Music Review | Michael Brecker Memorial
Celebrating a Saxophonist´s Art and Heart
Published: February 22, 2007
By Ben Ratliff
The memorial program for the saxophonist Michael Brecker that filled Town Hall on Tuesday night kept landing on the theme of generosity. Mr. Brecker died of leukemia on Jan. 13 at 57. During his illness he enlisted family members and friends in sending out a call for bone-marrow donors ´” not just for himself ´” that resulted in tens of thousands of donor registrations. His friends in jazz and pop music all implied that this wasn´t just an isolated case of conscientiousness.
Mr. Brecker, a virtuosic musician, was soft-spoken and didn´t look to score points on his magnanimity. James Taylor, who sent a testimonial on film from San Francisco, said that Mr. Brecker had saved his life when Mr. Taylor was quitting drugs. (Mr. Brecker had been a drug user in the 1970s and helped treat substance abusers after he went clean in the early 1980s.) ´I identified so closely with Michael,´ Mr. Taylor said, looking shaken. ´The fact that he managed to turn his life around and go forward made it possible for me to do it too.´
The saxophonist Dave Liebman talked about a Samaritan impulse as something he and Mr. Brecker shared, which he said came in part from their urban Jewish upbringing ´” he in Brooklyn, Mr. Brecker in Philadelphia. ´There was also an unspoken agreement that we should do something good for humanity,´ he said.
Mr. Brecker´s wife, Susan, had asked that there be no saxophone playing in the performances. So Mr. Liebman played a piece, composed by Mr. Brecker, on a small wooden flute. Pat Metheny played his ´Every Day (I Thank You)´ on acoustic guitar, full of open ringing notes.
Mr. Brecker´s brother, the trumpeter Randy Brecker, played ´Midnight Voyage,´ a piece from a recent Michael Brecker album, with a quartet including the pianist Joey Calderazzo, the bassist James Genus and the drummer Jeff Watts. And the pianist Herbie Hancock performed one of his own pieces, ´Chan´s Song,´ with John Patitucci on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
But his colleagues also joked that Mr. Brecker could be unintentionally cruel. ´The most treacherous position in jazz,´ Mr. Metheny said, ´was being the guy on the bandstand who has to take a solo right after Mike Brecker.´
Randy Brecker told a similar story, about one of the hundreds of recording sessions at which he had been hired to work alongside his brother. Michael, he said, came to work straight from the airport after a long flight, not having had time to read the music. He was asked by the producer to build a solo through a long two-chord vamp. One could see where this was going: Michael´s solo was of disturbingly high quality, and Randy was asked to take it from there.
Mr. Liebman also brought up a less technical, more philosophical point about Mr. Brecker´s career: his willingness ´” unusual, for someone so highly accomplished in jazz ´” to work regularly in pop. He did so, Mr. Liebman said, ´without any shame or guilt.´
A short film about Mr. Brecker´s career brought this point home as well. He was seen with recent bands, playing dense, complex jazz in the post-Coltrane tradition; then, in the 1970s, playing fusion and funk; then as a sideman with Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.
Mr. Simon himself emerged to sing ´Still Crazy After All These Years,´ one of the pop hits that bore a famous Michael Brecker solo, with Mr. Hancock on electric piano. Then the memorial closed with chanting.
Mr. Hancock explained that Mr. Brecker had started practicing Buddhism nine months before his death, and joined Soka Gakkai International, the American-based group associated with Nichiren Buddhism, three months later. Mr. Hancock, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the bassist Buster Williams, who all practice the same form of Buddhism, as well as Mr. Brecker´s son, Sam, went onstage, sat in a line with their backs to the audience while facing a painted scroll in a wooden shrine, and chanted, ´Nam-myoho-renge-kyo´ for five minutes.
For the next hour and a half, after the hall cleared, musicians hung out by the doors of the theater, trading stories.