For nearly 20 years, fusion jazz superstar and “reedman” Michael Brecker left his mark on thousands of studio recordings and collaborations in jazz, pop, and rock & roll. The tenor saxophonist staked out a solo career beginning in the late 1980s to a welcoming round of applause. Yet even as he recorded on his own, he upheld family ties in 1992, to stand beside his elder sibling, trumpeter Randy Brecker, for a reunion album, Return of the Brecker Brothers, and for a series of live appearances. Michael Brecker, who was influenced largely by John Coltrane and mentored by Horace Silver among others, successfully achieved “crossover” status between fusion, post-bop, and contemporary jazz. For his first solo album he worked with Pat Metheny, Elvin Jones, and Charlie Haden, and as a solo artist and bandleader he toured with McCoy Tyner. Brecker worked with Adam Rogers, Clarence Penn, and Larry Goldings, and played with popular stars from Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon to Steely Dan. In 30 years, Brecker earned an impressive seven Grammy awards from the National Association of Recording Arts and Scinces.
A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Michael Brecker was born on March 29, 1949. For Brecker’s father, attorney Robert Brecker, jazz was a way of life. The family owned an Hammond organ, and Brecker enjoyed playing with his father who doubled as a jazz pianist between courtroom gigs. Michael Brecker studied the clarinet and played some alto saxophone before settling on tenor saxophone in high school. His teenage years were a succession of jazz dreams come true for the boy. After school he spent free afternoons with his father listening to Coltrane records and playing drums and horns at home, or else making the rounds of Philadelphia clubs where Brecker jammed with professional musicians like Eric Gravatt. It was Gravatt who first taught Brecker the meaning of endurance.
Brecker followed behind his older brother in attending college at the University of Indiana in 1966. There Brecker majored in fine arts before moving to New York City in 1969, where he picked up session work and played in rehearsals. He recalled for Down Beat the atmosphere in New York City when he first arrived there in the 1960s, “It was a special time to be in New York. That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then pop music and jazz were becoming very blurry.”
In New York, trombonist Barry Rogers befriended Brecker and mentored him through the newness of living in the big city. From Rogers, Brecker learned about Cajun music, African rhythms, and Latin sounds. Together Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and Rogers founded a band called Dreams in 1969. Along with the main trio, Dreams included a strong rhythm section comprised of John Abercrombie, Billy Cobham, Don Grolnick, and Will Lee. Also during those early years Brecker joined with approximately two dozen others in
Born on March 29, 1949, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Robert Brecker. Education: University of Indiana.
Co-founder of Dreams, recorded with Columbia, 1969; with Horace Silver, 1973-74; with Randy Brecker (Brecker Brothers), 1975-79; co-founder of Steps (later known as Steps Ahead), mid-1970s; session musician, 1969-1986; solo debut, Impulse! Records, 1987; signed with GRP, 1990; toured and recorded with Paul Simon, 1991; reunited with Brecker Brothers, 1992; collaborations with Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Horace Silver, 1995-96.
Awards: Grammy awards, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1987, 1993 (two awards), 1994 (two awards), 1995 (two awards); Album of the Year, Down Beat, 1986; Album of the Year, Jazziz, 1986
Addresses: Management —International Music Network (IMN), Kate McLaughlin, Northeast Agent, e-mail:[email protected]
an organization called Free Life Communication. The organization, comprised of performing artists, perpetuated their art by giving free concerts throughout the city.
In 1973 and 1974, Brecker and his brother joined Horace Silver’s band, an experience that Brecker likened to attending college because there was so much to learn from Silver. After breaking with Silver’s band, the brothers set out to forge their own identity, billing themselves generically as the Brecker Brothers. Thus Michael Brecker, in tandem with his brother, pioneered what was a new jazz form at the time, called fusion or electro-fusion jazz. The brothers performed together habitually between 1974 and 1979. They recorded six albums together for Arista, and reportedly the duo contributed instrumental accompaniment on more than 1,800 records. The brothers opened a club, called Seventh Avenue South, where the initial jamming took place for the Breckers’ next band, called Steps (later known as Steps Ahead). That group featured Mike Manieri, Eddie Gomez, Don Grolnich, and Steve Gadd. Additionally there was a brief tenure with Bob Mintzer’s band and some work with guitarist Mike Stern.
