If there's any solace to be gained from the dramatic, heart-rending final months of Michael Brecker's life, it's that perhaps some of the attention bestowed upon this towering musician and exemplary human being will be directed to the vital African-American art form that he influenced and contributed to. As recently as 1990, the average life span of jazz musicians was estimated to be 43, with the cases of saxophone legends Charlie Parker (who died at the age of 34) and John Coltrane (40) more often held up as typical rather than exceptional. It's difficult to recall the case of a jazz musician's premature death that has provoked the outpourings of sympathy, love, and respect, along with the unrestrained critical and popular assessments of his music that this one has. But Brecker's was a special case.
During the months of his courageous battle, a larger public became aware of not only an outrageously talented, indisputable master of the archetypal jazz instrument, the tenor saxophone, but of a generous and gentle human beingunassuming, personable, a loving father and family man. When the end came, it was neither a sudden shock (the road has taken a severe toll on musicians) nor one that could be implicitly interpreted as "self-inflicted" (drug addiction, alcoholism, smoking, etc.). Then came the recording of Pilgrimage which, accurately or not, is being viewed as something morea planned valedictory, a final testament, a visionary requiem. Its posthumous release has understandably taken on significance beyond the commercial, the aesthetic, and the historical: it's become a spiritual journeyfrom conception, to execution, and finally to its reception as a kind of otherworldly message from Brecker himself (I can almost see the modest Brecker bemused, perhaps even a bit amused, by much of the fanfare and fuss).
The playing is that of a master in full possession of all his considerable powers (reminiscent of pianist Bill Evans on the sixteen CDs worth of music recorded less than a week before his death). The ensemble playing on "The Mean Time" is rhythmically and melodically intricate, tightly executed yet replete with inspired interplay and freeness. And for all the energy being expended, the musicians are listening to each other, working with dynamics and tension-release techniques over modal scales and within textures that are polyphonic, bringing as much attention to the group as to the individual soloist. "Tumbleweed" is another example of a high-intensity, intricate, polyphonically rich piece. Metheny's synthesizer-processed guitar solo might seem risky (should it come to be seen as dated gadgetry) because it precedes a majestic Brecker solo, which sets up an almost equally exhilarating, two-handed polyrhythmic turn by Mehldau on acoustic piano.
It's an impressive session by exceptional players who are on their game. Is it a "work of art"? Is it a "classic"? Is it the "best" jazz album of the new millennium? Of Brecker's career? Maybe we'll knowin time. For now, best to enjoy it. Brecker's assimilation of Coltrane's innovations was not unlike Sonny Stitt's translation of Parker's new language. And there's always room for yet another superlative session by either player.
Personnel: Michael Brecker: tenor saxophone, EWI; Pat Metheny: guitars; Herbie Hancock: piano (1, 5, 6, 9); Brad Mehldau:
piano (2, 3, 4, 6, 7); John Patitucci: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.