Michael Brecker: A Musician's Quilt

Michael Brecker
By John Sann
Micheal Brecker
By Michael Piazza
Micheal Brecker with his brother Randy in 1993.
By John Abbott
Micheal Brecker at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2004.
By John Abbott
Micheal Brecker
By John Abbott

1 of 5      Next

One of the most beloved and highly respected musicians of his generation, saxophonist Michael Brecker has spent four decades playing with a passionate intensity and incredible soulfulness in genres ranging from pop, funk and jazz to world beat and chamber music.

At this writing, Brecker is back in the woodshed, continuing his life-long search for new sounds, new modes of expression. It’s been that kind of roller coaster ride for Brecker since being diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in May 2005. In the months that followed, he has undergone a barrage of tests, surgeries, therapies, trials and protocols to fight this deadly disease. In January 2006, Brecker received an experimental haplo (half-matching) blood stem cell transplant, with his daughter Jess as the donor. Still too weak to commune with his horn, he’s playing the EWI again, investigating its rainbow of sonic possibilities via MIDI hookup to his new Apple G5 computer. His longtime friend and programming partner George Whitty has been working with Brecker on some advanced surround sound applications with the EWI.

Meanwhile, Brecker is feeling OK. On good days, he makes phone calls to friends and returns emails. Then there are those other days when he feels fatigued. Lately, though, he’s been responding positively to steroid treatments and feeling stronger. Close friends who have gotten surprise phone calls from him report that his voice sounds like “the Mikey of old.” He’s also been having visitors over to his home in Hastings, N.Y. He hangs out with them, talking, laughing, watching Yankees games on TV, showing them his latest EWI tricks. And so it goes. He has a good day, he has a bad day. And we continue to send prayers and good vibrations his way in hopes of a full recovery for this iconic sax player and beloved gentleman of jazz.

Jazz Times reached out to friends, colleagues and disciples of Michael Brecker to get a better read on the character of the man, his contribution to the saxophone and to jazz in general. Ironically, interviews for this story wrapped up on Brecker’s 57th birthday—March 29. At roughly the same time, vibraphonist, longtime friend and Steps Ahead founder Mike Mainieri presented Brecker with a special quilt as a birthday gift. It had been stitched together from dozens of autographed T-shirts gathered from musicians that Brecker has played with during his storied career. It was their way of sending him some love and positive vibrations during his time of recovery. In the same spirit, we hope that this quilt of personal testimony has a similar effect.

First Impressions

Marc Copland, pianist

From the time I first played with Mike, when he was 14 or 15 years old, it was plain that he was phenomenally talented. He had very big ears and could play fast as blazes even back then. He played intricate lines over changes he didn’t understand theoretically, but he could hear them and digest them. It was just natural. And he was incredibly modest about his enormous talent.

Charlie Haden, bassist

I might be the one who goes back further musically with Mike than a lot of people, because I was a judge
at the Intercollegiate Jazz Competition at Notre Dame in the late ’60s. Mike was a student with his brother, Randy, and they had a band together. And I voted him Best Musician in the competition. I was so impressed with his musicianship. He was Michael Brecker even then!

Hal Galper, pianist

I had been working with Randy in a quartet at a club uptown called La Intrigue, and he had mentioned that his younger brother, who was still at the University of Indiana, was coming to New York. He said, “If you think I can play, wait ’til you hear him.” So Michael got to New York and I called him to play on my first recording, Gorilla Band, for Mainstream Records. I just brought him in blind, I took Randy’s word for it. And Michael was just unbelievable. It’s amazing how mature and powerful his playing was at that young age. I didn’t have to tell him anything, not a thing. We were playing very complex music with double rhythm sections and guitar, and Michael was just killing.

Mike Mainieri, vibraphonist

I met Mike when he first came to town sometime in ’68. Randy had brought him around. And as soon as I heard Michael, it was like the first time I heard Gadd. I got goosebumps. I thought, “Wait a minute! Something’s happening here, and it’s deep!” And he was just a kid, 19 or so. I have pictures of him from that period where he looks like he’s 15 years old. But I knew right away that there was something extraordinary there. It was the type of thing where your head spins around three times and you go, “What the hell was that?” Randy had been talking about Mike, but he’s not the kind of a guy who’s gonna rave about somebody. He was more like, “Yeah, my kid brother plays saxophone, he’s gonna come by,” in that little off-handed kind of way of Randy’s. We all knew right away that Mike was really special.