Throughout the 1980s, Brecker worked intensively as a session musician in New York. It was largely such studio work that kept him gainfully employed until the release of his solo debut album in 1986. By that time, Brecker was anxious to work independently, as he felt a need for greater artistic freedom, which might be achieved most readily in solo work. He staked out his proverbial territory as a solo artist and a bandleader, and he joined in collaborations with Joey Calderazzo around that same time. Brecker’s efforts reached fruition with the release of Michael Brecker in 1986, his first solo album after a 20-year career as a sessions saxophone player and sideman. The recording, released on MCA/Impulse!, was nominated for a Grammy award as best solo jazz instrumental. In 1990, he released Don’t Try This at Home on Impulse!, and he toured and recorded with singer and composer Paul Simon in 1991.
Brecker and his elder sibling, having achieved considerable success as an early fusion duo in the 1970s, kept the family tradition alive with a follow-up album in 1992. Return of the Brecker Brothers was a long-overdue sequel to their original Brecker Brothers album and their earlier collaborations. The brothers appeared together in live performance on a number of occasions following the release of their comeback album, including a performance to help christen the renovated Five Spot in Manhattan early in 1993. News-day’s Martin Johnson welcomed the return of, “[t]heir hard-driving, expansive sound,” and the funk and fusion reunion between the siblings gave fans and critics cause to cheer.
Brecker’s “African Skies” took the Grammy as best instrumental composition of 1993. He was also a member of the 1994 Grammy-award-winning GRP All-Star Band under the direction of Tom Scott. Brecker’s Grammy fever raged again in 1995, when Tales from the Hudson, a pairing with Pat Metheny, won two awards, including the award for the best instrumental solo performance for “Cabin Fever.”
As Brecker’s solo career solidified, a pairing between him and pianist McCoy Tyner made the bill at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California. The booking, arranged by Jason Olaine, led to a Grammy-winning collaboration between Brecker and Tyner on their 1994 Impulse! release, called Infinity. Brecker assembled other impressive lineups as well, including Adam Rogers on guitar, Clarence Penn on drums, and Larry Goldings on organ. In 1997, Samuel Fromartz for Reuters called Brecker’s solo work, “passionate but not pretty,” and described a Brecker concert as a “feeding frenzy.”
As a bandleader and solo artist in the late 1990s, Brecker led a quartet with Calderazzo on piano, James Genus on bass, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. The dynamic foursome recorded a sizzling contempo-style album, Two Blocks from the Edge, only after a yearlong tour of performing and perfecting the material. The compilation, written largely by Brecker and with assistance from Calderazzo, went to market as Brecker’s fifth on the Impulse! label in 1998 and included the popular Brecker composition, “Delta City Blues,” that evolved into his personal theme song. University of Kentucky jazz professor Miles Osland said of the song in Down Beat, “…[A] textbook example of exemplary musical artistry combined with superlative technical prowess.” John Janowiak labeled the song more succinctly, as “down-and-dirty soul.”
Creatively speaking, Brecker’s muse went into overdrive in 1998. He debuted as a bandleader at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, California and played a spectacular solo concert in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. The Dolomite venue was accessible only by means of a one-hour hike from a depository chairlift landing preceded by a rugged hour-long drive. The performance lasted merely 60 minutes, but the spectacular view on the mountaintop justified the extreme conditions required to reach the site. The concert-goers, not surprisingly, harbored no anxieties for the music to stop, and Becker’s performance ended in overtime.
Following his appearance in Rhode Island at the JVC Jazz Festival in August of 1998, Josef Woodard labeled Brecker as a “reluctant giant in music … [a] preeminent and influential saxophonist of his generation, blessed with fearsome technical finesse as well as melodic charms… [who] continues to pursue the path of greatest personal reward, not necessarily the greatest commercial good.” The commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times.
As the 1990s wound to a close, Brecker released Time Is of the Essence on Verve. The album, hailed as a long-awaited breakthrough, features Larry Goldings on organ, in complement to the piano styles of Pat Metheny. Also heard on the album are Jones, Tain, and Bill Stewart. Ted Panken said in Down Beat of Brecker’s performances on that release, “Brecker plays with … clarity, a hungry master searching for—and often reaching—the next level.”
