Updated: Sep 6
We all know how heroic it was for Michael Brecker to get off a sick bed in August of 2006 to record his swan song, Pilgrimage. That triumphant album, featuring Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, Brad Mehldau and Gil Goldstein, was released in May of 2007, four months after Michael had passed. It earned two posthumous Grammy Awards for Best Instrumental Jazz Album and Best Instrumental Jazz Solo for "Anagram," his 14th and 15th Grammies in a fabled career. But did you know that Mike also participated in four other recordings during the last painful year of his life as he struggled through chemotherapy and the debilitating effects of myelodysplatic syndrome?
Michael makes an appearance on two tracks from Leni Stern's 2007 release, Africa. Recorded in June of 2006, Mike makes his tenor presence felt on the mournful "Saya (Farewell)," a piece dedicated to percussionist Don Alias, who had just passed away on March 28 of that year. Brecker's tenor solo also elevates the invigorating "Ousmane" from that same album. As Leni recalls of that overdub session that took place at Michael's home in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County: "We came to his house with the mixes and he was very sick. But we would listen to it and we'd talk about African rhythms and their relation to jazz. And he was so into that. It was just amazing."
In July of 2006, just before he went into the studio to record his own opus, Pilgrimage, Michael played on one track from French chanteuse Juliette Gréco's album, Le Temps D'Une, which was produced by Brecker's Wide Angles collaborator, pianist-arranger Gil Goldstein. Though not as well known in the States, Gréco was a star on the level of an Edith Piaf in France. And she had famously had a torrid affair with Miles Davis when he came over as part of Tadd Dameron's quintet to play the 1949 Paris Jazz Festival. As she recalled of their first meeting backstage, "I saw him from the side; he was an Egyptian god. I had never seen such a beautiful man, and I haven’t seen one since.” Their love affair continued for some years and when Gréco's friend and confidante Jean-Paul Satre finally asked Miles why he wouldn't marry Juliette, he replied, "Sartre asked him why he refused to ask Gréco to marry him, he replied: “Because I love her too much to make her unhappy.” Here's an audio interview of Ms. Gréco recounting that story (in her native French, with subtitles):
And here's rare footage of a Juliette and Miles reunion on the French tv show Sacrée Soirée in 1990:
"Before Pilgrimage, I asked Mike to do a track on a Juliette Gréco record that I was arranging called Le Temps D'Une Chanson," Goldstein recalled, "and he was really not feeling well then. But he came in and he just obliterated the track. He played such an incredible, amazing solo on 'Né Quelque Part'...it was just like...you couldn't play it better. And to this day, I'm sorry that we didn't put the whole fade on the record because it went on for like an extra few minutes and he just kept going. And you know, it was a track that we had done to Juliette Greco singing and somebody played piano, her husband. And she became ill in that period and didn't think she could record anymore. She had some kind of cancer and they asked me to arrange over the demos. So I had to record to a piano demo with her singing. And it was not easy to link up. There was no click. And Rufus Reid was playing bass and a great orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, that is very sensitive to pulse. And it was really locked in, in my mind. At some point, a percussionist came in and said to me, 'It's not in time.' And I said, 'It's in time, but it's human time!' This was taking a little too long so I finally said, 'Hey, Mike has to play. He's got to get back home. Just let him come in.' And Mike came in like he was playing with Elvin. You know, there was no question about where 'one' was at that point."
The third album that Michael played on in his final year, aside from his own brilliant Pilgrimage, was bassist Chris Minh Doky's The Nomad Diaries on Blue Note/Parlophone Denmark. Released on Feb. 10, 2006, it features Michael playing EWI on the mellow, smooth jazzy track "If I Run" and blowing forcefully on tenor sax on the electro-funky "Where Are U?" (which is bookended by an answering machine question from guitarist Mike Stern that provided the song's title). Doky had been a member of Brecker's touring band in 2003 and 2004. Michael had also played on his 1995 Blue Note debut, Doky Brothers (featuring pianist sibling Niels Lan Doky), as well as on Chris' 1998 album, Minh. "The Nomad Diaries was more of an electronic jazz kind of thing that represented our mutual tech friendship," said Doky. "We started working on it while we were on the road, but then he got ill. And at that point I said, 'Well, I'm not going to continue to do that.' But Mike said, 'No, man, you got to finish it!' And the tune he wanted to play on, he was in a hospital already then and I didn't want to ask him because he was in such bad shape. But I was on the phone with him every day and he'd ask, 'How is it going with the tune?' And I'd tell him, 'Yeah, I'll get it done.' And he said, 'No, let me play on it.' So he ended up playing his solo on that in the hospital. I was on Skype with him as he overdubbed his EWI parts and I could see him all bloated and stuff. He couldn't stand up at all. It was rough, man! Rough. I still can't listen to that track to this day. It's just too sad."
One other track that Michael may indeed have played on during that fateful year of 2006 is the beautiful ballad "Todo Para Ti" from Carmen Cuesta-Loeb's album You Still Don't Know Me, which was released on Jan. 27, 2007. Mike plays a brief but lyrical and very lovely EWI solo on this alluring number.
While he may have been in pain, Michael conveyed nothing but love and light in these guest appearances toward the end of his life, in typically heroic Breckerian fashion.