Friday, August 28, 2009

Michael Brecker - Saxophone Master Biography

By Neal Battaglia

Saxophone virtuoso Michael Brecker was given an early start in jazz by his amateur jazz pianist father, who was a lawyer by trade. Brecker began his musical studies on clarinet, moving to alto saxophone, and finally settling on the tenor sax, which would become his primary instrument as his career progressed.

He grew up near Philadelphia and then attended Indiana University for a short time, but left at 19 to pursue music. His mouthpieces for much of his career were made by Dave Guardala, and the reeds he used were LaVoz, medium strength. He played a Selmer Mark VI 86,000 series saxophone. Previously, he had played a Selmer Super Balanced Action saxophone.

His first foray into professional musicianship was with a jazz/rock band called Dreams which featured legendary drummer Billy Cobham. Dreams was a short lived project, but held influence with such greats as Miles Davis.

Most of Brecker's early work was informed by rock guitar as much as R&B saxophone. After working with Dreams, Brecker began working with pianist Horace Silver and Billy Cobham before starting a side project with his brother Randy called the Brecker Brothers.

During the years that followed, Brecker was a sought after soloist and sideman. He worked with James Taylor and Paul Simon, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and more, showcasing the jazz-rock fusion style that would become a landmark for a generation of jazz musicians. His career would span an enormous number of records, with over 900 albums in his discography.

During the 70s and 80s he worked often in studio sessions for the pop singer-songwriter movement playing with Joni Mitchell. His playing was obviously informed by Coltrane, but his work in the pop arena forced him to condense his solos into shorter spaces, gathering the full range of the sax, from altissimo to the deepest notes into a small space.

His brilliance in this melding of styles was admirable, but many believe that his talent was more aptly showcased on his work in the early 80s, on Steps Ahead's first two albums, on Chick Corea's "Three Quartets", and Pat Metheny's "80/81." His solos were technically intricate, but accessible. He played with punchy style that cut through the mess of improvisation and stuck to the music, straight talk on the sax, littered with "signature riffs" that his fans often wait for on every solo.

Over the course of his lifetime, Michael Brecker won 11 Grammy awards, shortly after his death he was awarded two posthumous Grammy awards for his involvement on his brother Randy's album Some Skunk Funk.

In 2005, Michael was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS - a cancer of the blood marrow) after noticing a sharp pain in his back at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival. In late 2005 he was a recipient of a controversial stem cell transplant received from his daughter. After two years battling leukemia, he passed away from related complications on January 13, 2007. He is survived by his wife Susan, his children Jessica and Sam, his brother, Randy, and his sister Emily Brecker Greenberg.

Neal Battaglia

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