THERE WAS A COLLECTIVE GASP at the 34th annual IAJE Conference on this day 17 years ago (Saturday, January 13, 2007) when word quickly spread through the Hilton Hotel about the passing of Michael Brecker, who had succumbed at age 57 to leukemia following his two and a half year struggle with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a cancer in which the bone marrow stops producing enough healthy blood cells. The news was broken to me by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, Brecker’s partner in the ‘80s group Steps Ahead and previously his bandmate in White Elephant, the sprawling hippie jam band that they played in together during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I arrived at the conference late that day, around 3 pm. Upon entering the Hilton, I spied Mainieri standing alone in the lobby and approached him, blissfully unaware of what had already happened. I could see the grief on his face as his words fell like bricks: “Mike passed away this morning.” I walked around in stunned silence after that as a pall hung over the conference for the rest of the day.
I had just reached out to Mike a couple of weeks before, via mail. I had sent him a copy of clarinetist Andy Statman’s Awakening From Above, a collection of improvisations on tunes from the deeply religious canon of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, thinking that the healing vibrations of that sacred music might lift his spirits in his hour of need. On January 3, I received an email from Michael that read: “Hi Bill, thanks for the Andy Statman CD. He is amazing! I really enjoyed it. And thanks for thinking of me. I’m still at home fighting the battle. All is well though…lots to be grateful for. I hope you are fine and lotsa love. Mike.”
Ten days later, he was gone.
Later that afternoon in the Hilton Grand Ballroom, bassist Charlie Haden led his Liberation Orchestra through an inspired set of music. An emotionally distraught Haden took to the podium just prior to their set to speak about his two fallen comrades (Alice Coltrane had just passed the night before, on Friday, January 12, from respiratory failure). “This is gonna be hard for me,” he told the assembled conventioneers now turned mourners. He had just played with Alice two months earlier at triumphant concerts in Los Angeles and San Francisco and recounted to the IAJE audience how he remembered telling her that she was looking a little thin. And then he told the story of his first encounter with Michael Brecker. “I might be 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 and I voted him Best Musician in the competition. I was so impressed with his musicianship. He was Michael Brecker even then!”
A loving father and husband, compassionate friend and beloved figure in the jazz community, known for his quick, self-effacing wit and quiet sense of humility, Brecker was also a Trane-inspired tenor sax titan whose profound impact on a generation of players was incalculable. Donny McCaslin, Chris Potter, Rick Margitza, Mark Turner, Tim Ries, Melissa Aldana, Troy Roberts, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, Seamus Blake, Dayna Stephens and Ben Wendel have all cited him as an influence. In fact, Wendel is currently developing and completing compositions that Michael had been working on but tragically never finished. This is a project at the behest of Michael’s widow, Susan Brecker, who had approached Wendel about finishing up this Bulgarian-flavored material that Brecker had also composed around the same time he was recording his final album, Pilgrimage. Those composition had been demoed and left on his hard drive. As Wendel explained in an Instagram post from last year:
“Being offered this opportunity has been such an amazing growing and learning experience. It has been wonderful getting to dig deeper into one of the greatest saxophonists of our time -- to hear personal anecdotes, understand the human behind the music, learn about his practice methods, hear the original incomplete demos of his writing from that time, etc. It has also been a humbling and intimidating experience, inevitably measuring myself up against someone as formidable as Michael. His influence on music and my own personal journey as a saxophonist cannot be overstated and there’s a certain “clarifying fire” that comes from assessing oneself against any of the giants of this music. If your ego survives it, then perhaps you come out a little stronger in the end? One thing is clear from this journey - Michael was a student for life and this endless curiosity is one of the aspects of his personality that really resonates with me. Personally, a big part of taking on this amazing and unlikely project was having the chance to learn and expand through the experience itself — like all of my favorite artists, I am a student for life.”
So we all have that to look forward to in 2024. Meanwhile, on February 6 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room, Susan Brecker will be hosting her fourth “The Nearness of You” benefit concert honoring her late husband and raising money to support cancer research at Columbia University Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, and specifically the work of Michael’s doctors Azra Raza and Siddhartha Mukherjee. Featured performers at this year’s concert include Elvis Costello, Diana Krill, Christopher Cross, Dianne Reeves and Branford Marsalis. The musical director is Will Lee leading an all-star band featuring Randy Brecker and Steve Gadd, among others. "The first memorial was about bringing people
together to share their sadness and grief,” said Susan.
“Since then, it’s been a celebration and a way to honor him and do something good, and show people that, yes, you can lose somebody so valuable to you, but you can turn it into something beautiful for the people who were left behind and for generations to come. You can use it as an opportunity to move forward. Michael was such a positive guy. He was such a beautiful spirit in the world. And to honor him and to know that something good could be done with such sadness, to me, was just so Mike. He was guiding this. I really felt like he was in the room. Because so many people loved him and were there for him, I just felt so loved and supported by everybody there—especially the musicians. They couldn’t have been more generous and caring.”
