A major figure in jazz-rock, fusion and contemporary jazz, saxophonist Michael Brecker was also a top-notch technician, stylist and a remarkable improviser. As a soloist, Brecker was highly sought-after, collaborating with some of the world's biggest names in jazz, pop and rock. Alongside his brother, trumpet player Randy, he formed influential band The Brecker Brothers and later joined Steps Ahead. In the late 1980s, Brecker released his first solo album as a leader. The American artist was in the prime of his life when an illness unfortunately cut short his brilliant career.
From Alto to Tenor
Michael Brecker was born into a musical household on March 29, 1949, in Philadelphia. His father, a lawyer and jazz pianist, introduced his children to the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington early on in their lives. While his elder brother Randy took up the trumpet, Michael preferred the clarinet and alto saxophone. Moved by John Coltrane's work, he later made the switch to tenor saxophone.
At 20 and after a brief academic stop at the University of Indiana, Brecker moved to New York City where he quickly found work, before co-founding the jazz-rock band Dreams with his brother Randy in 1970.
Three years later, the brothers worked with pianist/composer Horace Silver's quintet, before branching off to form The Brecker Brothers in 1974. The influential band combined jazz with funk and became one of the most successful groups of that decade.
The saxophonist also collaborated with a wealth of renowned jazz or rock artists. Be it for Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, or Franz Zappa, Brecker was constantly in demand.
Big Step Forward
1979 saw the formation of the band Steps Ahead, with Brecker playing alongside vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd - later replaced by Peter Erskine. The band performed at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1983, 1985 and 1989.
In 1987 and at the age of 38, Brecker finally released his first solo album. Recorded with the help of Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, Brecker favoured a straight-ahead "classic" jazz style for his solo debut and received positive reviews from renowned Jazz publications Downbeat and Jazziz. His next album, Don't Try This at Home garnered him a Grammy Award in 1988.
After an extensive tour with Paul Simon, Brecker joined forces again with his brother Randy. Together they released Return of the Brecker Brothers in 1992, followed by Out of the Loop in 1994. The next year, the two brothers played the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
During that time, Brecker continued to collaborate with more music giants, such as McCoy Tyner for his album Infinity in 1995 and with Herbie Hancock on The New Standard, for which he took on the double roles of tenor and soprano saxophonist.
Festival Feats of Arms
In 1997, Brecker released his solo album Tales from the Hudson, and performed it live during the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, during which he also accompanied Herbie Hancock on stage at Montréal's Place des Arts.
Two years later, he joined saxophonist Joe Lovano on stage in Montréal for the Tenor Summit concert, alongside Dave Liebman, Idris Muhammad, Cameron Brown and Kenny Werner.
The following year was an important one in the musician's career, as Brecker was invited by the Festival to take part in its Invitation series, which offered five highly popular shows, including an evening dedicated to the music of Steps Ahead and an acoustic show of The Breckers Brothers. Brecker's last appearance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal was in 2003.
The following year, the artist was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a cancer of the bone marrow. An experimental transplant unfortunately failed to save him. Michael Brecker passed away on January 13, 2007. He was 57.
Recorded during his illness, the album Pilgrimage was released posthumously.