Michael Brecker Dies at 57, the voice of the modern saxophone

Published: January 14, 2007
New York Times

Michael Brecker, a saxophonist who won 11 Grammy Awards and was among the most influential musicians in jazz since the 1960s, died yesterday at a hospital in New York City. He was 57 and lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The cause of death was leukemia, said Darryl Pitt, his manager.

Having taken a deep understanding of John Coltrane’s saxophone vocabulary and applied it to music that merged with mainstream culture — particularly jazz fusion and singer-songwriter pop of the 1970s and 80s — Mr. Brecker spread his sound all over the world.

For a time, Mr. Brecker seemed nearly ubiquitous. His discography — it contains more than 900 albums — started in 1969, playing on the record “Score,” with a band led by his brother, the trumpeter Randy Brecker. It continued in 1970 with an album by Dreams, the jazz-rock band he led with his brother and the drummer Billy Cobham.

His long list of sideman work from then on wended through hundreds more records, including those by Frank Zappa, Aerosmith, James Brown, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Funkadelic, Steely Dan, John Lennon, Elton John, and James Taylor, as well as (on the jazz side) Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Papo Vasquez. His 11 Grammys included two for “Wide Angles,” his ambitious last album, released in 2003 with a fifteen-piece band he called the Quindectet.

His highest achievements were his own albums, both under his own name (starting in 1986) and with the Brecker Brothers band, as well as his early 80s work with the group Steps Ahead. Mr. Brecker was scheduled to tour with a reunited version of Steps Ahead in the summer of 2005 when his condition was publicly announced — initially as myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder, which finally progressed to leukemia — and much of his work had to stop.

Mr. Brecker grew up in a musical family in Philadelphia; his father was a lawyer who played jazz piano. He started playing the clarinet at the age 6, switched to alto saxophone in the eighth grade, and finally settled on tenor saxophone in the tenth. He started to attend Indiana University — as did his brother Randy. After initially pursuing a music degree and then briefly switching to pre-med, he quickly discovered he preferred to be playing music. He left for New York at 19.

For most of the 1970s and through the mid-80s he worked hard in studio sessions, becoming a fixture on albums by the Southern California pop singer-songwriter movement, including those by Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. But for hard-core jazz enthusiasts, it was his work of the early 80s — on Steps Ahead’s first two albums, when the band was simply called Steps — as well as Chick Corea’s “Three Quartets,” from 1981, and Pat Metheny’s “80/81,” from 1980, that cemented his reputation as a great player.

His tone was strong and focused, and some of his recognizable language echoed Coltrane’s sound. But having worked in pop, where a solo must be strong and to the point, Mr. Brecker was above all a condenser of exciting devices into short spaces. He could fold the full pitch range of the horn into a short solo, from altissimo to the lowest notes, and connect rarefied ideas to the rich, soulful phrasing of saxophonists like Junior Walker.

In the 1980s and 1990s he experimented with the electronic wind instrument called the EWI, which allowed him to blow through an electronic hornlike device, play a range of sampled sounds, and multitrack them in real time. He began experimenting with the instrument again in the last few years.

With the onset of his illness, he and his family called for bone-marrow donors at international jazz festivals, synagogues, and Jewish community centers around America; tens of thousands responded. Working sporadically over the last year, he managed to complete his final album two weeks ago, Mr. Pitt said.

He is survived by his wife, Susan, of Hastings-on-Hudson; his children, Jessica and Sam, of Hastings-on-Hudson; his brother, Randy, of Manhattan; and his sister, Emily Brecker Greenberg, of Philadelphia.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Well written & thought out. I believe you have really summed up what alot of us sax players feel about Mike Brecker. In some ways, he was the ultimate "gateway" musician for young players. He had all the elements of great players before him, all wrapped up in an exciting package.

It is funny, the "break-up" period between you & Mike's playing--its probably happend to so many of us. Its natural, once you dig deeper & find a Joe Henderson, Dewey, Wayne, etc.

