Now You See Him… (Now You Don’t)

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.

It’s difficult to sum up an event like this in a few lines of print. Michael was an extraordinary person; although he was easily one of the greatest musicians of his time, and was the subject of worshipful acclaim around the world, he was absolutely devoid of the destructive vanity that such admiration, and indeed the possession of such incomparable talent, often brings. He treated everyone on equal terms, and really, as far as I or anyone else could ever tell, didn’t seem to think of himself as anything too special. As his wife Susan said, everybody loved this guy.

Many people spoke. The most moving, for me, was his teenage son Sam, who spoke with such simple sweetness about how much he and his dad loved each other, about playing catch in the backyard, and about the long conversations they used to have when Michael was too ill to wrestle or go for a bike ride. He was so innocent, so poised, so confident that this love could sustain him even through this horrible loss, that as he spoke his shining young face and sweet unbroken voice seemed to cast a light that shone brightly, hopefully — no, defiantly — against the yawning blackness that awaits us all. What an exceptional young man he is. I suppose that should come as no surprise.

Mike’s brother Randy (an acclaimed trupmeter in his own right) spoke, as did his wife Susan, and fellow tenor player Dave Liebman, and Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, and Paul Simon, and, on video, James Taylor. There were musical performances as well, of course: Randy played with the pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist James Genus, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts; Dave Liebman played a melody of Michael’s on a toy flute (no saxophones allowed tonight); Pat Metheny played a solo piece on acoustic guitar; Herbie Hancock played with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jack Dejohnette; and Paul Simon sang “Still Crazy After All These Years”, accompanied by Herbie Hancock on piano (Michael had taken the tenor solo on the record; those bars were left achingly empty tonight).

Michael had taken up Buddhism in his last months, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and young Sam led the audience in a few minutes of meditative chanting at the close of the ceremony.

It was a moving tribute, and a fitting celebration of a remarkable and truly exemplary life. But I think I can speak for all of us: we’d much rather just have our Mike back.

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