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Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Oakland, California -- 2000

Remembering Michael...March 29, 1949 - January 13, 2007.

Michael Brecker, considered by many to be the most influential tenor saxophonist since John Coltrane, succumbed to leukemia on January 13, 2007. The 11-time Grammy Award-winner had been battling myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a cancer of the blood marrow, since 2005. He was 57.

Rasputin's Records was the first place where I heard the unique saxophone style of Michael Brecker. Cashiering at this used record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA was the perfect college job for a music student. Since every LP had previously been played, I got to listen to anything I wanted. What an ear-opening learning experience for me!

The 1982 debut by the group Steps Ahead blew me away! Featuring tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, pianist Eliane Elias (a young unknown at the time), bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Peter Erskine, this was some of the best funky fusion I had ever heard. The songwriting was so melodic yet harmonically complex, and the performances were intense. Michael's ability to use his amazing technique to build a solo to a fiery passionate climax was absolutely inspiring to me. This aspect of his playing had a huge influence on me as an improvising saxophonist.

Soon after discovering his recordings, I got to hear Michael perform live at a jazz festival at the UC Berkeley Greek Theater. Years later I would better understand the challenges of playing such a huge outdoor venue. A musician can feel rather small as our sound dissipates into the un-enclosed atmosphere and gets lost in the noisy bustling crowd. Nevertheless, the commanding power of Michael Brecker's full edgy sound and the high energy of his solos filled the stadium.

While studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, I continued to explore Michael's music, especially his work with the jazz-funk band The Brecker Brothers. Most tunes were structurally unpredictable, melodically intricate, and harmonically complex inside/out bop heads played in an impossibly precise manner over a bed of funk rhythms. Just the kind of technical challenge that excites young Berklee students! For one of my student concerts, I arranged the incredibly fast "Some Skunk Funk" for 6 horns and with youthful exuberance, we blew the roof off!

Years later, after graduating from college and beginning to establish my own music career in Arizona, I got to see Michael Brecker perform again. This time his show took place in a much smaller venue called Chuy's Night Club. At this point, he was experimenting with the new EWI midi wind controller. I remember being frustrated at his constant tweaking of the electronic gear. I wanted to shout out, "Just play your horn!"

My band had performed at the club and I knew the owner well. After the show, he invited me back to the green room to meet Michael Brecker. I remember how awkward it was to be introduced to Michael. I tried to be cool but probably still appeared star-struck. Michael was not a big talker and had that east-coast vibe, which could be a little intimidating to a young aspiring saxophonist. Still, I was thrilled at the opportunity to meet him.

Fast forward to the new millennium - the year 2000 when this snap shot was taken. I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area a few months before Michael's show at Yoshi's in Oakland. By now he had already released 7 recordings as a solo artist in addition to his endless credits as a New York session player. "Don't Try This At Home" and "Now You See It...Now You Don't" were playing constantly in my car stereo. Seeing Michael perform live at one of my favorite jazz venues was awesome! The combination of sushi, sake and good music is always one of the most ecstatic experiences on earth for me.

Near the end of the show, Michael sent his band members off the stage and played a long unaccompanied solo. Nothing was missing in the music. He was the rhythm, the harmony, and the melody all at once. Just when I thought I knew where he was going, he would switch to a new groove, usually something very unexpected but fascinating just the same. Sometimes he played simply with funky rhythms. Then he would soulfully sing out the most beautiful melody that threatened to bring tears to my eyes. Next he would spew out streams of notes that would stretch my ears as the tension mounted. The solo as a whole seemed to have a grander plan, a destination.

When Michael Brecker finally took the horn out of his mouth, my jaw was on the floor. If it could be possible for a musician to tell his or her life's story in one single long unaccompanied solo, this was his.

For more about Michael Brecker, go to www.MichaelBrecker.com.