As one of the most innovative and imitated saxophonists of the 21st century, Michael Brecker has played a large role in shaping the jazz and instrumental pop genres over the last thirty years. “You’ll find no better example of stylistic evolution than Michael Brecker, unarguably the most influential tenor stylist of the last 25 years.”
Born March 29, 1949 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Michael grew up in a musical household, influenced by jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, but most importantly and significantly by tenor saxophone giant John Coltrane. His father, who was an amateur pianist, encouraged Michael and his older brother, Randy, to study music. Randy took up the trumpet while Michael initially began to play the clarinet, but later moved to alto saxophone, and in high school, finally settled on tenor sax as his primary instrument.
Michael followed his older brother, Randy Brecker, to school at the University of Indiana in 1966, but moved to New York to be a part of the jazz scene. After doing plenty of freelance work, Michael co-founded the first instrumental, horn-based rock group Dreams in 1970, which only lasted a year and two record releases. Their importance as an ensemble was shadowed by being signed to the same record label as Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The group included outstanding musicians such as Michael’s brother Randy on trumpet, Billy Cobham on drums, Barry Rogers on trombone, John Abercrombie on guitar (who was eventually replaced by Bob Mann), Jeff Kent on keyboards (who was eventually replaced by Don Grolnick), Doug Luban on bass (who was eventually replaced by Will Lee), and Edward Vernon on vocals.
In 1973, Michael and Randy Brecker joined pianist Horace Silver’s quintet. Then in 1974, Michael and his brother Randy formed The Brecker Brothers, which was labeled as “one of the most innovative and successful jazz and funk fusion bands of the decade.” Around this time, Randy and Michael also owned their own jazz club in Manhattan where they had jam sessions with artists including vibes player Mike Maineiri, bass player Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd, which eventually led to the formation of the group Steps Ahead.
Formed in 1979 by Mike Mainieri, Steps, was intended to unite the efforts of some of New York’s virtuous musicians and made its debut on tour in Japan with the album Smokin’ in the Pit, a dual-disc live CD recorded at the Pit-Inn Tokyo released solely in Japan on December 15th and 16th in 1979. Their third album, Step By Step, was recorded December 17, 1979 in a studio, and it was also initially only released in Japan. In 1981, Steps recorded their last album for Nippon Records entitled Paradox in New York City at Seventh Ave South, the club owned by the Brecker Brothers.
Steps originally included Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone, Eddie Gomez on bass, Don Grolnick on keyboards, and Steve Gadd on drums. In Steps, drummer Peter Erskine eventually replaced Steve Gadd for the album Paradox. In 1983, Don Grolnick left the group and Steps became Steps Ahead due to the discovery that a band had already trademarked the name when they signed with Elektra Records. These changes eventually led to Michael Brecker gaining leadership of the ensemble in 1987. At this time, the ensemble included Mike Stern on guitar, Daryl Jones on bass, and Steve Smith on drums. Initially recording in the smooth[er] jazz styles as Steps, Steps Ahead became more of an electric band and became the renowned fusion band in New York. Some various musicians that passed through the band are Bob Berg, Elaine Elias, Marc Johnson, David Sancious, Rachel Z, and Warren Bernhardt. Steps Ahead recorded seven albums and became known as a worldwide success.
Having recorded at least one thousand albums as a leader or as a sideman, Michael Brecker has shared his music brilliance in recordings by artists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, and countless others.
Michael Brecker released his debut, self-titled solo album in 1987 supported by Charlie Haden on bass, Pat Metheney on guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Kenny Kirkland on keyboards. To contrast with his more electric and fusion based group Steps Ahead, Michael Brecker’s album was recorded in a more traditional jazz style, displaying his versatility as a saxophonist and EWI player. “Michael Brecker,” the album, earned Michael Brecker recognition for having the “Jazz Album of the Year” in several jazz magazines. His second record, Don’t Try This At Home, earned Brecker his first Grammy award.
In 1990, Michael Brecker released his third album, Now You See It … (Now You Don’t) and began touring with Paul Simon. In 1992, Michael reunited with his brother Randy Brecker to record The Return of the Brecker Brothers. In 1994, Michael recorded his next solo album Out of the Loop, and then Tales From the Hudson in 1997.
Michael Brecker released Two Blocks From The Edge in 1998, which featured the popular tune Delta City Blues, a song that demonstrated Brecker’s amazing facility on the saxophone and knowledge of harmonics. In 1999, Time is of the Essence and The Nearness of You: The Ballad Book followed. The Nearness of You: The Ballad Book featured several jazz greats – Pat Metheney, Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, and Jack DeJohnette, as well as folk singer James Taylor. This album also won Brecker a Grammy.
In 2002, Michael Brecker recorded the ground breaking album Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall, a tribute album to Miles Davis and John Coltrane which was one of the most popular jazz events in the last few years. In 2003, Brecker’s solo recording Wide Angles, a large ensemble recording, featured some of Michael’s most original writing and earned him two more Grammys in 2004. The “quindectet” instrumentation included saxophone, trumpet, trombone, French horn, alto flute, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, English horn, two violins, viola, cello, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion.
Throughout the jazz community, Michael Brecker is known as the most ground-breaking saxophonist of his time; in the words of Pat Metheney, “by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming. He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.”
Sadly, Michael Brecker was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a blood disorder. “Despite a widely-publicized worldwide search, Brecker was unable to find a matching stem cell donor. In late 2005, he was the recipient of an experimental partial matching stem cell transplant. As of early 2006, he still is seriously ill, and it is unclear whether the experimental procedure will provide a long-term remedy.” Sadly he passed away not long after.
Throughout his career, Michael Brecker has received much recognition for his saxophone genius including eleven Grammys, as well as being the first to win “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance” and “Best Jazz Instrumental Solo” for two consecutive years. In 1997, Brecker was recognized as the “Best Soloist of the Year” by JazzLife and “Jazz Man of the Year” by Swing Journal just to name a few.