Will Lee, bassist

Mike is the reason I’m in New York. There was this very innovative band called Dreams, which for my taste is the ultimate jazz-rock fusion band. And it was those guys—Mike and Randy, Barry Rogers, Billy Cobham, Don Grolnick, Bob Mann. They were looking for a bass player after Chuck Rainey decided he was leaving. And they somehow got wind of me down in Miami, but I don’t think they even knew that I was a Dreams freak. I knew all about these guys and I was so into their records.

Arif Mardin, producer

My history with Mike goes back to the early ’70s when I was working with the Average White Band. I became friends with Randy and Michael and both brothers played on a lot of my productions, since they were both first-call New York session players at the time. Michael played some incredible solos on one of my first jazz albums called Journey (1975). But the climax definitely was his incredible solo during a gig in Switzerland in 1976 with the Montreux All-Stars. He played the last solo on a big band arrangement that I wrote for “Pick Up the Pieces.” Different soloists were playing and he closed the song with this incredible solo and the audience went totally berserk.

Hal Galper

Mike was really channeling some Coltrane energy on the bandstand back then. We worked all the places in New York over three years, and I remember one critic referring to us as Average White Trane, which I thought was funny. That band was kind of a cult phenomenon of its time. It was very influential in terms of younger players trying to duplicate that kind of modal playing. And Mike was a kind of focal point for that.

Mike Stern, guitarist

I used to see him in the ’70s when he and Randy were playing with Hal Galper and I kind of introduced myself. I met him another time when I was playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears and we talked a bit. I got closer to him when I was trying to get through all those years of being totally crazy with the drugs and alcohol. He had already had his own experience with that and was amazingly helpful to me and a lot of people.

Donny McCaslin, saxophonist

Maybe one of the first things I ever heard him on was one of those Blue Montreux records. I was in high school at the time and there’s a tune in particular of his called “Uptown Ed,” a kind of post-boppish melody, and I remember being just astonished at the virtuosity, of course, but also by the passion in his sound and the intensity with which he plays his instrument. Those things just hit me right away as a 14-year-old. And I was like, “Man! That’s how I want to play.”

Will Lee

Me, Mike and Randy and Alvin Queen went out with Horace Silver and toured with him for a year, which was pretty spectacular. To hear Mike and Randy playing Horace’s music was a real treat. I continued playing with Mike and Randy when the Brecker Brothers Band started up in ’75. We stayed together through ’77, touring and recording and everything, and there were a lot of laughs to be had. Mike and Randy were some funny cats, man. They both have this wry sense of humor and they were funny together, and you can hear their humor in their playing. They were just fun to hang out with.

Branford Marsalis, saxophonist

The first time I heard him play was on Billy Cobham’s recordings from the early ’70s. The shit amazed me, man. I was 15 years old and I had never heard nothin’ like that. And then I heard him play with the Brecker Brothers on “Some Skunk Funk”; I wrote an arrangement of that tune for my high school jazz ensemble. We played “Some Skunk Funk” on almost every concert we did. It was our closing song. “Some Skunk Funk” was my introduction to the idea that you could use harmony in that fashion, so that was an important lesson.

Dean Brown, guitarist

The first time Mike and I played together was during the spring of 1982. We were doing a project in Lugano, Switzerland for Billy Cobham that was going to be a series of instructional videos, a kid’s introduction to jazz sort of thing. And at one point, we found this lounge in the hotel that had a table-top version of the old video game called Frogger, which was a nice distraction for Mike. He’s always been a video game freak. During the course of playing this game, he would talk about music, and he had some fascinating thoughts about improvisation and how he perceived people’s ways of expressing themselves.

Mike Mainieri

Back in the old days when video games first started coming out and we’d go to Japan, Mike would always seek out the latest shit. And his hand-to-eye coordination was so amazing. He was like Mr. Pacman. His mind, his vision was so profound in that area, like a master chess player. And I think that carried over to his music-making abilities.