Brecker’s work in 2000 brought additional reunions with Metheny, Jones, and Haden, with Brecker booked to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Brecker lives on the Hudson River and maintains an office in Manhattan. His master class laurels include a session at the University of Kentucky in October of 1998.
Swish, EWCD, 1980.
Smoking’in the Pit (with Steps Ahead), NYC Records, 1980.
Cityscape, Warner Brothers, 1983.
Michael Brecker, MCA/Impulse!, 1986.
Don’t Try This at Home, MCA/Impulse!, 1987.
Now You See It. Now You Don’t, Impulse!, 1990.
All Blues (with GRP All-Star Band, Tom Scott leading), GRP, 1994
Live In Tokyo (with Steps Ahead), NYC Records, 1994.
Infinity (with McCoy Tyner Trio), Impulse!, 1994.
Tales from the Hudson (with Pat Metheny), Impulse!, 1995.
Two Blocks from the Edge (with Calderazzo, Genus, and Watts), Impulse!, 1998.
Time Is of the Essence, Verve, 1999.
Brecker Brothers, One Way, 1975.
Back to Back, One Way, 1975.
Blue Montreux, Bluebird, 1978.
Heavy Metal Be-Bop, One Way, 1978.
Don’t Stop the Music, One Way, 1980.
Straphangin’, One Way, 1980.
Detente, One Way, 1980.
Return of the Brecker Brothers, GRP, 1992.
Out of the Loop, GRP, 1994.
Electric Jazz Fusion, Jamey Aebersol, 1999.
Hardbop Grandpop (Horace Silver), 1996.
The Promise (Johnny McLaughlin), 1998.
Down Beat, September 1994, p. 47; December 1994, p. 57; October 1998, p. 53; April 1999, p. 72, February 2000, pp. 27-33.
Entertainment Weekly, November 6, 1992, p. 68.
Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1998, p. 45; June 18, 1998, p. 31; November 21, 1999, p. 73.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 14, 2000, p. 7; April 17, 2000, p. 5B.
Newsday, February 18, 1993, p. 88.
Reuters, March 10, 1997.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1999, p. E3; March 31, 2000, p. D6.
Brecker, Michael, pop-jazz tenor saxophonist, brother of Randy Brecker; b. Philadelphia, March 29, 1949. He grew up in a musical family and his father is a jazz pianist. As a child, he shared his brother’s love of R&B; he began playing the clarinet at seven, switched to alto sax, and then tenor. He studied under Vince Trombetta and Joe Allard and Charles Banacos in the mid 1960s, and cut his teeth in local bands before being turned onto jazz through the recordings of Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane while studying at the Univ. of Ind. Michael originally intended to become a doctor, but one of his teachers convinced him that he should be in music. In 1970, after about one semester, he left college and joined Randy in N.Y.; his first professional work was with Edwin Birdsong in another R&B outfit which also featured Billy Cobham, who soon became a close friend and accomplice of both brothers. They also both made the first of a number of hard- driving recordings with Hal Galper, first as part of his Guerrilla Band and later as part of an acoustic jazz group. Later that year, the Brecker s formed the fusion group Dreams, which recorded two albums for Columbia Records before disbanding in 1971. Michael and Randy would continue to work in tandem, teamed together in 1973 as the front line for Horace Silver’s quintet, and again in 1974 recording and touring with Cobham. In 1975, they formed a funk-based band and released their debut album as The Brecker Brothers. Over the next six years, The Brecker Brothers would release six widely acclaimed albums, earning seven Grammy nominations along the way. Described by the New York Times as having “the most valid blend of jazz and rock than any group has yet achieved,” the two brothers created, according to Down Beat, “the most widely recognized and most influential horn sound of the 1970s.” That sound appeared to be a development of wind parts to be found in early Kool and the Gang and instrumental JB’s albums c. 1969-74. During the late 1970s, Michael became one of the most sought after session musicians and played on a freelance basis with everyone from Charles Mingus, James Taylor, Horace Silver, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Yoko Ono’s touring group, and a series of Average White Band albums. In 1977, Michael and Randy opened up a jazz club in lower Manhattan called Seventh Avenue South, a place where all the great names on the scene would stop by and play. Around 1979-80, he was recruited by Joni Mitchell to join with an all-star band including Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius to tour and record Joni’s acclaimed album Shadows and Light and a concert video. At