Born into a musical household in 1949, Michael Brecker’s father – a lawyer and a jazz pianist – played jazz non-stop on the record player for his young sons, and took Michael and older brother Randy to see performances by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, among others. While Randy took up trumpet, Michael launched his studies on clarinet and then alto sax. Moved by the genius of John Coltrane, Brecker switched to tenor sax in high school. After studying at the University of Indiana, as did his brother, Brecker moved to New York City, landing work with several bands before co-founding the pioneering jazz-rock group Dreams in 1970. In 1973, Brecker joined his brother in the frontline of pianist/composer Horace Silver’s quintet. The following year, the siblings branched off to form the Brecker Brothers, one of the most innovative and successful jazz-funk fusion bands of the decade.
The brothers also operated the popular downtown Manhattan jazz club, Seventh Avenue South. Jam sessions with keyboardist/vibes player Mike Mainieri, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd led to the 1979 formation of Steps Ahead. With Peter Erskine later replacing Gadd, the all-star quartet recorded seven albums while ascending to worldwide acclaim. (It was during a Steps reunion concert at the 2005 Mount Fuji Jazz Festival with Mainieri, Gadd, Mike Stern and Darryl Jones that Brecker first realized he was ill. Playing through enormous pain, it was later determined that Brecker had just performed with a cracked vertebra – or broken back – and a biopsy and bad news quickly followed.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s Brecker recorded and performed with a virtual Who’s Who of jazz and pop giants, including McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, Chet Baker, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, Pat Metheny and Frank Zappa.
Brecker cut his first record as a leader in 1987. That solo debut, Michael Brecker, was voted Jazz Album of the Year in both Down Beat and Jazziz magazines. The follow-up recording, Don’t Try This At Home, garnered Brecker his first GRAMMY. After investigating new rhythmic concepts on 1990’s Now You See It ... Now You Don’t, and subsequently touring for a year and a half with Paul Simon, Brecker reunited with his brother for 1992’s Return of the Brecker Brothers. The Breckers’ Out of the Loop (1994) and Michael’s Tales From the Hudson (1997) put additional GRAMMYs on the saxophonist’s shelf, leading to Brecker being named Best Soloist of the Year by JazzLife and Jazz Man of the Year by Swing Journal. At about the same time, Brecker appeared on Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard and McCoy Tyner’s Infinity, followed by extensive touring with each piano titan.
Following Two Blocks from the Edge (1998) and Time Is of the Essence (1999), Brecker’s seventh solo album, Nearness of You: The Ballad Book, features a dream ensemble of fellow jazz giants – guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette – who had never before recorded an album together. Produced by Metheny, with legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor adding his voice to the peerless musical alchemy on two tracks, Nearness of You was named Record of the Year, and Brecker was named Artist of the Year in both the Critics’ and Readers’ Polls of Japan’s Swing Journal (which has the largest circulation of any jazz magazine in the world). It also won two GRAMMYs.
In June 2002, Brecker, Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove released Directions in Music, a live concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall, which celebrates the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Directions in Music won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Brecker began 2003 by creating his first large ensemble record, Wide Angles, which featured the 15-piece Michael Brecker Quindectet. Wide Angles appeared on dozens of Best Jazz Records of the Year lists and also won two GRAMMY Awards.
Brecker signed with Heads Up International in May 2004. However, following the experience at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, Brecker was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. Despite an exhaustive search for a matching bone marrow donor and a clinical trial transplant, Brecker passed away from leukemia on January 13, 2007, at age 57.
Although he was very sick, Brecker was able to complete a final album just before he died. Brecker’s first recording consisting entirely of his compositions, Pilgrimage, was released on Heads Up International in May 2007 and features the all-star lineup of pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Patitucci. The album won two GRAMMYs in February 2008, one for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and another for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo for the track entitled “Anagram.”
All told, Brecker was a 15-time GRAMMY-winner, and the first musician ever to win in both the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo categories two years in a row. As a result of his stylistic and harmonic innovations, Brecker is perhaps the most studied instrumentalists in music schools throughout the world today. His accomplishments assure that his career will forever be intertwined with the history of music. Said Jazziz magazine: “You’ll find no better example of stylistic evolution than Michael Brecker, inarguably the most influential tenor stylist of the past 25 years.”