That being said, he could be AMAZING.

My favorite earlier Brecker is Joanne Brackeen's "Tring-a-ling".

In a way, he was the ultimate white kid from the suburbs, learns tenor by checking out the great black masters, goes threw the jazz camps/education, moves to NY, does the whole thing (gets high, etc), "makes it" and becomes an amalgamation of his favorite players.

How many of us have tried to follow that life path, since then?? How many of us, at 19 wanted to BE HIM, so BAD. (c'mon, admit it!)

Anonymous said...

The winter time can be harsh. The old, sick and weak get culled out. It’s hard to think of Michael Brecker as any of those. I’m pretty crushed. I was just going to check out what’s up at David’s Blog and instead my day is wasted by this news. I just read an article in Jazztimes that talked about him playing with Herbie in July. I thought that maybe he was going to recover.

Music is such a bizarre thing. In our system there are only twelve notes. After that, it’s all down hill. What can you play that hasn’t already been played a couple hundred years ago? It’s all derivative.

I am always working on diatonic sequences. I was tripping on this little pattern and was so delighted with myself for thinking up this cool idea. The next day I was listening to this old Tower of Power Direct to Disk recording made at Sheffield labs in England. Damn, there was my little sequence lick played about twice as fast as I had been playing it. The next day I’m listening to TOP Souled Out and there it is again twice again as fast. Next day I put on Charlie Parker Verve reissue and here is the complete lick two octaves long and blazing fast.

But, but, I, uh... I invented that lick! Yeah, right. Improv vs. Composition? I think it’s two sides of the same coin. I have mastered conversational language to the point where you probably understand not only what I’m saying but what I mean. You don’t have to think how to talk or how to put words together. You just talk. You have learned vocabulary, definitions and just put that stuff together unconsciously to communicate a point of view.

I listened to Coltrane on record for almost forty years of my life. I read books about him and had come to a point where I felt I “knew” him. When he passed, I don’t think I even heard about it for many months. I’m sure that I had no emotional attachment to it. I stumbled on a couple of VCR tapes of Trane in the library last summer and I was shocked to realize that I had never seen him play or move or even talk.

It took me years get a grasp of the evolution in Trane’s musical conception. I feel like I know him as a person from just the notes coming out of the speaker. I subscribe to the notion that music is a language, jazz is a dialect. I have been studying this language and speaking this dialect for a long time, and so I think that I can appreciate what players are saying on more than a superficial level.

I am so fortunate to have seen Michael Brecker play many times. He was always great, always delivered. The first time was in the late ‘70s with Horace Silver at the legendary Keystone Korner. The last time was about five years ago at the new Yoshi’s with his own band. I went on a Wednesday night and every tenor player in town was there. It was like a class reunion.

Brecker always played well. Of two performances that stuck out for me, one was at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival Main Stage. There was a young guy and his girlfriend that came and sat in front of us. Through every solo and even the heads, he was yelling and whooping... Yeah, Michael! Go Man, Gooo...

He was driving everyone crazy. It was like he wanted everybody to know that he was hip because he “got” what Brecker was saying. It annoyed me too, but on some level, I was yelling right there with him, totally amazed at the stuff that was coming out. Sure I could hear the Breckerisms, but that’s why I bough a ticket and stood in line.

Another night in the mid ‘90s I went to see his band with Jeff Watts and Joey Calderazzo at the old Yoshi’s on Claremont. The second set was about half full and I sat with a couple of sax students in the music program at SF State. They had gone to talk to Brecker at the intermission and were so stoked. I had gone out in front to sit on this little bench and watch the foot traffic. Joey Calderazzo came out to smoke a cigar and so we talked about cigars and the weather. As much as I would have liked to talk to him about the nuts and bolts of composition and conception, I always feel like I’m coming off as the screaming kid at the festival, so I let the other do the talking.

