Memories of Michael Brecker: Town Hall Tribute


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Michael Brecker's music allowed us to see that we are all connected in some strange but magically flowing way.
Michael Brecker Memorial
Town Hall, Manhattan
February 20, 2007

Last night, my companion Stefania and I took a train ride from Connecticut into Manhattan to pay homage to a fallen musician. Michael Brecker, the prolific and well respected saxophonist, had passed away five weeks prior at a hospital in New York after a long-standing battle with MDS (myelodyplastic syndrome). It was a little publicized memorial at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, and I for one, went there with little expectations other than to honor the memory of a musician who had over the years given me such wonder and joy.

I was drawn to the saxophonist's playing early on in his career. In my high school years, I had been determined to listen to and absorb all the old jazz recordings offered by my local library. They were predominantly vinyl pressings of whatever artists library benefactors saw fit to release from their collections. You would think that such dependence on donations would result in relatively slim pickings, with only those recordings that were less appreciated being recycled. But to my surprise the selection was bountiful, with names and recordings that I probably would have never otherwise experienced. I listened with old black Bakelite earphones to the "world music" of Yusef Lateef and the piano syncopations of Thelonius Monk. I marveled at the unfamiliar timings of Dave Brubeck with Joe Morello on drums and sat mesmerized by the orchestrations of Oliver Nelson and Charles Mingus. I was captivated by the individual tonal qualities of Stan Getz, Bill Evans and Paul Desmond.

But then I listened and listened to John Coltrane's Giant Steps. This experience was something special, and soon I was hooked. I went on to his Ole and Impressions and was totally blown away. When I eventually got to A Love Supreme, I was beginning to understand that some music was capable of communicating more than simple notes on a page or sounds over my earphones. This music moved me like no other. It was leading me to explore new dimensions—not just of sound but of communication with and connection to a higher force.

But the times were changing: rock was fully embraced as the music of the day, and I became fully engaged in this guitar-centric era. I found myself turning away from the old lions of jazz and seeking voices from my generation. The first time I saw Michael was in the basement club of the Village Gate, which reportedly was featuring a super group of players I had long wanted to see. The band was Dreams, a group that was crossing the line between jazz and rock at a time when others like Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority were also finding their way to an audience accustomed to the sounds of rock. While the drummer Billy Cobham made an indelible impression on me with his clear, acrylic drum set and his dance-like technique, it was, above all, the first experience of hearing Michael Brecker playing alongside his brother Randy that has resonated with me to this day. The two combined to create a distinctive, unified horn sound that, like Coltrane before them, made their music different from the rest.

Brecker's career and my love of music were on parallel paths. We were, after all, the same age. I would be attracted to certain songs and particularly saxophone solos along the way. Often I would hear some line or a solo in a popular song and be so impressed that I would make an concerted effort to find out who played that part. Invariably it was Michael Brecker, a musician whose discography is nothing short of astounding. (Who hasn't he played with in the last thirty-five years?)

Over time, I became only more impressed. When his first album as a leader came out and won a Grammy, I knew I was not alone in my judgment of his extraordinary talent and unique ability to communicate musically. This musician was my John Coltrane! I started to collect his solo efforts as well as any collaboration in which he was involved. Every chance I would get to see him play was one more chance to experience his brilliance, and he never disappointed.

Following him so closely over the years, I could perceive his playing getting better, practically by leaps and bounds. I was watching before my eyes a true giant making huge strides both on his instrument and in his writing. Each successive performance made a greater impression on me than the last. His solo work with McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane's former pianist and a brilliant artist in his own right, on an album called Infinity, is in my mind some of his best. Here Brecker takes on his mentor's role and brings it to his own unique and extraordinary level.

Eventually, I saw him play with Tyner at the Iridium nightclub in NYC and sheepishly got him to sign my copy of Infinity. A gracious and unassuming a person, I couldn't help but feel connected to this humble artisan. We had grown up together, and he was still growing, his star showing more brightly with each appearance or project. His persona on and off-stage was never showy or self-centered, but when he played, his prominence could not be denied. The last time I saw him play was with his Quindectet for the promotion of his then latest album Wide Angles.

His wife Susan was there as were his two children Jessica and Sam. For me, that night he became more than a great musician: he was demonstrably a loving father and husband as well a "palpably-human," human being. I found myself unable to avoid going up to him between sets. Somehow I needed to tell him how I had seen him many times over the years, but that I felt he was now on top of his game and playing at a whole new level. He graciously and modestly thanked me with one of his patented wide grins. It was shortly thereafter that I found out he was ill and that the disease was possibly life threatening. I was in shock, well before he succumbed to his illness on February 13, 2007.

The gathering for Michael Brecker brought together a generous cross-section of people from all walks of life. His son Sam, his daughter Jessica and his wife Susan all spoke poignantly about his life—a life undoubtedly well lived, well remembered and much loved. His brother Randy spoke fondly of times past and of sibling competition. His moving trumpet work on a song memorialized in one of his younger brother's many brilliant recordings was an open display of affection. The beloved saxophonist's fellow musicians honored his music and the memory of his many contributions. The singer, James Taylor, sent a recorded message of thanks, crediting Michael's intercession in his own addictions with saving his life. Dave Liebman, a saxophonist contemporary, shared his personal grief at Michael's passing, concluding his eulogy with a tender piece played on a simple wooden flute. Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon and numerous others celebrated their friendship along with their admiration for his life and music. His wife Susan had appropriately requested that no saxophones be played on this night and, despite the presence of such contemporary luminaries as Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, and Joe Lovano, the request was honored.

As I sat through this tribute, my eyes scanned the audience to get a better look at the packed crowd of well-wishers and grievers in the venerable Town Hall auditorium. In spite of the various hats, beards, pony tails and attire, this was an audience of a different breed, largely comprised of musicians who had come to pay homage to a fallen comrade. At the start of the evening, while we were waiting in the line outside to get into the hall, we had occasion to meet and talk with one of them, Pat Rebillot, a noted keyboard player who had once played with Michael Brecker on an Arif Mardin album called Journey. Rebillot and his wife had come from upstate New York, some two and one-half hours' away, to pay their respects. He was just one of many—professional musicians who have undoubtedly been heard numerous times but seldom recognized—standing in line with the rest of us. A giant's passing had brought us all together—family, fellow musicians, friends and fans.

The experience brought to mind the scene from the Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Richard Dreyfuss is irresistibly and mysteriously drawn by a mental image he can't shake to a place where something special is supposed to happen. So too we were all drawn to this setting for a memorial just as we had previously been drawn to Michael Brecker's music because it corresponded to a special place in our souls. He was the communicator, the inexplicable magnet, exerting its forceful pull on all of us with like sensibilities. Michael Brecker's music allowed us to see that we are all connected in some strange but magically flowing way. Like the music, the artist touched our hearts and stirred our souls because through his brilliant playing and exemplary life he was able to show us a better way—one that transcends the day-to-day little crises we all face and the major one he surely faced toward the end of his life. He also taught us how to deal with misfortune and adversity and come out no less triumphant.

A brief but poignant Buddhist ceremony at the end of the memorial expressed this solidarity of feeling. I left knowing that I will listen to his music again and again, each time remembering with deeper fondness and gratitude all the energy he generated and the light he radiated on his quest, a journey that I and many others will continue to share through his recorded legacy.

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