The Cheltenham native and Grammy winner, 57, had been fighting disease.
By Dan DeLuca
Inquirer Music Critic
Michael Brecker, 57, the Grammy-winning saxophonist from Cheltenham who was one of the most highly regarded jazz players of his time and an in-demand session man who contributed to recordings by Bruce Springsteen and Parliament-Funkadelic, died yesterday in New York.
In May 2005, Mr. Brecker learned he had myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone-marrow disease formerly known as pre-leukemia. A worldwide search for a near-exact match needed for a bone-marrow transplant failed, and last May he received an experimental half-matching transplant from his daughter, Jessica.
Mr. Brecker´s wide-ranging musical appetite and talents as a world-class improviser kept him at the pinnacle of his profession for nearly four decades, and made him arguably the most influential sax player of the post-John Coltrane era.
The son of a lawyer and an amateur jazz pianist (and brother of trumpeter Randy Brecker, with whom he formed the jazz-funk ensemble the Brecker Brothers), Mr. Brecker considered studying medicine while at Indiana University in the late 1960s. His music was marked by an unsurpassed technical proficiency, and a flair for making the most challenging musical passages sound effortless.
´He´s so inventive and creative, and he´s so smart and quick,´ frequent Brecker collaborator Herbie Hancock said last year. ´He never runs out of ideas.´ And producer Phil Ramone told Jazztimes that Mr. Brecker was ´a monstrous improviser. But at heart, he´s a song man... . He respects that there is a melody, and yet he goes all over the place with it.´
´Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it,´ guitarist Pat Metheny has said.
In the fifth grade, Mr. Brecker started playing clarinet. He studied with Leon Lester, principal clarinetist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. While at Cheltenham High, he switched to sax after hearing Cannonball Adderley´s album Jazz Workshop Revisited.
´When I heard Cannonball, that was it!´ he told interviewer John Robert Brown. ´I started trying to learn his solos from records. Those were some hard solos to learn. But it was a good way for me to begin to learn the language of jazz.´
Early on, Mr. Brecker had a penchant for experimentation: ´I used to practice in a trash can,´ he said in the book The Devil´s Horn. ´It was a way of getting some reverb.´
Soon, the 6-foot-3 musician graduated from alto to tenor sax, and his path was confirmed when he saw Coltrane play at Temple University in 1965 in a show that Mr. Brecker would later tell author Michael Segell ´literally propelled me in choosing music as a life´s endeavor... . Through the music of Coltrane I had found a calling. And I remember feeling so grateful that I was playing the tenor saxophone.´
After spending a year at Indiana University, he followed his older brother to New York. He quickly made a reputation in the city´s wide-open jazz scene, and he began playing with R&B singer Edwin Birdsong, drummer Billy Cobham, and his own jazz-rock group, Dreams.
In 1973, he joined Randy in pianist Horace Silver´s quintet, and the next year the siblings formed the Brecker Brothers, a formidable fusion band. In 1975, they released their self-titled debut, featuring the trademark workout, ´Some Skunk Funk.´
And Mr. Brecker embarked on a successful career as a session man, playing with James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Chaka Khan. In 1975, he and Randy played on Springsteen´s Born to Run album, and the next year on Parliament´s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.
Mr. Brecker didn´t record an album as a leader until 1986, but when he did, Michael Brecker was named Downbeat´s album of the year. Its follow-up, Don´t Try This at Home, won Mr. Brecker the first of his 11 Grammys. Among the subsequent winners was the lushly beautiful Nearness of You: The Ballad Book, which featured Mr. Brecker fronting a band that included Hancock, Metheny, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette.
When not gigging around the world, Mr. Brecker lived in Hastings-on-Hudson in Upstate New York - the inspiration of his excellent 1996 set, Tales From the Hudson - with his wife, Susan, daughter Jessica and son Sam. After his diagnosis interrupted his career, Mr. Brecker encouraged people to register as potential bone-marrow donors ´not just to assist me, but to help thousands of others who are either facing or who will be facing the same challenge with which I´m now confronted.´
The disease often made him too weak to play his horn, but he concentrated on playing the EWI (electronic wind instrument), of which he had been a leading exponent since the 1980s. But he was strong enough to make a surprise appearance at a Hancock concert at Carnegie Hall in June, playing a long solo on the pianist´s ´One Finger Snap.´
Memorial services are being planned.