They closed the balcony for the second set, so the three of us sat in the back in a corner. We kinda propped our chairs back against the wall, ordered some drinks and fastened our seat belts. This was the master class in jazz playing. Even thought there were only fifty people in the place, they played so hard. Michael and Joey were taunting each other with each solo. OK, so you played that... now listen to this! Back and forth with ‘Tain” Watts burning through fours with them. There were times when the three of us were just laughing so hard at the stuff that was coming out, it was just ridiculous.

That was one of the sets that raised the bar. Every time you listen to someone solo, you are picking apart every phrase and measuring it up to where you think the bar is set. Many times as students of the music we are used to analizing every little thing, so that we can grow our own conceptions. We may not be able to listen for pleasure or just accept what is being played with out critisism.

The festival performance was great, but it was just that, a performance. Second set in a half empty little club somewhere in the world, these guys were just flying with out a net. I know that they were just trying to blow each other off the stand, except that all that happened was that the stand got blown up! It wasn’t about the audience, but about listening and interaction at the highest level. When the audience erupted in cheers and applause at the end of a tune, they seemed to be surprised that others were there listening in on the fun and games.

I’m sure that if I sat next to Brecker an a airplane we would have had so many shared interests, we would have been pretty tight by the time we landed. I feel like I have lost a cousin or a step brother. We are all in a very small minority on this planet. People who for some reason hang a hunk of brass off our necks and blow into it. Even if you are a chick, you are still in the sax brotherhood.

In ‘73, my best friend and I drove from Washington DC to San Francisco. We bought a tape player and a bunch of blank tape. We taped all the records we could for the trip from a big collection where we had stayed. An epic journey with a sound track. One of the tapes was a band called Dreams. That is all we knew, a cassette with Dreams scribbled in ink. We played that tape over and over till it died. I just read this year who the guys in Dreams were. I never knew. I was blown away.

So Michael Brecker is joining that sax section in the big rehearsal band in the sky. Thanks Mike, I enjoyed what you had to say.


Anonymous said...

There are several points in the article (and in the comments as well) that are very interesting for me:

BRECKERISMS - of course, after listening of ten albums with Michael on sax, you will surely know many of his typical licks. If you'd be listening to several versions of the same tune, you'd probably find his solos being very much similar. But I can't really say anything nasty about that. Every player has his own method, just take a look on be-bop or blues players. Of course, there are some albums where even Michael sounds bored (not boring)...to me... This is definitely only a matter of taste.

GATEWAY MUSICIAN - I agree completely. His solo on Zappa's Purple Lagoon was an important moment in my life and together with an album called Heavy Wather turned me into urging for studying jazz.

IMPROVISATION POLES - that's also very interesting and I definitely agree with that. But even Michael could be very much free - if you'd listen to his playing on Steps album Smokin' at the Pit (I mean either a tune called Song For Seth or Sara's Touch, I'm always confusing them) or if you'd find that live video from Japan on YouTube (Steps Ahead with Bona, Gadd and Stern), you absolutely won't hear anything like typical popjazz tenor solo...

INFLUENCE -of course, Michael influenced whole generations of players. But it's always one's thing how one wants to sound like...

LOSS - after receiving a text with that sad news I was staring beyond ceiling for many minutes. I felt the same when Bob Berg died. I've been listening to these guys (and their generation peers) a lot and it surely makes me feel like I'd know them personaly.

Kuba Dolezal

Anonymous said...

That was a very interesting post. Mark Turner made the following comment on the Bad Plus blog: "In recent years he was improvising more, taking more chances, and exploring more kinds of music. He was really blossoming. I was really looking forward to a few more decades of powerful Brecker."

That was my impression, too. I can't tell you for sure how much of his playing is worked out, but his playing in recent years certainly feel more spontaneous to me. This youtube video is a good example.

I think this last period is my favorite, along with his earliest, flashiest period.

