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Alive: Michael Brecker in Vancouver

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The power of one led to the power of many.
“Thank you for being here.” It was a lone voice in a lone moment but, considering the circumstance, the fan unwittingly summed up Michael Brecker’s concert in Vancouver on December 10. If this Michael Brecker was jet-lagged (“you have no idea...”), one would be frightened to watch him work out.

The Michael Brecker Quintet woke up in New York City and went to bed in Vancouver on the same day. In between, the group journeyed as far in geography as its audience did inside the music. In just over two hours, the tenor sax legend unleashed an experience that had jazz lovers standing in want of more.

As with other 54-year-old world class sax players from Philadelphia, Michael Brecker was around long before we knew it. One laughs to learn that Brecker tooted his horn on Aerosmith’s 1974 release, Get Your Wings, one of a long list of distinguished studio appearances. After gigging with Billy Cobham, Michael shared his musical stage with brother Randy Brecker (on trumpet) in the 1970s. Michael would later surface in the works of James Taylor, Yoko Ono and Paul Simon. Michael Brecker has developed a stunning ability to adapt.

The music made that divinely clear on this night. The band took the stage to scorch us with 25 minutes of forceful soloing that (we now know) was intended to get the lead out of the band’s tired minds. Brecker blew hard enough to peel paint and the intensity of such openings sometimes leaves audiences aghast. Tonight, middle-aged sax players nodded and spasmodically engaged Brecker’s creativity.

Michael Brecker’s greatest impact held me in his suspension of notes. Whether articulated with violent force or glassy refinement, the integrity of the single note made the others work. Brecker sometimes used the bass clef to launch into the tenor stratosphere while at other times choosing to pleasingly beat us over the head with the same note in a fast-changing context. Throughout, the power of one led to the power of many.

The offsetting personalities in Brecker’s band generated some wonderful tangents. Joey Calderazzo’s piano functioned for musical appreciation, although his enthusiasm caused him to spontaneously combust at concert’s end. Clarence Penn, an astonishing drummer, played in a perpetual state of ignition (figure rocking back and forth with a huge grin, something like Ray Charles has worn for 50 years). His musical breaths felt like wind-sprinted gasps. Adam Rogers played with a rationale that caused him to lean in to the notes rather than dishing them out. Chris Minh Doky’s bass solo immersed us in the beauty and range of an instrument that is so often misunderstood. Players like this often blink when we try to tell them how much their work has touched us.

“The Cost of Living” was the highlight of this concert. The crescendo of intensity resonated best here because it began in a more sedate place. The song could not have ended more aesthetically, with Brecker holding a single note to wither on the edge of consciousness.

The sold-out house of 376 will surely return when Michael Brecker brings his music back.

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