Updated: Nov 11, 2021
In the appendix of "Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker," there are two dozen personal testimonies from Mike's friends, colleagues and disciples. Given the limitations of space (I was supposed to bring the book in at 120,000 words and delivered a final manuscript of 156,000 words, which they were totally cool with, thank God!), I had to delete several testimonies from the book. But I knew all along that I would have a website to handle a lot of the "Brecker Extras" that for one reason or another didn't make the book. Here are a dozen more testimonials to the Tenor Titan:
The potent tenor saxophonist and New York City native has toured and recorded with Tito Puente, Willie Colón, Paul Simon, Tower of Power, Celine Dion, Chaka Khan, Randy Brecker, Dennis Chambers, Victor Wooten, Robby Ameen and Mike Stern.
In 1977, I had been playing a lot with trumpeter Chris Rogers, whose dad, trombonist Barry, was super-tight with the Breckers and played with them in the early ‘70s band Dreams. Chris invited me to go to hear Mike and Randy with The Hal Galper Quintet at Seventh Avenue South. I was only 15 at the time and it was physically the closest I had every been to music on that level of richness. I was totally blown away. Formally introduced that night to Michael, he sat down with me and made me feel at ease right away. From then on, whenever I ran into him, it was always a thrilling and inspiring experience to be in Mike’s presence.
I learned so much from him not only musically but also the importance of remaining humble and to keep reaching and striving to improve as a human being in all facets of life. In one of the last long conversations I had with Mike, he gave some great advice: Whenever I was faced with a tough life decision, think about it the way I would think about making a musical decision.
The last time I heard from Mike, he called me from his hospital bed when he found out that my wife had passed away. He was such an inspiration on that call that it really helped me get through the trauma of it. I will be forever grateful to him for that. He was an angel on earth as far as I am concerned.
Bassist-trombonist who, along with his brothers Darius and Dan, played in his famous father Dave’s groups Two Generations of Brubeck and The New Brubeck Quartet.
My brother, as a very young piano player, got this deal on Paramount Records and recorded a jazz album in 1971 called Chaplin’s Back, which was all of Charlie Chaplin’s movie music. That was one of Mike’s early recording sessions in New York City after coming out of Indiana University, and I remember my brother raving about how good he was. One time Michael sat in with us when I playing in Dave's group at a jazz festival in Japan. We came off the stage and, you know, I thought he played great. And he was so hard on himself it was unbelievable. I said, “Mike, don’t you realize that there are many, many sax players that would give their left arm to have played as good as you just did?” And I said, “You’re an amazing player, man!” Of course, when you’re brooding player like that, it’s what makes you have the discipline to get better, to keep practicing and never be satisfied.
Later, in 1975, I had a rock group on Colombia Records called Sky King. We got Randy Brecker to produce our second album, which actually didn’t come out. We had a song on that one called “Red Tape,” and it had this great funk break in it. And I remember Randy saying to me, “Boy, I can really hear Mike playing on this.” And I said, “Oh, man, I can too!” Because I was deeply into the group Dreams and the first Brecker Brothers record with “Some Skunk Funk” was out by then. At the time, I thought it was one of the best recorded, most musical, just wonderful top albums of all time. And so I convinced Bruce Lundvall to let Randy Brecker produce our second album. So we’re in the studio and Mike showed up to get the track done. He’s overdubbing and we left a 64-bar area open for him to improvise over. And Randy conspires with me. And he says, “I'm going to tell Mike that the engineer is just trying to get some sound on this take but don’t say anything because we’re really going to record it. And so Mike is hearing it literally for the very first time and Randy says, “Hey, why don’t you just play along so we can get some level?” So we are hearing him play it, and he is kicking unbelievable ass! And then when it’s done, Randy’s winking at me. He said, “Now you watch, he’s going to do two or three takes, and we will go back and use the very first time he ever heard it.” And he said, “Because my brother is such a genius, I know his most creative playing will be him having no idea what’s coming next and reacting to it. And that’ll be the best performance than before he starts analyzing everything that he knows is coming and how he should react to it in advance.” And he was right. After doing three or four takes, which, of course, were all brilliant in their own way, Randy says, “Hey, let’s listen to that first take again.” And Mike goes, “Yeah.” You know, it was evident to us all. It had that magic spark because you’re just hearing that genius right there in real time reacting to everything.