David Carlos Valdez said...

That may well be true. I wouldn't know since I really haven't heard much recent Brecker. I'll have to revisit his later works.

David Carlos Valdez said...

One of the things about a player as powerful as Brecker is that they have
such a strong influence on other players. Every key player (Bird, Trane, ect) had their own personal licks and patterns that made them immediately recognizable. If a young players plays any one of these licks they sound like they're consciously trying to sound like the master.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Brecker was the single most influential saxophonist after Trane. That being said, some of the ways he influenced the current generation are:

-Set a high standard of technique

-Extended range became normal

-Caused a leaning towards much straighter 8th notes

-Brought 3-tonic lines solidly into the Jazz vernacular

-Introduced much more harmonically complex lines

-Made pre-composed lines more acceptable.

Many current younger players have at some point been thorough and dedicated 'Brecker-heads':

Donny McCaslin was Brecker's baby

Mark Turner sounded like the L.A. Brecker

Mike Sim was head of the Brecker fan club

Josh Redman had more than a passing
fascination with Brecker.

David Ellis was the 'Black Brecker'.

All these influential players were seriously influenced by Brecker. In fact if you didn't give in to the power of Brecker it was almost like you were fighting a powerful musical gravity. "No, I will be a
Bop player until I die and will never give in to Brecker!!!"

Adam said...

I remember reading debates in the letters to the editor section of Downbeat magazine about "who's the greatest tenor saxophonist, Lester Young or Michael Brecker?" Just as mind melting as the debates about who's a better trumpet player Miles Davis or Maynard Ferguson.
I say that Michael Brecker was the greatest at what he did -- playing the saxophone in mostly rock-inspired jazz. He was a great player and performer but he wasn't the most surprising jazz improviser. And that's to his credit. Because you don't go to a rock concert to hear "Jazz Odyssey" (Spinal Tap), you go to hear what you expect. And Brecker delivered blistering solos with all his 3-tonic lines and chromatics and harmonics and all that stuff within fairly straight ahead (as in predictable) jazz-fusion arrangements. It was really great for what it was, and what it was wasn't Henry Threadgill or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So, I don't think you can really lump him in with Jazz (capital J) and compare him to others based on his blistering technique.
However, if you want to hear an interesting side of (or use of) Brecker check out Pat Metheny's 80/81 with the also recently departed Dewey Redman.

Anonymous said...

I heard about this piece of shit post from a friend. What a joke---a total bullshit charge by a saxophonist that'll never be good enough for me to even bother listening to in the first place.
Prove it David wannabe--

I see you transcribe shit and rip off other people who transcribe shit--
give us 10 concrete examples from his records--y'know, the ones where he played circles around Corea,Weeler, Herbie and Metheny--SHOW US THE MONEY before you dis a great like Brecker. You won;t even post this--gutless--

David Carlos Valdez said...

First of all I never said that transcribing or copping lines from other players is a bad thing. Did you even read my post? I said that I personally lost interest in Brecker when I heard him play a concert where he was copping his OWN lines. How could I give you any concrete examples of him copping his own shit at a concert? I was merely writing about my own experience with his playing, from idolizing him to losing interest with his approach. I never said I was better saxophonist than Brecker either. Brecker has been such a strong influence on an entire generation of players and he has taken the saxophone to new levels.
Many young players have become enamoured with Brecker before having any strong understanding of the masters. This has led to so many one dimensional young players who are totally cut off from the history of Jazz.

Should I not express my feelings about Brecker's pre-composed and overly rational approach to improvisation?

Obviously you are a true 'Brecker fanatic' if you can't stand any criticism of your idol. Do you really disagree with the points that I am making about Brecker's approach? Do you think that he didn't work out long and complex lines before he played them? Do you think he never quoted himself?

Some people like this sort of composed (and very white classical) approach to Jazz. I personally do not think that it is a very spontaneous way to go. I have great respect for Brecker as a player and as a person, I thought that I made that clear in my post.