Branford Marsalis

When I heard him playing the solos on Parliament-Funkadelic albums, that was a parallel universe for me. He was playing the horn parts on “Mothership Connection,” which I heard at the same time that I heard those first Billy Cobham recordings. That was the first shit I learned. And I had no idea until years later that it was Mike on both of those sessions.

Tim Ries, saxophonist

The first time I met him was in 1981 when I was going to North Texas State. I was in the lab band and we happened to open up for Steps Ahead for every gig they did for a stretch of like three weeks. Here I was this 21-year-old aspiring tenor player, just sitting off to the side in the wings, watching Michael Brecker play his ass off every night. To see a guy of that level of technical ability play in front of you every day for three weeks...it was just amazing. And then sitting next to him on the plane and talking about music was equally amazing to me. So from the very beginning, I thought of him almost as a demigod—this person who was almost untouchable, unapproachable. But I found out that he was warm, generous and very open to somebody who was a student.

Chris Potter, saxophonist

I first checked Mike out when I was in high school. I was already involved in playing the saxophone at that point, starting to play professionally around the South Carolina area. And I remember getting the Steps Ahead record from 1983. That was my first exposure to Mike’s playing and I just couldn’t believe it. I just remember thinking, “Man, this is as far as you could ever go on the saxophone.”

Jim Beard, keyboardist

I first met Mike at the Village Vanguard in 1985. He was playing with a group led by Marc Johnson. I was new in town and a little wet behind the ears and I was immediately struck by his humble, unpresuming and down-to-earth nature. When I introduced myself, he responded as if he was already familiar with me. Since I’ve gotten to know him, I realize that this probably was the case because one thing I’ve learned about Mike is that he is an avid hunter of information. Information of all types: repertoire, recordings, artists in and out of town, instruments acoustic and electric.

On the Bandstand

Hal Galper

By the late ’70s, when I formed my quintet with Billy Hart and Wayne Dockery, [Michael and Randy] were already famous as the Brecker Brothers and they were doing a lot of rock ’n’ roll recording. So we made a deal that they would lend me their names and I would write the music and do the booking and create an opportunity for them to really stretch out and play. And Mike was really hitting his stride then. It may have been six or seven years between the times that we played together and, man, Michael had gotten so strong! His time and his tone were so together that it was frightening following him. Randy didn’t want to follow him, I didn’t want to follow him. Because Michael wasn’t happy unless he got a standing ovation after every solo...and he always did.

Joe Lovano, saxophonist

Mike plays with such deep passion and has such joy in doing it. He’s just incredible to be around and share the stage with. Whatever ensemble he’s in, he brings it up to another level with his playing. There are a lot of situations I’ve heard Mike in where everybody that follows him tried to play what he played. And then it turns into a thing where everyone’s reaching for the same place. That can happen when you have such a powerful force on the bandstand.

Joey Calderazzo, pianist

Mike and I have a deep connection on the bandstand. We have this kind of uncanny hookup that we used to call “The Thing,” where I would start shifting the harmony behind him so that if we were playing in F, we’d end up on C-sharp. It was not just your basic thing where guys play more diatonically. This stuff was really kind of outside of the harmony. As we got older and Mike became more and more comfortable, the shifting would take place and we necessarily wouldn’t have to hit the big climax. We could sort of let that one go and start again. And that thing really developed to a high level between myself and Mike. I have never had that kind of relationship on the bandstand with anybody.

Herbie Hancock, pianist

Mike really inspires me. He’s so inventive and creative and he’s so smart and quick. He never runs out of ideas, and responds to anything I throw at him. He’s never judgmental about it; he just reacts. He always seems to be thrilled by a challenge on the bandstand. When we first did the Directions in Music tour, the idea was to celebrate the 75th birthdays of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, because they were both about the same age. We all had to come up with new ways to conceive of the tunes that we decided to play by those great heroes of ours. Perhaps in the education of doing those projects, in the execution of the music, there were things that I brought to the arrangements that were of the moment, that may have been different than what Mike was accustomed to hearing from other piano players. Rather than being solidly grounded, harmonically and rhythmically, I was definitely throwing him curve balls. And he loved it.

