Michael Brecker passed away today in New York, of Leukemia. He was a monster player, and will be greatly missed.
I heard him play live twice, once at the Pasadena Jazz Festival, and once at the Hollywood Bowl, as part of their summer Jazz at the Bowl series. The evening at the Hollywood bowl was billed as a “Three Tenors” program, three tenor saxophonists shared the bill. It opened with the Bowl’s jazz series house band, the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and featured the solo chops of their tenor sax player, Rickey Woodard on several songs. Now, Rickey is a great player, and having had a chance to play with him a few times, it was a blast to see him really shine in his element. That aside, the big band was clearly just setting the table for the feast that was to come.
Joshua Redman and Michael Brecker did the next two sets. Josh came out first, with his combo, and he lit the place up. He’s an amazing player, and his approach to the instrument is both intense and deeply musical. When he first came onto the scene in the mid 1990′s, he was heralded as the best player of the new generation, and his artistry has only matured since then. He has buckets of technical virtuosity. He led his combo through their paces for about 45 minutes, and then they left the stage while he closed out the set with one of the most soulful renditions of “Come Rain of Come Shine” I’ve ever heard. When the last note drifted off the stage and lingered in the seats of the bowl, and as the applause started to rise up from those of us listening, you got the sense that you had just heard one of the great Tenor Sax players of all time.
Then, Michael Brecker took the stage.
From the very first phrase, he had irrevocable command of every person with range of the sound of his horn. It was like the earth had dropped two feet, and 20,000 people were suspended in mid-air, refusing to yield to the force of gravity because the artist had insisted that they stop. and listen.
He played with such eloquence. His lines had that sense of inevitability that makes you believe that they could never have been played any other way, like themes that had been plucked from the song of the earth and transposed into Bb. When he drew from his technical virtuosity, which is unspeakably vast, he did so with the kind of ease that makes you wonder what he could do if he really pushed himself some time.
I have a library in my mind, a collection of film reels featuring the transcendent scenes where life seems larger than then moments that constrain it. Michael Brecker at the Hollywood Bowl is one of those. He will be greatly missed.