The process of improvising is as important to me as the final result. I would rather hear sloppy, careening and out of control striving than technically perfect, emotionally dry and pre-composed and safe. If a player is just trying to sound good and clean without searching for new possibilities on the bandstand then I'm not interested.

This blog is no fan club for any musician, it's about the way musicians think about music, the path they take, their motives, their philosophy, their ideas for other players and an open dialog between diverse levels of musicians.

I'm happy to publish any comments anyone has as long as they are respectful and not totally rude (like your last comment).

At least take the time to read the post you are commenting about, because it seems to me like you misunderstood what I was saying at a fundamental level.

David Carlos Valdez said...

This is a response to the anonymous reader's second comment, which I did not publish:

Since this is my personal blog and I am the sole moderator I am reluctant to post your last insulting comment. I always like a nice debate here but it must be within the bounds of polite behavior. I posted your first comment in spite of your lack of manners, but will not do that twice. You made some good points that I would be happy to respond to, if you would only rewrite so as not to be insulting. Obviously we disagree here about your main points, other points you made I totally agree with like:

"The guy is a freakish, unleashed monster!!"

and, "He is a master improviser",

AND "I doubt in our lifetimes another player will reinvent and juice single-note line playing further than Brecker did in his lifetime (although Holdsworth makes a good case-study)".

I do not agree that Brecker was the 'greatest living improvisor', at least not to me. He always seemed just a little too stiff, simply put. That's just my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Of course we all regurgitate lines, either composed by us or other players. At least Brecker worked out his own shit!

If you would like to re-write your comment AND not post it anonymously
(add a link to your own site & music) then I would be happy to continue this conversation, otherwise you may want to seek out a Brecker fan blog instead of trying to argue matters of personal taste with someone who doesn't agree with you.

Anonymous said...

bassphil@hotmail.com is my email
anyone who is interested can email me

Unknown said...

David -

Thanks for reposting this article. I know you're going to get a lot of shit for it from the Brecker fanatics, but like you alluded to in one of your comments here, this site is not a 'fan' site, it's a site about the process of improvisation, and that's what makes it such a fantastic, interesting and irreplaceable resource for musicians like myself that are always searching and striving to improve. I find it incredibly helpful to my own process to know what goes on in other players' heads as they try to create great jazz, and the information you post makes your site very unique in that regard - this is just not information that's easy to come by. Thanks for doing what you do. It's probably appreciated by more of us than you would believe.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Thanks, that's very encouraging for me...

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that your problem with Brecker was that he used a lot of very long licks, but it occurs to me that Bird, for example, had a particular 22-note 16th note lick that turns up in solo after solo; I think you could find the same sort of thing in any bop-era improviser, or even Ornette. I'm not sure I'm convinced of how unique Brecker was in this respect. Anyway, when I think of very pure improvisation, I think of the cool school.

Unknown said...

Another important element about Brecker that was only briefly mentioned: he was the first big voice on the EWI, an instrument which has only really been used on large-scale projects by a handful of people (most notably Brecker and Bob Mintzer). Brecker's innovation and technical virtuosity were as incredible on this instrument as they were on saxophone. He also had a wide variety of styles that he used the EWI for, from his early usage (Original Rays from his self-titled album) to his Meta-EWI playing with Herbie Hancock's Directions In Music band where Brecker played the instrument through computer-based samplers to create elaborate soundscapes.
Also, he performed on EWI for the majority of the Steps Ahead Live In Tokyo DVD - there are some truly amazing solos on that performance including his famous "In A Sentimental Mood" rendition.

Unknown said...


I was exactly the type of young player you mentioned; thought there was no one but Brecker and he walked on water. I think you explained that type of young player very well.

Later, I grew out of that and into appreciating other players but have always come back to Brecker as "the man." Having said that, I play nothing like him, have never tried to emulate his sound and don't know or play many of his licks. I'm comfortable with that type of 'worship' and think it has served me well.