Adam Rogers, guitarist

Pretty much every night Mike is really digging deep and pulling out a lot of stuff and playing with this phenomenal amount of intensity that you can’t help but be affected by, regardless of how you particularly play as an improviser. Being on the bandstand with him really made me think about my own playing in a lot of different ways. Because when Mike plays, after he’s done with an improvisation you kind of have to think, “Well, how do I want to play after that?” It really makes you think about your own playing and what things do you want to elicit. It’s really a thought-provoking experience to play next to Mike.

Joey Calderazzo

I remember watching him play years ago with another saxophone player, and this guy was no slouch, either. But when Mike soloed, it was just clear that there was something special about it. He was on another level entirely.

Scott Colley, bassist

During our Directions in Music tour last year, Mike seemed really driven by his pursuit of new sounds with the EWI and the whole surround sound setup. And although he wasn’t feeling that great, he really put out as much energy on that tour as anybody. Mike and Herbie had a G5 apiece on stage, and it was incredible to watch what Mike would do every night on his solo EWI portion of the show, which really evolved from night to night. It’s an incredible thing from a technology standpoint, but listening to him play the EWI, he’s really developed it into something that is uniquely his own. When you hear the sounds he chooses and the way he puts them together, it’s clear that Mike has developed an identity on that instrument, just as he’s done on the tenor sax.

Herbie Hancock

What Mike did with his unaccompanied rendition of “Naima” on those first few tours was something else. Every night that got standing ovations and people couldn’t stop applauding. It was that amazing.

Chick Corea, pianist

I’ve known Michael since the 60’s and every project we’ve done together has always been totally inspiring. But the best one was our recent gig at the Blue Note in December 2001 for my 60th birthday party. It was like that band with Steve Gadd and Eddie Gomez had never stopped playing. Michael played with unrestrained creativity and passion on that gig.

The Session Musician

Phil Ramone, producer

His solos are not just a great bunch of notes tied together to impress us with his facility. It’s much more than that with Mike. He’s like an architect. And I’ve been very fortunate over the years to see that kind of ability show up on sessions I’ve produced. He comes into a session and just puts his Brecker footprint right where you wanted it.

Jason Miles, keyboardist/producer

I remember a time we were working in the studio on a piece for one of my albums and Mike blew this incredible solo on it. When we were listening to the playback, he turned to me and said, “You gotta throw that away, man. We’re making a pop song and this thing’s gotta be crafted like a hit pop song.” And he goes in there and plays this very simple solo but that’s so elegant and beautiful. He’s one of the only jazz guys that really knows how to craft a pop solo.

Billy Cobham, drummer

There was a day when I needed to have Michael come in to the studio to play on a composition of mine called “Heather,” and he was late. When he finally arrived for the session he was a bit stressed, so I said to him, “Please just listen to this and play what you hear and feel from the heart.” I said this because I have always known Mike to be a very sensitive person who is always looking inside himself to understand who he is and how to project this person through the music. Well, the track is running, and he plays what to me was the best solo I had heard him play to that point that we had worked together. It was a classic Michael Brecker “First take!” I was extremely happy with it and wanted to just stop there but Michael always thought that it could be better. So we tried it maybe three or four more times before I had to put my foot down and say, “No mas!” He is a first take, spontaneous kind of guy and is still numero uno in my book.

Phil Ramone

There are some great jazz musicians and great improvisers but what I think is wonderful is when you can actually listen back and hear a solo that you never forget. And that’s true of Mike’s solo on “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It’s his most identifiable and most quoted solo.

Jim Beard

Michael is one of a select breed of musicians who is truly at home in just about any musical environment. He not only has the desire but the complete musical makeup to play the heck out of anything and everything, whether it is a progressive contemporary composition or a toe-tapping ditty, a tear-jerking ballad or greasy funk. He brings the familiar to the unfamiliar and vice versa.

The Saxophonist

Will Lee
I used to live with Mike Brecker when I first lived in New York because I didn’t have a pad yet. Here I was coming from Texas and Miami and I get to this grid called Manhattan, and basically to me all the streets and buildings looked the same, especially where Mike was living down on 19th Street in the Chelsea area. And I wouldn’t have found my way home if it wasn’t for the fact that he practiced what seemed like 24 hours a day. So I just followed the sound of his horn when I got close. The room where Mike practiced was the only other room that he had available for me to sleep in. But my sleeping did not keep him from practicing and his practicing definitely didn’t keep me from sleeping. Because by the time I would awaken he would’ve been practicing for a full two or three hours in that same room at full volume. But talk about dedication!