Israeli tenor saxophonist-composer-bandleader attended the Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he studied with sax greats Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. He has performed with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Al Foster, Kenny Barron, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Kevin Hays. Since 2011, he has been the artistic director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival and in 2019 served on the jury for the inaugural Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition.
My first recording I heard of Mike’s was Now You See It…Now You Don’t (GRP, 1990). I was 16 at the time and I remember that I felt that I was listening to something I had never heard before. It was so fresh — complex and deep but easy to listen to at the same time. It blew my mind. And in that moment I was completely hooked and wanted to become Michael Brecker. It was the start of my deep dive into his music.
My first encounter with Mike was when I was part of the Herbie Hancock band in 1999. We were playing at a big festival in France and after the show Mike came backstage to say hello. There I was, a twenty-year-old musician seeing my hero for the first time, and I couldn’t believe how kind and gentle he was. His presence was so calm and sensitive and he seemed genuinely interested to hear about my sax set up, which was unreal to me…the great Michael Brecker cared about my setup!
At that first meeting on the road, Mike mentioned that he would love to meet up when we were both back in New York City. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he left me a message on my answering machine asking about hooking up. Even today, as I remember this story, I can't believe how cool Mike was and how generous he was both as a musician and a human being.
Being influenced so much by the genius of Michael Brecker, it was my great honor to be involved so closely with the inaugural Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition at the 2019 Red Sea Jazz Festival. Through the whole process, from working side to side with Susan Brecker and Darryl Pitt in the early stages to working with all the contestants, it was very apparent that Mike’s glow and aura were a part of the proceedings. Everybody involved was in awe of the situation and you could feel and see how much commitment to the music, humility and modesty there was in the air. It was a fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats. After years of dreaming about it, brainstorming and working very hard toward that goal, I was honored to see this beautiful dream come to life.
Powerhouse tenor saxophonist-educator and longtime member of the legendary Boston jazz trio The Fringe has 20 albums as a leader and has appeared on over 100 recordings as a sideman for the likes of Mike Mainieri, Bob Moses, Martin Taylor, Rachel Z, Joe Lovano Nonet and Norrbotten Big Band.
I didn’t get hip to Mike until about the mid ‘80s. You know, I thought my time was good at the time, in terms of being really even with the eighth notes. But when I heard this guy, he was on another planet. I mean, the guy was clean! And if you play that clean, it means you practice every day, like John Coltrane did. Mike was like Trane in that regard. I think he was the epitome of a perfectionist but he didn’t let perfection take him over.
In 1997, when I was invited to play in a four-tenor tribute to Trane in Japan at a “Live By The Sea ’97” concert in Yokohama, Japan alongside Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Joshua Redman. Before going on stage I said to myself, “If I can hang with these guys, if I’m still alive at the end of this thing, I’m cool.” It turned out they were all so great to me, especially Mike. it bolstered my confidence and really made me realize that I could play with anybody.
Mike and I did a lot of talking on the bus on the way to that gig in Yokohama about — what else? — mouthpieces and reeds! But we also talked about our mutual connection to Trane. It was a connection that all of us in that generation had, and you could even hear that thread of Trane in younger players like Josh Redman. Even today I’m still hearing Trane's influence on young players, and Mike’s too.
The thing I remember most about Mike was that he was not only a master of the saxophone but a great, caring person who was affectionate and sensitive as well. That kind of sensitivity is what makes guys like Mike Brecker, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano play the way they do. I mean, you can be a motherfucker on the sax but if you have heart, that makes it even better. And Mike was such a big-hearted cat. Mike was one of those top of the line guys. He set the bar so high and he inspired a lot of other players that way, including myself. He gave me incentive to want to not only keep playing but to get better.