Susan Brecker is also the co-producer of the 2010 documentary film More To Live For, which follows the lives of three leukemia patients facing life and death in search of bone marrow transplants, including Michael. “We made this film and took it to 25 film festivals around the world. Every time we showed the film, we tested people for the bone marrow registry. That’s how I was able to make 54 matches, because we just tested so many people. And people are still making matches from the batch that we tested, as a result of the film.”
Susan remains positive about the prospect of eventually eradicating the scourge of MDS. “When Michael passed away, I wanted to give back to the cancer community to help patients and the doctors desperately trying to find a cure. Michael has been gone 17 years, and my commitment to supporting cancer research has only gotten stronger.”
Tax deductible tickets for The Nearness of You Concert are on sale now via https://events.columbia.edu/go/NearnessofYou24
Tickets are also available by calling Center Charge at 212-721-6500, online through Jazz at Lincoln Center at www.jazz.org, or at the Jazz at Lincoln Center box office, located on the ground floor of the Columbus Circle Center (Broadway & 60th). Please note: tickets purchased through the Jazz at Lincoln Center Box Office, CenterCharge, and www.jazz.org are NOT tax deductible.
The following bits of testimony were gathered for a piece I did for a June 2006 issue of Jazz Times magazine when Michael was still fighting MDS. The title, “A Musicians Quilt,” was playing off the idea that right around the same time, on March 29, 2006, longtime friend and collaborator Mike Mainieri had presented Michael with a special 57th birthday present — a quilt stitched together from dozens of autographed T-shirts gathered from fellow musicians whom 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, I had hoped that this quilt of personal testimonies would have a similar effect:
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. He 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. 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.”
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. 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. He’s been a role model not only for young cats, but he’s been a role model for cats who are his contemporaries and for people who are older. I think he’s made people play better. He’s forced a lot of people to play better because they knew they were going to be playing with him on the same stage or at the same festival. And ultimately, he’s inspired so many cats to go home and shed. He’s inspired the older generation, the younger ones and his contemporaries to work harder and just to be in that moment with their instrument. Mike has been as deep and influential as any of great tenor saxophonists. What he did was really unique. He really changed the instrument, in my opinion. He took it to another branch off that original tree, and there aren’t too many cats you could say that about. But the influence that Michael has had has been tremendous and groundbreaking.”
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. Me, Mike and Randy and Alvin Queen later 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. I used to live with Mike Brecker when I Vrst 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!”
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. 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. 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.”
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. Then 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. 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. He has such a brilliant mind, he’s the kind of guy who would’ve been successful as a lawyer, a doctor or engineer or something. Whatever he would’ve chosen to focus his attention on, he probably would’ve been highly successful. It just happened to be music that he chose, and we’re all the better off for it.”
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 with Mike and Roy Hargrove, 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. But what Mike did with his unaccompanied rendition of ‘Naima’ on those first few Directions in Music tours was something else. Every night that got standing ovations and people couldn’t stop applauding. It was that amazing!”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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. 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, 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.’ 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. Mike was extremely inspiring to me as a young saxophonist growing up, and then meeting him and getting to talk to him and just seeing how he approached music, and the way he acted in general, has been a huge further source of inspiration for me. It’s important for all of us of any generation to have people that we can look up to from a previous generation that can help show the way. And Mike’s been an especially large one for me. He combines extreme natural ability with the drive and the curiosity to take it as far you can. That’s the only way I think that you ever get to that ridiculous kind of level that he’s on.”
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. 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.”
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. 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.”
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. 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, 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. 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.”
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. He’s also one of the true giants of this music...somebody who has been able to morph into so many different situations convincingly. There are very few people who could go and deconstruct jazz standards with Herbie Hancock, then play on a pop record with Rod Stewart or Paul Simon and then go blow on Cameo’s ‘Candy,’ which is one of the greatest funk groove solos of all time. And in all of those different settings he never lost the spirit of who he was. He just naturally understands the whole structure of different kinds of music. Mike is somebody who really has to take his place among the giants.”
Billy Cobham, drummer — “There was a day when I needed to have Michael come into 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.”
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.’ 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.”
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, unassuming 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. 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.”
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.”
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. Over the course of his obviously influential career, Mike continued to develop his linear concept and wedded it to a folk music, which all great musicians and composers have done. He was attracted to American R&B, which is just as valid as the Hungarian folk music Bartok drew from, or the Indian and Gregorian music that influenced Coltrane.”
Kenny Werner, pianist — “Mike is a testimony to the power of one’s inner voice. I find that it makes his prodigious technique secondary, which is saying a lot because Mike took the technique of the tenor to a new level. But the power of his voice mirrors the power of his own self. Mike has been able to channel from within directly through the horn and into our collective consciousness. When one does that, one changes the world. Mike did that.”
Peter Erskine, drummer — “Michael Brecker is an iconic musician. Michael possesses the ability, technique, and the heart and soul that only a few of the greatest jazz musicians can claim. I submit that he is the master musician of our time. But beyond all that, Michael has always striven to find truth in the musical moment. That’s why his playing touches the spirit of so many of us. One note, and you know it’s Mike.