Walt Weiskopf

Mike loves to practice, and I believe that, in combination with his enormous gift as a natural musician, this is what contributes to the transcendent way he plays the horn. Hearing Mike play is exactly like hearing a great singer in that there is no audible barrier between his emotional content and the ear of the listener. The way Michael Brecker plays the horn is the result of consistent dedication coupled with a rare talent and natural ability to blow the saxophone.

Donny McCaslin

I remember seeing him when I was a student at Berklee. This was around the time that his first record as a leader came out on Impulse! He was a guest artist and did a clinic and a concert with a student ensemble. And I remember hearing him say in the clinic that he was taking saxophone lessons and composition lessons. I was struck by the fact that here was a guy at the top of his field and he’s still studying the saxophone.

Claus Ogerman, arranger

Every 25 years a musician like Michael comes along. He reminds me of Glenn Gould, because Glenn played everything very brisk but extremely clear. No wishy-washy statements with him. And this also applies to Michael. He has a pristine sense of execution where you can follow every note. No matter how fast Michael plays, you can follow him perfectly. Stan Getz once told me, “Just put a piece of music in front of me and I’ll give you a masterpiece.” This also applies to Michael. I think he’s pretty phenomenal in terms of sight-reading, his command over the instrument, his improvisational and interpretive abilities...everything, really.

Phil Ramone

Michael has a sound on the tenor saxophone that is really very inviting. It’s very sensuous and he can get upstairs and really take your head off when he needs to. But the bottom line is, he has an instantly recognizable voice on his instrument. I think that’s the key to some of the great success of artists in general. Of course, he’s a monstrous jazz improviser. But at heart, he’s a song man. He understands that the song has form, and why. He respects that there is a melody and yet he goes all over the place with it. When you solo on a tune, you can either get so far out that nothing works, or you can get so far inside of it that you are part of the melody and part of the construction.

Arif Mardin

He chooses very adventurous notes on the harmonies and the chords. He just soars into another land when he plays a solo. There are traces of John Coltrane in his playing, but he’s got all the great tenor sax historic influences in there as well. With his full tone he can play ballads beautifully, like Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. Or he can play a lot of notes, like Coltrane.

Chris Potter

The first thing that grabbed me about Mike’s playing—such a unique sound and the depth of his concept. And when you got into the kind of lines that he was playing I could recognize that he was kind of taking things that Coltrane had done, things that Joe Henderson had done, and just carried it even further in some ways, as far as ways of incorporating false fingerings into his lines and ways of superimposing various other kinds of harmonies on top of the basic harmony.

Joey Calderazzo

Mike always had that blistering technique. The guy is an amazing saxophone player. What he would play on Gsus...I’d hit a Gsus chord and he would know instantly what to play on top of that. He just has an intuitive sense like that. And Mike has always had this kind of gift of being able to bring sheer excitement to music.

Tim Ries

To me, Mike plays with such ease and virtuosity, he’s like the Heifetz of the saxophone. His ability to take ideas and motives and develop them with such clarity and precision and beauty on the instrument is so rare. Never mind even the incredible jazz aspect of his playing; just being able to play an instrument that well only happens to very few people on the planet. You can count on two hands maybe the number of people who were able to have the kind of dexterity that Mike has on the saxophone. And to hear him getting into all these turns and trills and idiosyncratic things with the Bulgarian gypsy music he’s been working on...it just takes it all to another level.

Adam Rogers

An amazing thing about Mike is that he’s a real student of music. And I have always felt that he’s most interested in things that he hasn’t heard before. In playing with him, the more that I would delve into my recesses to pull something out that maybe I didn’t know how to do, the more interested he would become. He loves that process of exploration in himself or in the musicians he’s playing with.

Dean Brown

The thing about Mike is that, in my opinion, he’s also an alien. He can do stuff on the horn that few normal humans can do, in terms of the brainpower that it takes and the sheer emotional, organic continuity between what he feels and what he’s able to play. And Mike’s work with the EWI is just boundless. It’s driven by his restless curiosity of what’s possible.