Seventh Avenue South, the band Steps evolved through some informal late-night jams between Michael, Mike Mainieri, Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, and Eddie Gomez. Conceived in 1979 as an acoustic ensemble, the quintet grew into a high-powered fusion band with the advent of MIDI technology and later changed their name to Steps Ahead. Brecker consulted with Nyle Steiner, inventor of the EWI (electronic wind instrument), a wind-driven synth controller that put MIDI at his fingertips and used his own custom built model until Akai released the EWI commercially. He recorded six albums with the band, three under the name Steps, and three under the name Steps Ahead. Michael also continued touring and recording as a soloist and sideman on various projects, working with Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius and arranger Claus Ogerman. During the period 1980–81, he overcame a longstanding problem with heroin addiction by going through a rehab program. His busy studio schedule has included work with Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, and Bruce Springsteen. He took up the role of bandleader on Michael Brecker, an album released in 1987 that was named “Jazz Album of the Year” by both Downbeat and Jazziz magazines, and nominated for two grammys; it was the No. 1 album on Billboard’s Jazz Chart for 21 weeks. In 1988, Brecker’s second solo album, Don’t Try This at Home, won the Grammy for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance.” In addition to headlining around the world with his own band, Brecker took time out that year for a stint as featured soloist with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters II band. He toured with Paul Simon as featured soloist to support the Rhythm of the Saints album. Once back home in 1992, Michael reunited with his brother Randy for a much anticipated world tour and GRP recording, Return of the Brecker Brothers. Three Grammy nominations and a year of touring later, the brothers returned to the studio in the fall of 1994 to record Out of the Loop. This time not only did they win the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance, Michael won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for “African Skies.” In addition to touring throughout the U.S. and Europe in 1995, the Brecker Brothers were the first international contemporary jazz group to perform in the People’s Republic of China, playing before sell-out crowds in Beijing and Shanghai. In 1995, he toured with McCoy Tyner. In the summer of 1997, he played with Pat Metheny at the Montreal Jazz Festival and in Japan in August 1997. As of June 1998, he has appeared on over 450 albums. A true virtuoso, Brecker has gone from early work in fusion and jazz-rock to one of the most in-demand studio musicians, accompanying all kinds of artists, to one of the most influential saxophonists today in all idioms including acoustic jazz. Heavily influenced by Coltrane, he uniquely adapted many of Coltrane’s methods for use in fusion and funk contexts.
Michael Brecker (1987); Don’t Try This at Home (1988); Now You See It... Now You Don’t (1990); The Michael Brecker Band Live (1993); The Cost of Living (1994); Two Block from the Edge (1998). R. Brecker: Score (1968); Dreams: Dreams (1970); Imagine My Supuse (1972). H. Silver: In Pursuit of the 27th Man (1972). H. Galper: The Guerilla Band (1973); Reach Out (1976); Speak with a Single Voice (1978); Brecker Brothers: Back to Back (1975); Brecker Brothers (1975); Heavy Metal Be-Bop (1978); Détente (1980); Don’t Stop the Music (1980); Straphanging (1980); Return of the Brecker Brothers (1992); Out of the Loop (1994); Live (1994). B. Springsteen: Born to Run (1975). B. Cobham: Crosswind (1974); Funky Thide of Sings (1975). C. Ogerman: Gate of Dreams (1976); Cityscape (1982); Featuring Michael Brecker (1991). J. Brackeem: Tring-A-Ling (1977). C. Mingus: Me, Myself and Eye (1978); M. Nock: In Out and Around (1978). P. Metheny: 1980–81 (1980); J. Mitchell: Shadows and Light (1980). H. Hancock: Magic Windows (1981); Steps: Smokin’ in the Pit (1981); Step By Step (1981); Paradox (1982); Steps Ahead (1983). C. Corea: Three Quartets (1981). F. Sinatra: L.A. Is My Lady (1984); Steps Ahead: Smokin’ in the Pit: Live! (1982); Modern Times (1984); Live in Tokyo (1986); N.YC.(1989); Vibe (1994); Magnetic (1986); Yin-Yang (1992). D. Grolnick: Hearts and Numbers (1985); Weaver of Dreams (1990). P. Simon: Rhythm of the Saints (1990). H. Hancock: The Herbie Hancock Quartet Live (1998).
