Prior to Michael Brecker
's death, he and Bob Mintzer
were recognized by many as the two greatest tenor sax players in jazz. The following note was posted on Bob's website after Michael's passing:
The passing of Michael Brecker has had a profound effect on the jazz community, the community of Hastings on Hudson, where he lived with his wife Susan, daughter Jessica, and son Sam, and many others who were inspired and helped by Mike to be a better person. He was a gentle giant, who would give you the shirt off his back, and make you feel as if you were the most important person in the room. He gave relentlessly to his fellow man, to his family, and to the art form he helped shape. My dad used to say that someone was “a gentleman and a scholar” when acting in a valiant and decent fashion. Mike was a gentleman and a scholar of the highest order. He was a friend, a mentor, and a power of example. I am forever grateful to have known this man and all that he believed in.
There were two instances in my musical life where I truly got my butt kicked. The first was when I sat in with Rashaan Roland Kirk
at age 18 at the Village Vanguard. The second was in 1973 when Mike stopped by a jam session I was at. He had returned from a gig with a band called White Elephant (Mike Manieri, Frank Vicari) somewhere out of town. He came from the airport to a drummer’s loft on 21st street named Bob Jospe to play a couple of tunes. I had heard Mike on record with the band called Dreams. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to hear. His sound, energy, and fluid way of playing the saxophone literally made the whole loft vibrate as if we were in the midst of a tornado. I was paralyzed with fright and a sense that I had a long way to go as far as playing the saxophone went. After Mike finished playing and the molecules in the room returned to somewhat of a normal state, he looked as if he was quite dissatisfied with what he had played. I was afraid to even touch my horn at that point, and simply sat there sheepishly taking all this in. Despite my obvious “deer in a headlight” demeanor, Mike was very friendly towards me, as he was to everyone he came in contact with.
We crossed paths again in 1977 when Mike was the featured soloist with a repertory band in NYC called the National Jazz Ensemble. After the concert Mike invited me to his loft to listen to some music and talk saxophone. He struck me as such a dedicated musician and genuinely giving human being. It was hard to not be moved by his sincerity and warmth. At that time I was playing with the Buddy Rich
band. Whenever we were in New York I would try to hang with Mike. I remember when the first Brecker Brothers first recording came out in 1975. Al the cats on Buddy’s band were marveling over this music. What Mike and Randy
were doing was something totally fresh that had the intensity of modern jazz, a serious R and B groove, and a modern approach to composition, which hadn’t been heard before.
I was quite awe-struck by the varied situations I got to hear Mike play in during this time. One night with the Brecker Brothers, another night with the Hal Galper
Quintet, and then hear him on a James Taylor or Steely Dan recording playing the perfect 16 bar solo. In the late 70s when I began to do some studio work in New York the standard rap from the producers was “I need a solo like Mike Brecker”. His playing set the standard for jazz, R and B, and pop saxophone playing. As I heard it, he had combined an interesting mix of influences (Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine, King Curtis, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins
) into a totally unique and fresh sounding approach to playing. You couldn’t help but be influenced by Mike. He had managed to encapsulate the history of jazz saxophone, and put some other stuff on it that was all his own. I wanted to be like Mike when I grew up. Still do!
We actually played on a few recordings together in the late 70s. There was an Al Foster recording and one by the great pianist Joachim Kuhn. I remember soloing on a rather complex tune before Mike, and having a hard time getting through the unfamiliar dissonant chord changes. Mike soloed next and absolutely tore it up! I looked over at him and he had his eyes closed. He had memorized the form and chord changes in seconds and was playing some jaw-dropping saxophone. Out of frustration I asked Mike “how the hell were you able to do that?” Mike said “Awe, I was just bullshitting”. Like hell he was! That was Mike back then. Always self-effacing after displaying musicianship that was nothing short of total brilliance.
During this period we got to hang, talk shop and play. It was one of the most productive times in my musical life. Mike was so open and generous with musical information. His playing was so powerful and honest. It was a reminder to me that learning to play music was serious business that required many years of intense work dedication, and study.
