Michael Brecker, 1949 – 2007

The musical community suffered an irreplaceable loss this weekend: saxophonist Michael Brecker has died at the age of 57. He had been fighting MDS and leukemia for years, and finally lost the battle.

Michael was one of the greatest musicians of his era, and was equally at home in both the pop and jazz idioms. He appeared on almost a thousand albums, and worked with many of the music industry’s best-known artists, including, to name just a few: James Brown, Chic, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Elton John, John Lennon, Willie Nelson, Robert Palmer, Lou Reed, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Luther Vandross, and Frank Zappa. But his real home was jazz: he was probably the most universally admired, emulated, and sought-after tenor player of the last thirty years.

I first met Michael in the early eighties, when I was a young engineer at Power Station, and was fortunate enough to have worked with him often, on dozens of albums, ever since. Aside from his extraordinary musical gifts, he was one of the finest people I ever met in the music business: intelligent, gentle, kind, generous, and articulate, with a wonderful, often startlingly goofy, sense of humor. He was also, despite his incomparable talent and ability, and his worldwide renown, completely devoid of the vanity and self-centeredness that afflicts so many celebrated artists. He was never complacent about his playing, and was his own harshest critic, even when he was performing at breathtaking levels of virtuosity. I remember one typical example, during the recording of the Steps Ahead song Trains, at Electric Lady Studios, sometime back in the 1980’s. Michael was warming up for his solo, listening to the song, and trying out some ideas, and at each run through the solo section he played a completely different improvisation, every one a jewel of stunning brilliance and complexity. Those of us who were listening in the control room were absolutely bowled over, and finally, having run out of available tracks, I asked him to come in and listen to some of what he had just played. He was surprised I had recorded any of it, because in his mind he was still loosening up, but he agreed to come in and listen. As he entered the control room, with a gloomy look on his face, he said that we probably ought to try the solo another time, because at the moment he just felt like he had no “chops” at all. This attitude — always reaching for something that just exceeded his grasp, even when he was performing consistently at a level that most musicians would sell their souls to achieve for even a single day — is the hallmark of only the very greatest artists, and it was absolutely typical Mike.

Michael Brecker’s unjust and untimely death, after such a long and courageous struggle against a grim and implacable foe, is a staggering blow to all who knew him, and to all who love music. My heart goes out especially to his wife Susan, his children Jessica and Sam, his brother Randy, and his sister Emily. Take comfort that his long days of suffering are over, and know that the world grieves with you.

Goodbye, my friend.

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2 Comments

  1. wen says

    what was the memorial like? who performed?

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, wen, you might look at the post linked to above…

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 11:08 am | Permalink

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  1. […] Saxophonist Michael Brecker, who died most unjustly a few weeks ago, was remembered tonight in a memorial service at Town Hall, which was filled to capacity by the people who knew and loved him. […]