Michael Brecker's tragic death in January 2007, at the age of fifty-seven, robbed the world of perhaps the most influential saxophonist to emerge since the equally untimely passing of John Coltrane. It's easy to forget that he was one of the pop/rock world's most called-upon studio players, recording on hundreds of albums with artists including James Taylor, Paul Simon and Eric Clapton. But it's his prodigious body of work in the jazz realm that will be his most enduring legacy.
It's easy to want Pilgrimage to be one of Brecker's best recordings out of a purely emotional response to his passing. While the knowledge that this is his final recording creates an unassailable sense of loss, the fact remains that the writing on Pilgrimage stands as some of his best, and if he was in a weakened state you'd never know it. Brecker sounds as strong as he ever didstronger, in fact.
For this last session Brecker called upon old friendsguitarist Pat Metheny, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Herbie Hancock (who plays on four tracks). He also collaborates, for the first time, with pianist Brad Mehldau on five tracks. That Hancock and Mehldau are vastly different players is an understatement; yet Pilgrimage remains cohesive and focused, with both players bringing their own inimitable strengths to the material.
Brecker's unmistakable writing style stems, at times, from a post-Coltrane modality, but there's a greater complexity and distinctive language. Solo space abounds, but Brecker's ambitious writing is longer-form, with all manner of twists and turns that bring out some of the best performances on record from everyone involved. When DeJohnette takes one of his most energetic solos on the rhythmically and harmonically shifting "Anagram, it's over a metrically challenging piano/bass ostinato that ultimately turns contrapuntal when Metheny and Brecker reenter.
"Tumbleweed, with Metheny's signature synth tone, bears comparison to the guitarist's own "Song for Bilbao in that it's an altered blues (also featuring a surprisingly funky solo from Mehldau), while the slinky groove of "Loose Threads finds Hancock straddling the line between greater abstraction and more grounded soulfulness. Metheny seems to be inspired towards greater risks, with some of his most evocative playing in recent years.
Brecker takes the first solo on the opening salvo of "The Mean Time, quickly dispensing with any notion that illness had compromised the visceral power that was a defining characteristic of his playing. "When Can I Kiss You Again? may be a slow tempo tune with softer edges, but Brecker manages to mine surprising depths of emotion here as well.
They say that music has healing power. It may not have been able to prevent the inevitable with Brecker's illness; but for brief time, a scant five months before his death, it's clear that music gave him the strength to record a watershed album that represents a remarkable end to an equally extraordinary musical life.
Personnel: Michael Brecker: tenor saxophone, EWI; Pat Metheny: guitars; Herbie Hancock: piano (1, 5, 6, 9); Brad Mehldau: piano (2-4, 6, 7); John Patitucci: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.