The reason I comment, however, is that I've never seen a "Brecker is not Jesus" post that was as well crafted as yours. The way you described the real REASONS why Brecker was not the 2nd coming really spoke to me. Its like i had been considering myself to be inferior all these years because i listened so much to him and it never 'sank in' and that there must be something wrong if I didn't sound remotely like him.

I did not know that his lines were precomposed (that was a light bulb moment for me when i read your post) but I certainly heard him reference himself constantly. I always explained it away that that was his 'style.' Its the same way I defend a songwriter when people say all of the songs sound the same. yes, but that is what makes them THEM, ya know? You could always recognize Brecker and when I was younger, there was a lot of security in KNOWING that was Brecker and validating your ears when the you are just entering the sea of jazz.

So, I buy into your opinions because I think they are well thought out and presented. Anybody familiar with Brecker's playing (I've got all the stuff and a lot of the bootlegs so I qualify) can't really argue with you unless they really think Brecker is GOD (like the rude poster you were so kind to respond to) or they have yet to move beyond him and check out other cats.

I am still questioning your thoughts about what constitutes improvisation. I like the analogy with language and I use this all the time so my question is where did Brecker use licks or lines differently than other improvisers, in your opinion? We all need to use the same words, craft sentences the same way etc. Are you saying Brecker always delivered the same sentences whereas you and I are using fragments and words to construct different sentences that form a more coherent idea?
If everything he played was different, there would be nothing to hang on to. It would be like a TV show where the characters were different every episode. that lack of continuity would never work.

I've just discovered this blog (from sax on the web) so I'm sure I'll bug you some more. Thanks for a great site with great content!

Michael Favreau

David Carlos Valdez said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Michael.

To answer your question, I think that Brecker was a very thoughtful composer and improvisor. He was always looking for new and interesting ways of playing over changes. A lot of the ideas that he came up with happened to be very complex, not things that you would think up on the fly. So I think of these types of lines as being more composed than improvised. This is not to say that he didn't use these 'composed' ideas in novel and interesting ways. He was improvising like anyone else, but he did have more of these "pre-composed elements" in his playing. These 'Breckerisms' make his playing very polished and unique, but possibly at the expense of being as spontaneous and creative as some other players.

Lee Konitz talks about trying to hear and improvise every note as it happens, never know which note he is going to play until the moment it actually happens. He is quite aware that by taking this approach he is less able to play exciting technical and aggressive ideas, which he calls 'hot' playing. I think that Brecker's approach would be exactly what Konitz would consider to be 'hot'.

I really think that to understand how Becker developed his style you must realize that he spent many years as one of New York City's top call studio saxophonists. When he went into a session he needed to be able to play a perfect burning solo in a single take. This doesn't leave a lot of room for searching and exploration. He had to nail it every time. This demands a high level of control and predictability. He had to have a good idea of what he was going to play going into it.

By the way, the clinic that I was referring to is now posted on this blog. You can tell that Brecker was a humble, thoughtful man who always considered himself the eternal student.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Brecker was doing just what Coltrane did through his career. Trane spent an incredible amount of time working out his ideas beforehand, and if you listen to (for example) the underground tapes, you can hear him quoting himself night after night on the same tunes as he refines his ideas. But they were HIS ideas, so that's good enough for me.

Improvisation in music and in life is not always coming up with a de novo solution to every problem (and I love how Trane defined defined improvisation in the same sense of "solving musical problems."). We always rely on a mix of pre-worked out out ideas applied and modified to the particular context of the moment.

Other than rare extreme improvisationalists like Konitz (who said he would rather not play a line that play something he had played before) essentially all improvisers do what Brecker was doing on some level - but often not as well.

All I know is that if I could play a fraction as well as Brecker did, I would die a happy man.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Well said Anon.