Tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker lost his ongoing bout with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare bone marrow cancer, in January 2007. Pilgrimage provides one last chance to hear him in the company of like-minded souls. Joined by a who's who of mainstream jazz royalty, guitarist Pat Metheny, pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jack DeJohnette accompany the saxophonist on this superlative session.
Brecker began his career as a session player in the early 1970s, something he continued to do throughout his career, to the chagrin of jazz purists. Having accompanied everyone from James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to McCoy Tyner and Charlie Haden, his ability to keep a foot in each camp made him an in-demand sideman. Combining John Coltrane's sheets of sound approach with funky soul, he established himself as one of the most distinctive voices of his generation.
His first album of all original tunes, Pilgrimage is also his most personal. Haunting ballads like "When Can I Kiss You Again?" and the churning "Five Months from Midnight" resonate with simmering emotion, but never subsume the session in mordant retroflection.
His illness does not appear to have hindered his playing abilities on this date at all. Sounding inspired and confident, his tone is strong and buoyant, his phrasing uplifting and intense, his fighting spirit apparent.
That spirit generates considerable heat, with the majority of the album propulsive and invigorating. Brisk post-bop ("The Mean Time") and angular modernism ("Anagram") alternate with simmering funk ("Tumbleweed") and proto-fusion ("Pilgrimage"), often meeting halfway ("Cardinal Rule"). Delivering these tunes with elastic group interplay, the intuitive camaraderie shared between these artists is electrifying; rarely do musicians, even of this caliber, play to such heights.
DeJohnette is a marvel, his ceaselessly inventive patterns and thunderous palpitations are astonishing in their enthusiasm. His unbridled passion lifts the bandstand; this is one of his finest moments on record. Patiticci's bass resounds forcefully as Metheny unfurls billowy post-bop phrases with serpentine proficiency, even unleashing some processed distortion with his guitar synth. Splitting duties at the piano, Hancock and Mehldau provide a fascinating study in contrasts.
Michael Brecker's passing at age 57 is unfortunate. While some of his work over the years flirted with middling cross-over appeal, this uncompromising final statement is unquestionably from the heart. Pilgrimage is a stirring and celebratory jazz record, perhaps the finest of his career.
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.