In 1980 Mike and Randy Brecker opened a jazz club in Manhattan called 7th Avenue South. It was there that I did my first small band and big band performances. Mike and Randy were very generous about having young players play in the club. The other real significance here was the fact that the booking policy of the band allowed for virtually any kind of improvised music imaginable. At that time there weren’t any venues for electric music, at least in a small intimate jazz setting in New York City. I got to play there with Randy Brecker, Jaco Pastorius
, Mike Manieri, and several other bands that didn’t fall into the standard jazz category that most other clubs prescribed to.
Mike played in my first big band along with Dave Sanborn
, Randy, Will Lee
, Peter Erskine
, Don Grolnick
, and all the cats! It was an incredible thrill for a young guy to have all these seasoned players playing the music. People would come to the club to hear us to hear Mike and Dave and all. I once heard someone say, “Who the hell is Bob Mintzer?” Mike wasn’t what you would call a big band kind of guy. He was a dynamic soloist who was most at home in a small group playing his heart out. He was a spectacular ensemble player as well, but it was a little like keeping Michael Jordan on the bench for most of the game. I remember playing a solo one night with the band and suddenly realizing that the audience was laughing wildly. Evidently Mike and Sanborn were clowning around behind me, and it was so funny that everyone stopped listening to the music and started paying attention to the comedy act in the sax section. Two of the funniest and fun-loving cats I know! On another occasion, while collecting the big band books, I noticed that Mike had drawn several cartoons on the folder holding the music while he was sitting there not playing. I quickly realized Mike needed to be playing, not sitting in a sax section. But before he split he did make two recordings with the band, as a means of showing his support. A real giving soul!
In 1981 Mike and I played with Jaco Pastorius in the Word of Mouth band. This was an extremely challenging and inspiring band, in which you were called upon to be a real improviser and composer in the moment. I remember at the rehearsal for our debut at 7th ave. south having my wife Carla show up with her flute. Carla was playing in charanga bands around NYC at that time. Mike noticed the flute and asked if he could check it out. He said he hadn’t played a flute in years. He picked up Carla’s flute and sounded like Julius Baker
meets Hubert Laws
meets Coltrane. Our jaws dropped in unison. At that time I was studying flute and just trying to get the notes out. Mike took to it as if he had been practicing 4 hours a day. He was that way. He could play any instrument well (drums, piano, whatever).
Mike graciously played on a project I did for BMG Japan originally called “The Saxophone”. It was supposed to have been a leaderless date with a bunch of friends playing some music dedicated to the great tenor saxophonists of jazz. I was naïve as to how record companies work at that point. The project was eventually renamed Twin Tenors, which got Mike and I into trouble with GRP (who we were both associated with at the time) for seemingly recording for a rival label as leaders. In any case, Mike showed up totally prepared to play this music, having shed all the written material, and played in his usual magical way. I learned an important lesson doing that session. There was no way I was gonna out-play Mike. He was just so connected to the music. So I discovered that I could play slower and shorter phrases (well within my technical ability) that managed to contrast Mike’s virtuosic approach. In the end I think we fit together pretty well, despite the fact that when you played saxophone in the same room as Mike he would play so much saxophone that there wouldn’t be much left for you to play. (At least this is how it felt at the time).
Mike's work through the 90s and beyond with his brother Randy, as a leader of his own ensembles, and as a collaborator with countless others, is nothing short of astounding. He pushed the envelope in everything he did in and out of music. He was a really decent guy to all around him in the process.
I will be forever grateful for the moments shared with Mike. As Randy Sandke so aptly put it, Mike would make you feel like a musical equal despite being light years ahead in so many ways. To me, Mike represents a musician who was able to be totally dedicated to his art while being there for his family, friends, and community. He did it all with a joyous heart and a good word for all around him. Despite living in the same town as Mike for the last 12 years, we only saw one another a few times a year. But we talked regularly on the phone. I would be more likely to see Mike at the North Sea Festival in the Netherlands than in Hastings. The thing is, he was always there, somewhere. Now that he’s gone there is a void that will take some time to reckon with. I felt a similar feeling when Mel Lewis passed. He was a friend and mentor that was always there, at the Village Vanguard every Monday night. At the end of the day, it’s really about us being there for one another. Mike was there for us all. And his spirit and musical legacy will continue to be there to inspire and motivate from now until the end of time.
Travel safe, Mike We love you.