Tenor saxophonist and Boston icon who was the subject of one of Michael Brecker’s oft-repeated quips. When asked in clinics and master classes how it felt to be the world’s greatest saxophonist, Mike would invariably answer: “I don’t know, ask Jerry Bergonzi.”
I think I was 19 when I met him. It was at the Berklee College of Music on Boylston Street in Boston and I was playing a jam session in the basement when someone came in and said, “Hey man, you gotta hear this kid!” So I went over and peaked in the room down the hall where Mike was practicing. He was just a skinny teenage kid and he was already playing his ass off. [An 18-year-old Michael was enrolled in a summer session at Berklee that summer of ’67, which coincided with The Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco].
When I moved to New York in 1972, I was playing at the Mercer Arts Center every weekend with the pianist Michael Tschudin’s group with Harvie Swartz on bass, Chip White on drums and Sam Burtis on trombone. Mike used to come down and check us out and he was very encouraging, not only to me but to everyone in the band. He was uplifting. Just a kind person.
Around that time, I’d go over to Mike’s loft on 19th Street and practice or he'd come over to my place on 28th Street to play. We’d get together to practice and he’d play drums while I played tenor, then we’d switch. We both played piano so we’d switch off on that as well while the other one was playing the tenor. We got a lot of work in on those sessions. But the thing I remember about that most was what a quick study he was. He would hear me play something and he’d say, “What was that?” And before it was even out of my mouth, he understood what I was talking about and could play it up and down in all keys, backwards and forwards. He had such a quick mind that way.
Mike and I never played together in public, though I did sub for him once in Hal Galper’s group, which is how I met Hal. [Bergonzi and Galper would subsequently play on several gigs and recordings together]. We actually did two recording sessions together for drummer Alex Riel. I remember the first one vividly (Unriel, Stunt Records, 1998). On this particular day we played together on two of my tunes. One was called “On Again, Off Again,” which is based on the changes to “Solar” but it has all these weird rhythms in it. Mike played the first solo and I think he took like 18 choruses, and he just killed it! And I'm thinking, “What the fuck am I going to play after that?” So I proceeded to play 18 choruses too, and I did as much as I could. And Alex said, “Man, you guys sound fantastic but the take is way too long.” So on the next take, Mike plays another 18 choruses of the greatest shit ever. And then I say, “OK, cool, I'll play another 18.” And Alex said, “Man, you guys are playing way too long.” The third take is the one we used and we played regular length solos on that one. But that was something — to stand there beside Michael Brecker and listen to him play an amazingly long solo and then realize you have to play after that.
On the second record date we did together (Rielatin', Stunt Records, 2000) we were getting ready to play a Ben Webster tune (“Did You Call Her Today”). It was a real simple tune. I'm standing right next to Mike in the studio and I look over to his chart of the tune and he's got all these new chord changes written over it. And I said, “Mike, what are those chord changes?” And he said, “Oh, those are the chord changes I'm going to play over.” In other words, he reharmonized the whole thing and was going to do chord substitutions and he had it all written down in advance. He was a real thinking musician. Yeah, he was one-of-a-kind.
The Netherlands-based tenor saxophonist is widely regarded as the foremost Michael Brecker historian. A comprehensive overview of Brecker’s legacy has been documented on his site MichaelBreckerLiveRecordings.com and also on his Facebook group page, In Honor of Michael Brecker. He has also gathered hundreds of Michael Brecker videos on his YouTube channel.
Every tenor player who plays in jazz and pop related groups is influenced in some way by Mike Brecker. He created a whole new approach combining techniques he borrowed from great players before him, along with guitar-like playing which translated to his saxophone playing. That way of playing influenced me a lot. It's very dangerous too because no one could do it just like Mike. It was always a bad copy. Of course, there are many great tenor players at the moment, also technically great, but in my opinion not as revolutionary as Mike. His special talent was his flexibility. He always found a way to fit in perfectly in every setting. That can not be said about every great jazz player.
