I was in New York City when the news about Michael Brecker’s passing came down. It was a Saturday and the IAJE Conference (The International Association for Jazz Education) was in full swing. This yearly meeting of musicians, educators, publishers, instrument manufacturers and media was always a great hang as people from the US and beyond got together to celebrate jazz, and to figure out ways to widen its popularity and appeal.
I ran into my old friend Chuck Owen, who is currently the president of IAJE, and asked if he had heard any news about Michael’s health. I knew Chuck had an event planned in the spring that was to feature Michael and his compositions, so I figured maybe he had heard something. This conversation took place around 11:00 AM, and at that point Chuck told me that Michael was indeed back in the hospital, but was hanging in there and they hoped to get through the current rough patch. I left that conversation a bit uneasy, but soon got distracted by all the activity and obligations at the conference. That is, until about 2 hours later when somebody asked if I had “heard about Michael.” The news of his death spread like a wildfire at the NY Hilton, and throughout the jazz world for that matter. I started to get IM’s and emails from everybody. And phone messages. A distinct cloud fell over the conference as we all tried to come to terms with the fact that one of jazz’s greatest artists was gone. We would never again hear one of his incredible solos, or one of his probing and innovative compositions. The truth is, as of this writing, I still haven’t come to terms with it. A man like Michael is not supposed to die of a rare condition like MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome). But Michael did die, and we are left to assess his legacy.
I didn’t know Michael personally very well. I met him once, at the Hollywood Bowl where he was playing a concert with Chick Corea, where I practically begged him to play a solo on the upcoming Big Phat Band record “XXL.” Then, during the process of recording him, I spoke with him on the phone a couple of times. I sent the tracks to him in New York where he overdubbed his solo, and I still remember the thrill of seeing that envelope from him in my mailbox, opening it and hearing his solo on “A Game of Inches” the very first time. Hearing that iconic voice come out of the speakers in my studio, playing my composition…wow. He did two solos on the track, and I remember Michael calling me up saying how a particular section of the tune was difficult for him. “Oh yeah, you sound like you were really scuffling there” I replied sarcastically. Especially since the section in question was essentially a one chord vamp, and the 2nd part of the solo had tons of fairly involved changes, which he, of course, navigates with ease. “The thing is,” he said, ”blowing over a single chord vamp is a lot easier when you can interact with the rhythm section in real time. Keeping it exciting and alive and spontaneous while overdubbing can be a challenge.” And he was absolutely right. Believe me, had schedule and budget allowed us to fly him to LA to play that tune with the band, we would have done that. But that just wasn’t possible. And, to spite Michael’s perfectionism, the solo he played thrills me every time I hear it.
I am so proud to have a small piece if his artistry on one of our records. We have a transcription of the solo on the DVD disc from “XXL.” Additionally, we put Michael’s 2nd solo on the DVD too – it’s an “Easter Egg” that you can find if you look for it. Man, I remember how difficult it was to choose one of those solos over the other one!
Michael Brecker was an extremely humble guy. He never stopped practicing, and he would amaze those around him with his self-deprecating attitude and quest for improvement. His prowess on the saxophone was so extraordinary that it quickly became a standard that the rest of us would strive for, while at the same time realizing that we would never match it. He was one of a handful of artists that I was determined to own EVERY single recording he ever made. No exceptions. And it seemed like he was always that good. Go to YouTube and check out some of the early videos of him –he was always a completely ridiculous player, a total monster. Astonishing technique, huge sound, and a rich fertile palette of musical ideas. Yet, interestingly, my friend and Big Phat Band lead alto player Eric Marienthal (no slouch himself) told me that he played Michael’s tenor one time, and could barely get a sound out of it! But Michael sure got some sounds out of that thing. And we are all fortunate for the music and inspiration he provided.
If you want to learn more about Michael, and want to help fight the illness that took him from us, go to www.Michaelbrecker.com. There you will find a link to The Marrow Foundation’s TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE FUND, where you can make a donation to help others with this terrible disease.