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The Jazz Life

Making Friends with a Giant: How I first met Michael Brecker


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It took a moment to really take in that in the dead of a cold winter night turning into early morning, I was standing on the sidewalk outside a New York jazz club talking mouthpieces with one of my heroes! And bizarrely, it was he who was asking the questions.
—Bob Reynolds
Bob Reynolds is one of those great tenor saxophone players and teachers you should know but perhaps don't. He's in that class of great musicians like drummer Anwar Marshall, tenor player Tivon Pennicott, and Scottish guitarist Kevin Mackenzie who work steadily, gigging and releasing an increasingly excellent body of work you should definitely check out if you haven't yet heard it. Bob is a Grammy Award-winning member of the band Snarky Puppy and is known for his work with both Snarky and John Mayer. He is also a prolific composer and recording artist with ten top-selling solo albums to his credit. The New York Times called him "a self-assured saxophonist and an unassuming yet effective composer." His latest album Runway came out April 2, 2020. Bob is also a pioneering educator who has coached thousands of musicians over the past ten years through his innovative Virtual Studio. More than 66,000 people subscribe to Bob's YouTube channel.

What I like about this story is how it shows how generous and supportive many of the jazz greats are to up and coming players who don't expect that reaction, and often don't think they deserve it. This is Bob's story of how, as a young saxophonist, he first met Michael Brecker...

Peter Rubie
It was the winter of 2003 and I was living in New York. I had been playing informal sessions at pianist Aaron Goldberg's Brooklyn home after Joshua Redman introduced us (a story for another time).

Aaron had a CD release show coming up at Smoke, a jazz club on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and he invited me to come sit-in. Aaron had generously extended such invitations several times, which is how I first came to play with Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland, Brian Blade, Gregory Hutchinson, and several other amazing players, both in New York and Boston.

Smoke is a pretty intimate space to play in and listen to music. When I got there with my saxophone, I remember the club being packed. Wherever I looked in the audience, it seemed, there was an incredible musician I knew or knew by reputation. Aaron's first set was brilliant, as they always were. Not really surprising as his trio, with Reuben on bass and Eric on drums, had been playing together for ten years by that point and Aaron was—well, Aaron. What more is there to say?

Towards the end of the second set, he announced he would invite some special guests to join him on stage. Knowing who was in the audience I nervously hid my saxophone case under the table, now hoping he wouldn't notice me.

Of course, he saw me right away and called me up. I've been called self-assured as a player, but not that night. I was anxious, but knew I couldn't back out, it would have been rude not to play at that point.

Eric stayed on drums but bassist Reid Anderson (of The Bad Plus) replaced Reuben. As I headed toward the stage, uneasy but readying myself for the challenge, a friend at another table stopped me as I passed and said, "Hey, did you see Brecker in the back?"

I turned around and scanned the back of the club. Sure enough, sitting in the back booth with his wife Susan, was none other than Michael Brecker.

I nearly fainted. I'm not kidding. I'm actually getting nervous again as I write this, re-living that moment.

So there I am on stage, putting my horn together, not warmed up, trying to think of possible ways to gracefully exit what seemed like impending humiliation. The saxophone had never felt so foreign in my hands.

The trio was now a quartet with me at the front. I looked at Aaron, sending mental messages—"PLEASE choose a song I know—an easy one!"

To my astonishment, Aaron did not ask the universal jam session question: "So, what would you guys like to play?" Instead, he went old school, and launched into something all by himself. I had no idea what he was playing. If ever there was a moment in my adult life I was close to wetting my pants, it was then.

Fortunately, I began to recognize Aaron's improvised introduction as the Monk classic "Evidence." Even more fortunately, I'd taken the Thelonious Monk ensemble at Berklee and this song was ingrained in my memory. "Great," I thought, feeling a little more relaxed. "I'm going to be OK."

Then Eric started playing and that uh-oh feeling returned. Eric started twisting the beat so the song's upbeats became down beats (and other rhythmic illusions I couldn't comprehend at the time) and I was lost before we even began.

The next few minutes are basically a blur as I went on a panicked autopilot.

If you've ever stood on a really high ledge, terrified that at any minute you were going to fall, you may be able to imagine how terrifying this was. Trust me, it felt downright life-threatening. There I was, center stage, hacking on a Monk classic while some of New York's baddest and brightest were in the audience looking up at me. Good times!

I probably tried to play a bunch of "impressive" licks and "hip, outside" riffs which all resulted in me spewing a bunch of garbage and sounding like a complete amateur, but that tune is honestly a faded haze.

When it was over, I snuck off stage and put my sax away. I knew I was about to receive a few fake "Nice job" condolences from friends, and more than likely, that would be the last time I played with Aaron. This had been the kind of moment you practice endlessly for, working to perfect your craft, and I had just blown it big time in front of New York's jazz elite—AND Michael Brecker!

I felt sick, disappointed with myself and depressed. As I was leaving the club I felt a tap on a shoulder. I turned around and there was Brecker. "Hi Bob; Mike Brecker. You have a beautiful tone. Is that a Link you're playing?"

I was in shock. It felt like minutes before I was able to respond. Was he kidding? Playing some kind of cruel joke? Hadn't he heard what I'd just done (or more accurately, hadn't done) up there?

He smiled again. I pulled myself together and we stepped outside and started chatting. It took a moment to really take in that in the dead of a cold winter night turning into early morning, I was standing on the sidewalk outside a New York jazz club talking mouthpieces with one of my heroes! And bizarrely, it was he who was asking the questions.

He talked about how he used to play Links, the trouble with his throat and how he'd reluctantly had to find alternative mouthpieces for physical reasons, and how he had recently begun experimenting with hard rubber Links again.

He was kind, encouraging, and generous with his time and when we finally stopped talking together, he gave me his number and told me to keep in touch.

Over the next couple years I did just that. I asked for a lesson but he said he didn't feel like he had much to offer me, but that he'd be happy to get together and just play sometime.

I regret that I never got up the courage to take him up on that offer. I was young, and just too scared and in awe to play duets with him. I couldn't get past the legend and just engage him as a fellow saxophonist.

We saw each other from time to time in the city, mostly at his gigs. He recommended repair guys, introduced me to other legendary players, and he always encouraged me to send him my music.

I sent him the rough mix of my first real studio album, Can't Wait for Perfect, and he wrote me the kindest email about how, with his health recently taking a turn for the worse, my music was a boost to his spirits. I will treasure that email forever. He remarked on how inspiring my sound, ideas, and compositions were and how... well, let's just say it was a very encouraging email.

Michael Brecker, the titan of the tenor, was one of the kindest, most humble, and generous musicians I've ever met. In hindsight, and perhaps because of Brecker's generosity to me, I think I probably sounded better than I thought that night, but certainly nothing near my best. He went out of his way to engage and encourage a young guy starting to make his way in town and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

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