Essential Michael Brecker

Jason West By

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I listened to Elvin as I was coming up, and of course with the John Coltrane quartet, which was very, very instrumental and inspiring and it was really the group that propelled me into wanting to choose music as a livelihood, a life endeavor.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz in November 1999.

Michael Brecker's contributions to music are generous and, like the pregnant ideas that flow from his tenor horn, they continue to grow. At 50, the saxophonist has found acceptance in a wide variety of musical settings, having performed with pop stars like John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and jazz heavyweights the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Charles Mingus, and Jaco Pastorius. Brecker's resume includes extensive work as a studio musician, a tour of duty in Horace Silver's band and teaming up with this brother, Randy, to form the critically acclaimed funk group, The Brecker Brothers. A recipient of multiple Grammys, there's little that this soft-spoken musical soul from Philadelphia hasn't accomplished in his career, and yet one would never know it from speaking with him. "There's so much I don't know," Michael reveals, and not surprisingly, his new CD, Time Is of the Essence (Verve), is chalk full of valuable lessons. Featuring the distinctive drum styles of Elvin Jones, Jeff "Tain" Watts} and Bill Stewart (each play on three tunes), plus Larry Goldings' organ and Pat Metheny's guitar, Michael Brecker's latest release offers jazz fans numerous reasons to smile.

In mid-October, I spoke via telephone with a tired but amiable Brecker at his New Jersey residence.

Michael Brecker: I was just watching (a TV show) about liposuction. Should we start there?

All About Jazz: (Laughter) Yeah, that's interesting because my first question was going to be: "Is there anything you'd like to talk about and get off your chest?" We could start with that. (Laughter)

MB: But I already got it off my chest.

AAJ: Michael Brecker has liposuction! That's a strange idea.

MB: Yeah, it's a bizarre thing. Anyway...

AAJ: Well, besides liposuction, is there anything you want to start off with? (Laughter)

MB: No, it's in your hands.

AAJ: OK. Well, I was reading about you and one of the things that I discovered was that your father was a pianist. Is he still alive?

MB: No, my father passed away about three years ago. He was an attorney and also a semi-professional jazz pianist. He played very well-loved the music.

AAJ: I imagine that he must have been an influence on you.

MB: Certainly. That's what got us started, got the kids started; there were always musicians in the house, you know, playing on weekends—and he had a great record collection. My father used to play every night, and it excited him so we naturally became excited as well. And my brother Randy began playing at a very early age and showing a lot of talent, as well as—I had a sister, Emily, who's in between us in terms of age, and she took up piano. So of course I followed suit and chose the clarinet when I was six or seven.

AAJ: You know that's interesting to me because my dad also plays the piano, and I heard the piano when I was growing up, too, and one of the things that I've enjoyed is-my dad's not a big talker-but since I started playing the bass, music has provided another avenue of communication.

MB: Yeah, well, it's very well put, and I think that also was at play, too. It certainly gave us another way to communicate with him, and it enabled us to be close in a different way.

AAJ: I imagine that around the Brecker house during the holidays it must have been a pretty musical group. Did the whole neighborhood come over and sing carols?

MB: Uh, no.

AAJ: No?

MB: Partially because we're Jewish, but um... (Laughter)

AAJ: (Laughter) OK, that explains it.

MB: But, that doesn't totally explain it. (Laughter) But that never stopped us. No, we used to play together every night after dinner. I actually was the drummer of the family, and my brother played vibraphones; my sister played bass. We had a little group. My father knew a lot of the standards, so we had a little repertoire.

AAJ: Did you ever play out for people?

MB: I don't recall? Maybe we did once. We just did it purely for enjoyment. As you said, it was a way to be close, and we enjoyed it.

AAJ: How did mom fit into that?

MB: Mom was a good listener. Actually, she played piano as well, classical piano. She was an artist-a great painter. So ours was a somewhat artistic family.

AAJ: That sounds like an amazing thing.

MB: Yeah, this is true, but my father really made a living being an attorney. The whole dynamic was interesting.

AAJ: I also read that you went to college at Indiana University and then moved to New York in the late sixties, and I believe at that time there was something called the loft scene that was going on. Describe that for people who don't know what it was like?

MB: Well, when I initially moved to New York I lived in an apartment, but I became friendly with musicians such as Dave Liebman, Dave Holland; I got to know Chick Corea pretty early on, and musicians sort of in my milieu. And a lot of them were living in lofts, and that's where we used to do a lot of the playing. Lofts were reconverted factory spaces, converted into living spaces. They were very inexpensive, large, and generally somewhat neighborless-a different vibe than living in an apartment. I actually moved into a loft a couple years later, and my loft was actually right out back of Dave Liebman's loft; our windows were almost facing each other. Dave had a really strong scene going on in his place. There were musicians playing there literally every day. He was taping, and I was there often, either playing or listening. There's a gentleman named Steve Grossman who's a fantastic saxophonist, he used to be there a lot, and the music would go from one loft to another. There was a lot of playing going on and that's sort of how we honed our craft. We learned our instruments, you know, really learned to play that way. Eventually, we started getting busy, and Dave went with Elvin, I think. I should mention too that we formed an organization called Free Life Communication, which is what gelled out of the loft scene. It was an organization basically dedicated to creative music, largely made up of loft musicians, and Dave Liebman was really the primary instigator, he and Richie Beirach kind of headed it up. Originally lofts were used as concert spaces, then Dave and Richie were able to get hold of financial backing that provided a beautiful space, and a lot of concerts were held there. It was an amazing thing and quite unique, really. It sort of began to dissolve as everybody started getting busy professionally. Dave went with Elvin, and I went-we all sort of went our separate ways. Dave eventually joined Miles.

Steve Grossman was playing with Elvin and Miles as well, and my brother and I were always playing with different groups, and eventually formed the Brecker Brothers. In '73 we played with Horace Silver for a year. We also were in a group called Dreams and recorded for Columbia Records back in '70, '71. That's a kind of rambling answer to your question. (Laughter)


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