Jazz enthusiasts typically think of Michael Brecker as the powerhouse tenor saxophonist who played iconic solos in both funky jazz and sophisticated pop settings, and with his band the Brecker Brothers, during the 1970s and ’80s. But he also (belatedly) established a solo career, which was cut heartbreakingly short by myelodysplastic syndrome in 2007: nine recordings that confirmed his unparalleled instrumental capabilities and growing compositional prowess. From 1987’s Michael Brecker to 2007’s Pilgrimage, Brecker gave his entire being to his music.
Writer Bill Milkowski’s new biography Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker recites the success story we know so well (with enormous detail and insight), then goes deeper, drawing a comprehensive portrait of a gifted musician who gave back, time and time again. While doing so, Milkowski also frames the world of ’70s New York jazz and studio session culture—a world that you won’t see in any guidebook.
“I wanted to represent someone who I considered to be a heroic figure, for that period of time,” Milkowski stated in a recent interview. “Mike represented that moment in time where you could love Trane and Mahavishnu Orchestra; there was a connection there and Mike personified that. Later, he became a friend, and I wanted to really dig deep and represent him in the best way that I could.”
Ode to a Tenor Titan reveals the origins of young Randy and Michael Brecker, preternaturally talented players from a musical Pennsylvania family. Milkowski takes us through the burgeoning days of their dalliance with fame, Clive Davis, and Arista Records, on to Michael’s pursuit of the jazz he learned from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Joe Henderson. One turning point is the 16-year-old Brecker’s attendance at a 1966 Coltrane concert in Philadelphia, a recording of which was eventually released on Impulse! in 2014 as Offering: Live at Temple University. The book is full of information previously unknown to the casual fan, including Brecker’s severe heroin addiction and recovery, his all-consuming practice regimen and perfectionism, his spot-on impression of Elvin Jones (on the drums), his collision with Henderson, his love of Bulgarian music, and his amazing compassion and generosity, which lives on after his death.
Milkowski also wanted to set the record straight.
“One of the things that Mike suffers from, in terms of his legacy, is that he played on so many pop and rock sessions, over 900 recordings,” Milkowski noted. “That harmed his legacy in that some critics don’t take him seriously. But simultaneous with those sessions, he’s putting up this profound music, beginning with his Impulse! debut continuing through [2004’s Grammy-winning] Wide Angles, which I thought was brilliant. And then his beautiful swan song, which he came off his deathbed to record, Pilgrimage.”
When Brecker was stricken with MDS, he and his wife Susan searched for a bone marrow donor, which turned into a global mission, eventually connecting dozens of donors, that continues to this day.
“Mike helped save so many people’s lives by helping them get straight, having gone through the darkest depths of heroin addiction,” Milkowski said. “You couldn’t help others get clean and sober if you hadn’t done that yourself and walked in those shoes. It’s a deep thing; he invested a lot of himself in doing good.
“And after his death, he’s still helping people through the bone marrow registry, which has found matches for many, many people,” the author added. “Herbie Hancock interpreted that as ‘Mike is still doing good deeds on the planet, even though he’s gone.’”