The first time I heard Mike was on the Jack Wilkins album You Can't Live Without It (Chiaroscuro Records, 1977). My saxophone teacher had it on tape and I tried to copy Mike’s “Invitation” solo on that album. That was the start of my life-long love for Michael Brecker’s playing, and it developed as the years passed.
Mike was the complete package. His straight ahead jazz playing was out of this world. When playing on a pop, funk or other style album, he morphed his playing in a way that it fit like a glove in any kind of style. And he was able to do that without losing his identity. A real virtuoso, he was very open-minded regarding new technical developments, including with work with the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI). Mike essentially put the EWI on the map and no one, to this day, has been able to compete with him.
The other thing that influenced me later in my life was Mike’s personality. His kindness and humility set a good example: Be kind to everyone, it creates a better world.
Chilean-born saxophonist came under the spell of Michael Brecker as a teenager in her native Santiago. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music in 2009, she relocated to New York City and in 2013 became the first South American to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. The rising star saxophonist-composer has five albums as a leader to her credit, the latest being 2019's Visions.
I am strongly influenced by Michael Brecker, even though it’s not really obvious in my playing right now. But he’s somebody that I checked out deeply for so many years when I lived in Chile. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet him or see him play live. But my father is from his generation and was a big fan. He had the DVD Return of the Brecker Brothers — Live in Barcelona (1992) and I grew up watching that. And that completely turned my world upside down. Later I was really into the band that he had with Steps Ahead. That was definitely a very strong influence.
The way that I grew up as a saxophone player was doing transcriptions. And one thing that I can say about the whole experience of transcribing Michael — he was just perfect. I can’t recall one minute ever wondering what he was playing. Everything was so clear, and technically he’s just a monster. His very clean technique is something that always kind of amazed me. I learned a lot about technique without really thinking about it, just from transcribing him so deeply. Michael was definitely a master of playing many different styles and in that very perfectionist way. And that is something that I always admired about him.
I kind of stopped transcribing Michael’s solos when I went to Berklee in 2007. But when I was 14-15 years old in Chile, I was just totally trying to play like Michael. I used to use his same mouthpiece and I really was trying to imitate his sound. I think that despite where you eventually move on to, every saxophone player of my generation is strongly influenced by him at some point of their development.
One of the most prolific players on the European jazz scene, the German tenor saxophonist has recorded 11 albums as a leader and has been a member since 2005 of the world renowned WDR Big Band, which recorded live with Michael and Randy Brecker for the 2005 Grammy Award-winning release, Some Skunk Funk, and later with Randy for his 2019 album Rocks, featuring original Brecker Brothers member David Sanborn.
When I first heard Mike Brecker, it was a total revolution for me. It was a whole new world within the world of the music I knew. So powerful and elegant, so complex and melodious, so recognizable and versatile; all at the same time. Whether he played with Paul Simon or Kenny Wheeler, with Joni Mitchell or Horace Silver, he always served the music perfectly and played what the music asked for with his unmistakable way of playing. But not only that, the exceptional master that he was, he always brought the music to anther level through his musicianship and personality. He always was and still is an example for generations of saxophone players and other musicians throughout the world.
Mike also was such a kind and supportive person. I met him for the first time at a concert in my hometown Cologne in Germany, where he took the time to talk with me. I even dared to give him my first CD. He was so kind to write some very nice words about the album and when I sent him my second album two years later, he e-mailed me: “Hey Paul, you continue to amaze! Beautiful writing, outrageously great playing. Your CD will accompany me on the road and help me to stay inspired.”
In the summer of 1997, Mike was the guest soloist with Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra, of which I was a member for 17 years, so I even got the chance then to play with him and to experience how he worked with Brookmeyer's music, which was amazing. He took his time to get to know the music and finally put his personality on it, always with the greatest respect, appreciation and understanding of Bob's work. With these unique qualities, he did the great art he was creating all his life in music, which will always be there.
