Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Memories of Michael Brecker

Memories of Michael Brecker


Ralph A. Miriello

Last night Stefania and I took a train ride into the City to pay homage to a fallen musician. Michael Brecker. The prolific and well respected saxophone player, had passed away five weeks prior at a hospital in New York from leukemia, the end result of a long standing battle with MDS (myelodyplastic syndrome). It was a little publicized memorial at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, and I for one, went there with little expectations other than to honor the memory of a musician who had over the years given me such wonder and joy.

I was somehow drawn to Michael’s playing early on in his career. In my high school years, I had been determined to listen to and absorb all the old jazz recordings at my local library. They were predominantly vinyl pressings of whatever artists that donators to the library saw fit to release from their collections. You would think that this would result in relatively slim pickings, with only those recordings that were less appreciated being recycled. But to my surprise the selection was bountiful, with names and recordings that I probably would have never otherwise experienced. I listened with old black Bakelite earphones to the world music of Yuseff Latiff and the piano syncopations of Thelonius Monk. I marveled at the unfamiliar timings of Dave Brubeck with Joe Morello on drums and sat mesmerized by the orchestrations of Oliver Nelson and Charles Mingus. I was captivated by the tonal qualities of Stan Getz , Bill Evans and Paul Desmond. But then I listened and listened to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. This was something special and I was hooked. I went on to his Ole & Impressions albums and was totally blown away. When I eventually got to listen to A Love Supreme, I started to understand that music, at least this music, was communicating more than simple notes on a page or sounds over my earphones. This music moved me. This music was exploring new dimensions, not just of sound but also of communication and connection to a higher force.

Ultimately, the times were changing , rock was fully embraced as the music of the day and I was fully engaged in this guitar centric era. I found myself turning away from the old lions of jazz and sought after a voice from my generation. The first time I saw Michael was in the basement club of the Village Gate. There was reportedly a super group formed with some players that I had long wanted to see first hand. The group was Dreams a group that was crossing the line between jazz and rock at a time when others like Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority were also finding their way to a select audience. While the drummer Billy Cobham made an indelible impression on me with his clear, acrylic drum set and his amazing almost dance-like technique, it was my first experience of Michael Brecker playing along side his brother Randy. The two combined to create a distinctive, unified horn sound that somehow made this music different from the rest.

Michael’s career and my love of music were on parallel paths. We were, after all, the same age. I would be inexplicably attracted to songs and particularly saxophone solos along the way . Often times I would hear some line or a solo in a popular song and be so impressed that I would make an concerted effort to find out who played that part. Invariably it was Michael. His discography is absolutely astounding! Who hasn’t he played with in the last thirty-five years. Over time, I became more and more impressed. When his first album as a leader came out and won a Grammy I knew I was not alone in my judgment of his extraordinary talent and unique ability to communicate musically. This was my John Coltrane! I started to collect his solo efforts as well as any collaboration in which he was involved. Every chance I would get to see him play was one more chance to experience his brilliance and he never disappointed. I perceived his playing was getting better and better by leaps and bounds. I was watching before my eyes a true giant making huge strides on his instrument and in his playing and writing. Each successive performance was more astounding than the last. His solo work with McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane’s former pianist and a brilliant artist in his own right, on an album called Infinity, is in my mind some his best. Here Michael takes on his mentor’s place and brings it to his own unique and extraordinary level. I saw him play with McCoy at the Iridium nightclub in NYC and sheepishly got him to sign the CD. I couldn’t help feel connected to this humble artisan. We had grown up together and he was still growing! I was fortunate to see him play with some of the great musicians of our time and in each case Michael’s star shown brightly. His persona was never showy or self-centered, but when he played his prominence could not be denied. The last time I saw him play was with his Quindectet for the promotion of his then latest album Wide Angles. His wife Susan was there as were his two children Jessica and Sam. For me, that night, he became more than a great musician. He was demonstrably a loving father and husband as well a palpably human being. I found myself unable to avoid going up to him between sets. Somehow I needed to relate to him how I had seen him many times over the years, but that I felt he was now on top of his game and his playing was at a new level. He graciously and humbly thanked me with one of his patented wide grins. Shortly there after I found out that he was ill and that it was possibly life threatening. I was in shock. He ultimately succumbed to his illness on February 13, 2007.

The gathering for Michael brought together a myriad of people from all walks of life. His son Sam, his daughter Jessica and his wife Susan all spoke poignantly about his life. A life undoubtedly well lived, long remembered and much loved. His brother Randy spoke fondly of times past and sibling competition. His moving trumpet work on a song memorialized in one of Michael’s many brilliant recordings was an open display of affection. Michael’s fellow musicians honored his music and the memory of his many contributions. The singer, James Taylor, sent a recorded message of thanks, crediting Michael’s intersession in his own addictions, with saving his life. Dave Liebman, another saxophone contemporary, shared his personal grief at Michael’s passing and punctuated it with a tender piece played on a simple wooden flute. Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon & many more all celebrated their friendship and admiration for his life as well as his music. His wife, Susan, had correctly requested no saxophones be played on this night, and despite the presence of such contemporary luminaries as Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, respectfully no saxophones were played.

As I sat through this, my eyes scanned the audience to witness the packed crowd of well-wishers and grievers in the venerable Town Hall auditorium. People like me who had been drawn to this event. The various hats, beards, pony tails and attire served to mark an audience of a different breed. It was apparently comprised of a great deal of musicians, mostly male, who came to pay homage to a fallen comrade. At the start of the evening, while we were waiting on the line outside to get into the hall, we had occasion to meet and talk with one of them, Pat Rebillot, a noted keyboard player who had once played with Michael. Pat and his wife had dutifully come from up state New York, some two and one half hours away, to pay their respects. He was just one of many there. Those musicians who have undoubtedly been heard numerous times, by many of us fans of the music, but who are seldom seen or recognized. Michael’s passing brought us all together, family, fellow musicians, friends and fans. For me it was like the scene from the Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss was unexplainably drawn to this image in his head of a place where something special was supposed to happen. So too we were all drawn to Michael’s memorial as we had all been previously drawn to some place within our souls by Michael Brecker’s music. He was the communicator, the inexplicable magnet for all of us of like ilk. He allowed us to see that we are all connected in some strange but flowing way. He touched our hearts and stirred our souls because through his brilliant playing and apparently through his exemplary life he was able to show us that there is a better way. A way that transcends the day to day crises that we all face and that he surely faced toward the end of his life. A way that overcomes as he most certainly did. The brief but poignant Buddhist ceremony at the end of the memorial punctuated this solidarity of feelings. I will listen to his music again and again and I will remember with fondness and appreciation all the light and energy that he radiated on his quest, a journey that I and many others will never cease to enjoy through his recorded legacy.

© Copyright 2007 Ralph A. Miriello

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