band fusion albums for Arista. Business as well as musical partners, the brothers co-owned the New York jazz club Seventh Avenue South. Jam sessions at the club with keyboardist/vibes player Mike Mainieri, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd led to formation of Steps (later known as Steps Ahead) in 1979, with Peter Erskine replacing Gadd in 1980.


            In addition to these associations, in the Seventies and Eighties Michael Brecker became a first-call studio musicians, playing on albums by artists as varied as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Aerosmith, James Taylor, Chet Baker, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, McCoy Tyner, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, Pat Metheny and Frank Zappa.


            Known up to that point largely as a fusion and pop-oriented musician, in the early Eighties, Brecker began to appear more often in contexts that increased his visibility and reputation in the jazz world. A stint with guitarist Pat Metheny in his 80/81 band (1980 - ECM) alongside bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette was  followed by an appearance with pianist Chick Corea on Three Quartets (1981 - Warner Bros.).


            Brecker didn’t cut his first record as a leader until 1987, at the age of 38. Michael Brecker (1987 - Impulse), with the saxophonist leading a quintet with Metheny, Haden, DeJohnette, and pianist Kenny Kirkland, was voted "Jazz Album of the Year" in Down Beat and Jazziz magazines. Brecker won his first Grammy for the follow-up, Don't Try This At Home (1988 - Impulse). In the Eighties and Nineties, Brecker experimented with an electronic instrument called the EWI. The technology allowed him to alter, layer, loop and sample sound in a real time setting.


            After touring with Paul Simon as featured soloist for a year and a half in the early Nineties, Brecker reunited with brother Randy for Return of the Brecker Brothers (1992 - GRP) and Out of the Loop (1994 - GRP). He appeared on pianist McCoy Tyner's Infinity (1995 - Impulse), and the following year played on Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard (1996 - Verve). Brecker was named "Best Soloist of the Year" by JazzLife and "Jazz Man of the Year" by Swing Journal in 1997, following the success of Tales From the Hudson (1997 - Impulse), which featured Metheny, DeJohnette, Tyner, and bassist Dave Holland. In the late Nineties, Brecker led a quartet with Joey Calderazzo on piano, James Genus on bass, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, which recorded Two Blocks From the Edge (1997 - Verve). Pat Metheny, organist Larry Goldings and drummer Elvin Jones appeared on Brecker’s next album, Time Is Of the Essence (1999 - Verve). For his ballad project Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (2000 - Verve), Brecker assembled an all-star group of Metheny, Hancock, Haden and DeJohnette, with James Taylor contributing vocals to two songs. The album was named "Record of the Year" and Brecker was hailed as "Artist of the Year" in both the Critics' and Readers' Polls of Swing Journal.


            In the early years of the new century, Brecker continued to work in a wide array of contexts, recording with artistst as varied as Haden, bassist Harvie S, and vocalist Steve Tyrell. Along with Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Brecker did a concert tour in late 2001 to celebrate the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Directions In Music (2002 - Verve) offered music from a performance at Toronto's Massey Hall. Brecker started 2003 by recording Wide Angles (Verve), a large ensemble record that featured his 15-piece quindectet.


            Brecker was in great pain during an August 2004 performance at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival. An initial diagnosis of a cracked vertebra led to the discovery of a bone marrow disorder, myelodysplastic syndrome. He continued to record, albeit sparingly, appearing with pianist Eddie Palmieri and saxophonist Odean Pope in 2005, and vocalist Carmen Cuesta-Loeb and bassist Chris Minh Doky in 2006. Brecker’s final album as a leader marked the first time he recorded only his own compositions. With another all-star group including Metheny, Hancock, DeJohnette, pianist Brad Mehldau, and bassist John Patitucci, Pilgrimage (Heads Up ) was released to extremely positive reviews and received two Grammy nominations. Despite a comprehensive world-wide search for a matching bone donor and an experimental blood stem cell transplant, Brecker passed away from leukemia on January 13, 2007.


            A significant contributor to hundreds of records across the jazz-pop specrum and one of the most intensely studied modern saxophonists, Michael Brecker leaves a secure legacy as a giant of the tenor saxophone.

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