Tenor saxophonist from Budapest, Hungary, he studied at the Bela Bartok Conservatory before moving to Germany in 1981. A member of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band since 1993, he has performed and recorded with Jasper Van't Hoff, Kirk Lightsey, Al Foster, George Mraz, Billy Hart, Joanne Brackeen, Cecil McBee, Woody Shaw, Jimmy Scott, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenny Wheeler and Randy Brecker. He has played on over 300 recordings and has 22 CDs as a leader to his credit.
The first time I heard Michael playing on a recording with Billy Cobham’s band in the early ‘70s, I realized from the first few notes that it was something that I had never heard before from any other tenor saxophone players in history. This was a new musical language to me. And from that point, I went crazy trying to find recordings that he played on, which wasn’t easy in the Eastern Bloc of Europe at that time.
Michael was a very strong influence on all my musical career. And like so many other young players back in the ‘80s and ’90s, I wanted to sound just like him. I believe he really opened new doors for players, and for me he stands as an innovator of the tenor saxophone in a line of greats in jazz history like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.
My personal story with Mike goes back to the 1981 Debrecen Jazz Festival in Hungary, where he played with Steps Ahead. I was opening the festival’s late night jam session with my band and all the guys in Steps Ahead came to the session after their concert. I felt Michael was digging my playing and after a little chat he played a few tunes with us. He even sat in on drums, and he sounded incredible.
Since that point, we never lost contact, always writing to each other. Every time I was in New York, I tried to visit him and I would run into him at festivals all over the world. He was kind enough to write liner notes on my 2003 recording, The Music of Hoagy Carmichael. I miss him every day. Every musical moment of Michael’s — along with his humble way — is the greatest inspiration.
Australian-born, New York City-based tenor saxophonist-composer got his masters degree at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, where he studied with Gary Keller and Gary Lindsay, co-leaders of the Miami Saxophone Quartet. Since relocating to New York in 2012, he has been a fixture on the scene, playing with Jeff “Tain” Watts, Robby Ameen and Joey DeFrancesco. He has 13 albums to his credit, a majority of which were recorded for his own Toy Robot Music label.
The people I grew up with in Perth weren’t really big on Michael Brecker or anything modern, for that matter. So I was a closet Michael Brecker fan in Australia. But in the last 10 years, I don’t hide that at all. I’m a massive fan of his now and every day I learn more and more about his greatness. People I meet on the road that worked with him are sharing great stories. Working with Tain was a great source of information. He told me so many great stories of being on the road with Mike and he described Mike as the most disciplined person he ever met, both musically and personally. And everyone I’ve talked to that knew him said he was just an absolute sweetheart. It’s so great to hear that. Not all your heroes are like that.
The first time I heard Mike was on Tales from the Hudson. I got that and Two Blocks from the Edge around the same time and I really fell in love with those two records. He’s one of the few cats that was really taking the music forward -- so much of the best of the past and so much new shit. It was such a great balance. I’m still finding new recordings of his and just realizing how much of a serious bad-ass Michael was.
I’ve gotten to know Susan Brecker quite well over the last couple of years. She laid one of Mike’s horns on me — his Selmer Super Balanced Action, the silver plated one. I met Susan when she came to a gig I was playing at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown with Joey DeFrancesco. We got chatting before I knew who she was and (baritone saxophonist) Claire Daly came up to us in the middle of the conversation and said to me, “You do realize this is Susan Brecker, right?” And I was like, “Holy shit!” We became friends and stayed in touch and one day she said, “You should come over and check out mouthpieces and horns and have some lunch.” So I did.