George Whitty, keyboardist

Mike’s curiosity with finding new sounds and possibilities with the EWI is definitely driven by the same musical instinct that makes him such a great saxophone player. But I really think that it’s the fact that his musical capacity doesn’t just fit on a saxophone. Especially the idea for being able to generate polyphony. Mike’s a real genius with that. He can sit there and just play a monophonic line on the EWI and out comes all this really beautiful harmony. So I think it’s kind of a natural extension of how gifted he is as a melodic player.

The Man

Branford Marsalis

In the late ’80s, I got to know Mike as a person, and that is valuable to me. We were in Japan and ended up spending a lot of time together. And we didn’t really spend that much time talking about music or saxophone. But I really enjoyed my time with him and his wife, Susan, who was a tennis instructor at the time. We played tennis together there in Japan and it was just great. It was nice to be included in on his life as opposed to the general music scene. It was a lot more meaningful to me having that interaction with him and his wife than just meeting him at a jam session and playing some tunes.

Donny McCaslin

One of my strongest impressions of Mike was meeting him and discovering that he was such a humble and gracious person. That was years later, when I was playing in Steps Ahead during the mid-’90s. I got to talk to him a bit and he was just so funny and self-effacing and goodnatured that it just put me at ease immediately.

Peter Erskine, drummer

Whether he was urging me to get the music into “fifth gear,” or wondering why I might sound real good on one occasion and real bad the next, I could always take Mike’s advice or criticism because Mike Brecker does not have a mean bone in his body.

Charlie Haden

Mike has always impressed me with his musicianship, of course, but his qualities as a person have also been at a very high level. He’s a very humble, very giving person. And he’s got a really great sense of humor.

Mike Stern

I think Mike’s humanity and all that soul that he’s got as a person comes through very much in his playing. As astounding as it is technically, it’s still really warm and soulful, which is a tricky thing to pull off. But he’s always had that. Randy has that, too. That’s just the Brecker quality, I guess. That and their amazing sense of humor. Both those guys are as funny as hell, especially when they’re telling road stories. And Mike’s got a million of ’em.

Adam Rogers

On a couple of tours I did with Mike, he filmed these really funny things with his Canon digital camera. I was honored to be a part of one, although it was indicting in ways I don’t know if I want out there. It’s pretty funny, though, and certainly the way he edited it together was hysterical. He brings his monumental obsessive creativity into that medium as well, as you might imagine. At first meeting he’s quiet and humble, but he’s got a really fantastic sense of humor. He seems to always be able to pull out the underlying funniness in any situation.

Will Lee

Mike has that spontaneous outburst of a laugh that is so infectious. At the same time, Mike has always been such a sensitive guy and so humble. In my mind, if you have the combination of humility and extraordinary talent that he has, you are destined for greatness.

Branford Marsalis

The last time they [Brecker’s group with Calderazzo, James Genus and Tain Watts] played in New York, I was there. And after their set …we were hanging out backstage and just talking about family. That’s ultimately what’s most important. All this bullshit that we deal with on a regular basis in the music world—who can play, who can’t, my band is better than your band. At the end of the day, who really gives a damn about these so-called controversies, which are little more than some seventh grade schoolyard bullshit. So it was just great to be in that situation with Mike where it was more real than that.

Mike Stern

I consider him one of my closest friends. He’s helped me get through a lot of stuff. And he’s been there for a lot of other people too, but in a humble way. He’s very compassionate that way. And like all of us, he’s been through a bunch of stuff. And he’s been amazing at being able to use his experience to help other people in so many ways. As great a musician he is, what he represents to me on a personal level is almost heavier than the music. I’ve never met a kinder, more caring person.

Tim Ries

I look back on the six years I lived in Hastings and think that was one of the greatest periods of my life, because I was less than a mile from the guy and I could kind of go over and get to hang with Michael Brecker. And it’s like you’re hanging out with a guru. People go to India to study with this kind of person, and I had a cat on that same level in my own backyard.

His Influence

Joe Lovano

Mike’s been a big influence on me as far as really finding my own way. Every generation has leaders and pace-setters that people grab ahold of and are on their coattails. And for me, trying to be a contrast to Mike was a big thing in my development. Because he’s so powerful and strong, it’s like, “Man, I gotta be able to stand next to this cat.”

Kenny Werner, pianist

Mike is a testimony to the power of one’s inner voice. I find that it makes his prodigious