The Freelance Mentalists.
Monday, January 15, 2007
  In Memoriam
Is anyone else out there mourning the passing of Michael Brecker?

His presence is going to haunt us for a long time to come, and in
unexpected, forgotten places. I apologize to you other trainspotters
for not listing some of them, but at the moment I just don't have the
time to go through the *NINE* screens' worth of albums with
Brecker-as-sideman appearances that are listed on

There was a time when, hearing a guest sax solo on a pop record, I
would say to myself, "hmm, Mike Brecker again -- I guess David Sanborn
was already booked that day," -- AND VICE VERSA.

Brecker was truly the best Great White Hope on tenor that our race
has ever come up with. And he belongs to the long line of musicians
who were hired by George Clinton AFTER they had already played with
James Brown (who, you'll note, beat Brecker to the finish by less than
three weeks).

In fact, my own all-time favorite Brecker guest spot is on
Parliament's "P.Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)", which opens
"Mothership Connection": after George Clinton has presented his
manifesto, the horns step in and put things in perspective with
cooler-than-school solos. And while of course that's Fred Wesley on
trombone, it's Brecker and not Maceo testifying on tenor.

But that's just the paying-the-rent half of his life. Besides being
the era's most ubiquitous studio-session tenor saxophone player, he
was also the most influential JAZZ saxophone player of the past couple
of decades.

The cynic in me revelled in all the ironies when I saw him live in
Warsaw in June 1995, playing to a packed house of several thousand at
the Sala Kongresowa. For one thing, the opening act was Bob Berg's
quartet; and hearing Berg vis-a-vis Brecker, I was reminded of Lester
Young's comment on Paul Quinichette: "I don't know if I should play
like myself or like Lady Q, because Lady Q is playing so much like
me." But if they had booked any one of a dozen other young
saxophonists to open, I would have reacted the same way.

And then more irony: Brecker's appearing with headliner McCoy Tyner
meant that John Coltrane's former pianist had brought along the tenor
player whom jazz DJ Peter Michaelson once described as
"Coltrane-squared". I had long thought that Brecker's jazz style
could be summed up by saying that he had mastered "Giant Steps"-era
Coltrane but didn't bother with anything chronologically beyond that,
except that he learned how to do it twice as fast.

This was a slack oversimplification: he made his home within that
framework, but played with one order of magnitude greater complexity.
While I still love his playing on Pat Metheny's "80/81", it's
Dick-and-Jane material compared with later, when Brecker would
condense three to five times as many musical ideas in the same space.
It was mind-boggling, and invited the worst tendencies of jazz
listening/spectating (and jazz playing): can he do circular
breathing, check, good command of altissimo register, check,
flutter-tonguing, check, can he jump three and a half octaves and come
back down in the space of three notes, check. (No wonder he titled
one of his solo albums, "Don't Try This at Home.") But if, instead of
my thinking that it was all presented in an arbitrary and haphazard
way, the phrase "cut-up method" had occurred to me, things would have
clicked and I would have become a hopeless fanatic.

May his memory be blessed.

P.S. If you want to be an obsessive completist about it, start here
and page through:

John Wojtowicz

Michael and his even more boldly bearded brother first and most impressed me on Child Is Father To The Man, garishly glorious debut of Blood Sweat & Tears, as founded and briefly led by Al Kooper, he of the railroad jerk yankee-drawl-to-falsetto. As John later mentioned, Alice Coltrane also died, on Friday, Jan.12. Like Brecker, her devotion to John C. was viewed with suspicion and/or deprecation by some.
On the "Sax on the Web forums", one guy tells a great anecdote:

"When I was living in London England, I had a chance to see Michael at Ronnie Scotts about 8 yrs. ago. A friend of mine who knew him had told me that Michael had memorized Coltranes 'Countdown' in twelve keys. Now I had memorized this solo in 1 key and the thought of 12 was incredible to me, seeing how much time it took me to get just 1. Anyways, I approached him after the gig while he was still on the bandstand. I said 'hi Mike, uhh, I had heard that you at some point had memorized Countdown in 12 keys, is that true?' He said 'What? No.' He was obviously busy so I just walked away and let it go, when I heard him declare 'wait a minute yeah I did get it in several keys!'

It's a great story because of all the questions that is raises:

Had Brecker's reputation as a supreme technician gotten so exaggerated that it engendered the rumor that he had learned to play Coltrane's solo in ALL TWELVE keys, even though he hadn't?

Or had he actually done so, but was unwilling to admit it for fear of being seen as a compulsive nerd?

Or had he actually done so, but didn't want to admit to having learned it in all twelve keys (but only "several") because that would amount to revealing his Master Trade Secret??
John has had an attack of conscience re not crediting the preceding anecdote, and wants me it was from a forum at saxontheweb (Blogger comments prob won't get the URL right). Also, he points out that Michael Brecker was not on Child Is Father To The Man; gee, I did think he was overshadowed by furbearing Randy (the morebearingso cos R. played smaller instrument, and not even a trumpet, but a flugelhorn, ewww!)Brecker Bros.' Heavy Metal Bebop, from mid- or late 70s, was in the spirit of CIFTOTM.
For the meat of the crux, check his solo on "Delta City Blues," in the video at michaelbreckerliverecordings dot com (which also has an archive of his transcriptions). And those who think he was monorail Tranebrained should see his liner notes for David S. Ware's Live In The Netherlands.
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