We stayed in touch and bumped into each other again at the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival and ended up hanging out. I went and saw the tribute to Mike that she put on with a great band that featured Randy, Donny McCaslin, Adam Rogers, Antonio Sanchez, John Patitucci and Gil Goldstein as the musical director. I think a year went past and she kind of offered this horn to me to buy. And I just thought, “You know, I don't need a really expensive horn sitting around. I've been playing a Conn Chu Berry for many years and I’m not going to change, so I don’t need a really expensive horn just sitting around.”
But then a year went by and some friends of mine visited from Perth and I told them the story and they were like, “Man, you gotta get that horn! How many times does an opportunity like that come up? The guy was a legend. Imagine being able to say you have that horn.” So I called Susan back and said, “Hey, do you still have the horn?” And she said, “Yeah, but I'm not trying to sell it, Troy. I thought Mike would want his stuff to be out in the community played by people he dug, and he really would have dug you.” And I was like, “Wow!” She told me, “If you want to check it out again I'll leave it with you next week. I'm going out of town.” So she left it with me and I decided to buy it. I just thought I’d keep it for historic value but something clicked and I just fell in love with it. I never played a Selmer before. It was a whole new thing for me. And over the months I just grew into it and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s my main horn now.
Tenor saxophonist-composer-bandleader who toured and recorded with Buddy Rich, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra and Steely Dan, he has 16 CDs as a leader, he is also and educator, author of “Intervalic Improvisation” and co-author of “Coltrane: A Player's Guide To His Harmony.”
I met Mike in the mid-‘80s at Art-Shell, a saxophone repair shop on 48th Street in Manhattan. He was humble and self-effacing from the time I met him. He was interested in a book I had written on improvisational technique and I remember how excited and flattered I was to have his attention. Years later I had the pleasure of performing with Mike while I was teaching saxophone at New Jersey City University. Bob Mover and I were both on the faculty at the time and Mike came in as our guest. The plan was for the three of us to play “Tenor Madness” [title track of the 1956 Sonny Rollins album that is the only known recording featuring Rollins playing with John Coltrane]. I remember it clearly. After we played the head, I soloed first, then Bob (who, although primarily an alto player, sounded great on tenor) soloed next and then Mike went last. I learned as much about music during Mike’s five-minute solo on that tune as I had learned during my previous 20 years of studying the saxophone. Everything was there — his beautiful sound, great time and uniquely flowing ideas streaming seamlessly from his horn. I still think about the experience of hearing that solo up close.
Mike loved to practice, and I believe that in combination with his enormous gift as a natural musician, this is what contributed to the transcendent way he played the horn. Hearing Mike play was 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 played the horn was the result of consistent dedication coupled with a rare talent and natural ability to blow the saxophone.
Universally appreciated as an influential saxophone icon in our business, Mike was a great composer as well. His tunes were distinctive, reflective of his own personal style and different than his older brother Randy, who was more known for his composition. I revered Mike as an artist and loved him as a person. I think of him very often. The music world lost a great presence with Mike’s passing.
Guitar-composer-ngoni player with 21 albums as a leader to her credit. Michael Brecker appeared as guest soloist on two of her albums, 2003’s Finally The Rain Has Come and 2007’s Africa, the latter he recorded at his home in 2006 while struggling with his illness.
Michael helped me get sober. I had always started my sets with a cognac or a glass of champagne, and I was very concerned how I was going to play without that. And I'll never forget, he said, “You know, music is about feelings. And all these drinks, they numb your feelings. So it should be easier.” And I was so dumbfounded by that, like, “What a thought! What a concept!” Well, of course, it's not easy. The anxiety that you feel in performing and the expectation of being judged, especially when you're a woman, is very real. But you learn not to care.
Michael was unbelievably humble. You know, it was so weird to record with him because he would be so hard on himself. And he would say, “Oh, I didn't like that take.” And, I mean, all of our mouths would be wide open over that same take. But he had that attitude about everything he did: it could always be improved. And the rest of us are sitting there saying, “Improve that?!” Where does that leave us?!” But Michael was constantly dissatisfied with his own playing and striving for perfection. It’s like an artistic trait to set yourself these humungous goals and not rest until they’re met. It’s not uncommon. It’s just sometimes tragic how it can get in your way. And he would always make sure that it didn’t get in my way because, you know, I was under the shadow of my husband (Mike Stern). But he would never let me compare myself to him.