C. Coan, Michael Brecker Solos (Hal Leonard, 1995).
—Lewis Porter/David Demsey
Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 29 March 1949
Best-selling album since 1990: Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "African Skies," "Chan's Song," "Naima"
By 1990 Michael Brecker, a seven-time Grammy winner, had established himself as one of the most technically accomplished and widely heard tenor saxophonists in popular music. He spent the 1990s seeking to shore up his credentials as a jazz player. Brecker was among the first reed players of the jazz-rock era as a co-founder of the vocals-horns-guitars-rhythm band Dreams. Brecker gained name recognition when he and his older sibling, the trumpeter Randy, recorded as the Brecker Brothers in 1975. Their father was a part-time jazz pianist, and their sister is a classical pianist. From 1973 to 1974, Michael earned mainstream jazz credits in the group helmed by jazz pianist Horace Silver, but the commercial success of the Brecker Brothers' urbane electric funk style—dubbed "heavy metal bebop"—and Michael's burgeoning career as a studio session player and guest soloist in performance (for Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and Steely Dan, among others) delayed him from recording an album under his own name until he was thirty-eight years old.
By then the saxophonist was the owner, along with his brother, of the Manhattan jazz club Seventh Avenue South. He had been an influential member of the virtuosic ensemble Steps Ahead, whose members employed the newest instrumental technology; he had championed the Akai Electric Wind Instrument (EWI), a breath-controlled synthesizer. But Brecker was best known for his unwavering saxophone tone, crisp articulation, and dexterity, which allowed him to finger unusually complex melodic lines. These skills were on display on albums featuring the elite of progressive jazz, including Don't Try This at Home (1988) (for which he won his first Grammy) and Now You See It . . . Now You Don't (1990), efforts that gained Brecker an enthusiastic following among saxophone students.
There were dissenting notes in the choir of praise, however. Some critics and hard-core jazz fans dismissed Brecker as purveying technique over expressiveness. While attempting to refute that charge, he remained tirelessly eclectic. He toured with Paul Simon's Afro-Brazilian-steeped tour in support of the album Rhythm of the Saints in 1991 and 1992 and then rejoined Randy for two new Brecker Brothers albums. These garnered multiple Grammy nominations, and Out of the Loop, with Brecker's South African–inflected tune, "African Skies," won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance Instrumental in 1994. The Brothers toured internationally in 1995, introducing contemporary jazz to the People's Republic of China with sold-out performances in Shanghai and Beijing.
Thereafter, Brecker turned his attention to the aggressive acoustic jazz that had excited him in his youth, especially as expressed in the work of the late John Coltrane. He recorded Infinity (1995) with a trio led by Coltrane's piano collaborator McCoy Tyner; the album won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group (1995). Tyner repaid the favor, playing an unplugged version of "African Skies" on Brecker's Grammy-winning (for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group) album Tales from the Hudson (1996). On Time Is of the Essence (1999) Brecker worked with Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones. He also forged collaborations or strengthened existing creative ties with pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Pat Metheny, bassists Dave Holland and Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
By the age of fifty, Brecker had clearly harnessed his prodigious energy and facility to eloquent ends. His release Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (2000) was inspired by Coltrane's 1962 album Ballads. Brecker was awarded the Jazz Instrumental Solo Grammy for his poetic statement on Hancock's composition "Chan's Song," while James Taylor won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for a wistful reprisal of his old hit "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," around which Brecker wrapped a tender obligatto.
Brecker recorded and toured with Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove in a production called Directions in Music (2002), revisiting repertoire associated with Coltrane and Miles Davis. He was nominated for a Grammy for his unaccompanied rendition on that album of Coltrane's challenging ballad "Naima," and he was favorably cited for his unadorned but exalted chorus of "America the Beautiful" on Charlie Haden's American Dreams (2002). From fusion roots Michael Brecker has developed into an ardent upholder of American standards.
Now You See It . . . Now You Don't (Impulse!, 1990); Return of the Brecker Brothers (GRP, 1992); Out of the Loop (GRP, 1994); Tales from the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996); Two Blocks from the Edge (Impulse!, 1997); Time Is of the Essence (Verve, 1998); Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (2000); Directions in Music (Verve, 2002).