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Michael Brecker: Celebration of a Healer

Bill Siegel By

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The most treacherous position in jazz was being the guy who has to take a solo right after Mike Brecker. —Pat Metheny
Michael Brecker Memorial
Town Hall, New York
February 20, 2007

Town Hall was the scene for a spirited memorial service for Michael Brecker, universally acclaimed as one of the most influential jazz sax players since John Coltrane—and certainly among the most productive and ubiquitous: think of a name in innovative jazz or pop, and chances are Brecker's sax has been in the studio or on stage with them—from McCoy Tyner to Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock to Bruce Springsteen, from Elvin Jones to Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra to Steely Dan, from Joe Lovano to Donald Fagen, Dave Liebman to Dire Straits, or Pat Metheny to the Saturday Night Live Band... The list goes on and on, including the unlikely: he appears on Frank Zappa's live album Zappa in New York; and he's there in the James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party parody, behind Eddie Murphy (during which he must have particularly enjoyed himself; as one fan told me, "he must have been busting a gut behind Eddie", since Michael had been part of the NY studio section that played on several James Brown records, including Brown's hit, "My Thang", in the 1970s). Early in his career, he was already playing with the likes of Horace Silver and Billy Cobham. And the verdict was nearly always the same—Brecker did not simply play backup or a secondary supporting role —he was, more often than not, a key part of the sound of some of the marquee artists' most successful endeavors, not to mention his own projects—many with his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker. Never mind the multiple Grammy Awards (more than a dozen through his career, two of which were awarded just weeks after his death): Michael Brecker was, as they say, a force to be reckoned with.

If you're a jazz fan, you probably know already who Michael Brecker was, what he represented, and why he's gone now. A couple of years ago, Brecker contracted the extremely rare blood disorder, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)—so rare that it's found virtually nowhere outside the Ashkenazi (Eastern/Central European) Jewish community and their descendants (and even then, it's extremely rare). What might have saved his life would have been a stem cell donation from a compatible donor—but in spite of an ambitious and aggressive worldwide search, no matching donor could be found. Word went out through just about any major Jewish organization you can name (and many non-Jewish ones). E-mailed pleas by the dozens flew to and from music fans, synagogue congregations, and known and potential Ashkenazi Jewish donors, calling on them to get their blood tested at any of the many testing centers set up around the country to find donor material. None were found. Doctors did try an experimental partial-match stem cell transplant, which gave him some relief from his symptoms, but they were ultimately not able to save him. He passed away on January 13 of complications from leukemia, a result of the MDS.
Five weeks later, colleagues, fans, bandmates, the greater musical community, family members, and many others gathered—a crowd estimated anywhere from 2000 to 3000—at New York's Town Hall to celebrate the life of Michael Brecker, tenor giant.

There were eulogies and stories from the people who knew him best—including his 13-year-old son, Sam ("He'd stick his tongue out at me, do a funny dance... It made me so happy because it reminded me of my old daddy before he got sick"), wife Susan and brother Randy, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Dave Liebman, and others (including a video sent in by James Taylor, testifying to how Brecker helped Taylor—and others like him—kick his drug habit some 20 years ago). In the audience, among the fans and friends were such figures as Joe Lovano, Wayne Shorter, Buster Williams, and David Sanborn (who has been fighting his own battle against post-polio syndrome).

And there was the music. Of course. Randy and his brother's rhythm section (Joey Calderazzo on piano, James Genus on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums) delivered Calderazzo's "Midnight Voyage" (from Michael's CD, Tales of the Hudson). Liebman, on a small wooden flute (Susan Brecker asked that no saxophones be played), performed Brecker's Asian-tinged "A Gathering of Spirits," and Metheny soloed on acoustic guitar with a piece he'd written for Brecker, "Every Day (I Thank You)."


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