It’s very rare, actually, that you have somebody who is that good and that nice. And I think in the times to come we’re going to look back at his body of work and be very aware of how unbelievably important all of this was. I think his contribution to jazz will just continue to blossom and his fame is only going to spread. I mean, there’s hundreds of solos to transcribe and analyze. And such a fabulous improviser. My god! And he developed a style — the Mikey B style. So when we hear it today it’s like, “Oh yeah, he's doing the Mikey B thing.” There's a Coltrane style and a Cannonball Adderley style and there’s a Mikey B style now.
ANDY SNITZER Tenor saxophonist and Philadelphia native has worked with Bob James, the Rolling Stones, Bette Midler and Aretha Franklin and since 1999 has been a regular member of Paul Simon’s touring group, where he has recreated the famous Michael Brecker solo on “Still Crazy After All These Years” countless times.
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a little place called Melrose Park. I played clarinet in grade school, got pretty good and carried that on into middle school and high school. At 13, I got interested in pop music. I loved Mott the Hoople, then found David Bowie. After hearing David Sanborn play on Bowie's “Young Americans,” it was all about the saxophone for me. And from David Sanborn, I found Mike Brecker. I had a copy of the Brecker Brothers' Heavy Metal Be-Bop album but I wasn’t far enough along to understand what I heard. Nevertheless, I wore that album out. Mike’s playing left me speechless and from there I immersed myself in any recordings of his that I could find. His technical mastery was overwhelming, clean and seemingly effortless. His command of harmony had an order and beauty to it that was so right it literally made me laugh out loud. And inexplicably, Mike was powerful across the full spectrum of modern musical styles. He played perfect eight-bar pop solo, he crushed jazz fusion he played funk and soul with wild abandon. He could shred chorus after chorus of straight ahead, whether on a standard or a more complex vehicle like Trane’s “Giant Steps.” He also played gorgeous ballads. And he did it all with great time, sound, pitch, nuance and style. There was literally nothing that he couldn’t do; and all of it at the very highest level. No one else had that, ever.
As a kid interested in pop music, rock ’n' roll and R&B, in addition to jazz, it all absolutely blew my mind. Here was this guy crushing the saxophone, playing all the different music that I loved and finding great professional success. Like many others at the time, I wanted to be just like Mike. In an amazing bit of coincidence, I later discovered that Mike was from the same little town in Pennsylvania I was from. He had attended the same Cheltenham High School that I attended (13 years earlier). My mom arranged for me to talk to Mike’s sister Emily, who lived in the neighborhood. I remember going to her house one evening, questioning her about all things relating to Mike. She told me that he practiced in the bathroom. So did I.
After college, I moved to New York and gradually got to know Mike. He knew me as the kid from his hometown who played saxophone. Over time we became friendly in an occasional way. Mike was a very gracious, understated and essentially humble man, notwithstanding his staggering talent and imprint on the saxophone and musician worlds. When I occasionally called Mike, he would talk to me at some length. And I’m sure he did the same with others like me. That’s how generous he was with his time.
Mike recommended me for gigs, occasionally. Once in a while I’d find myself sitting next to him on a recording session; listening to Michael Brecker warming up on an F major scale was like listening to the wind rush over the keys of his horn. When Mike finally decided to leave his chair in Paul Simon’s touring band, he walked me into the gig, essentially. The idea that I was able to be in his orbit in any way at all is to this day somehow unreal to me.
I view the totality of Mike’s achievement — as a virtuoso, an improviser, a sidemen, an artist, a soloist, a saxophonist — as a once-in-a-millennium event. It’s a gift to have been here at the same time to have witnessed Mike firsthand. He defined my aspiration; his life and work literally determining who I would become.