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Obituaries

Michael Brecker, 57; jazz saxophonist won 11 Grammy Awards

January 15, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Michael Brecker, the jazz saxophonist who won 11 Grammy Awards and was considered by many the most influential tenor player of his generation, died Saturday at a hospital in New York City. He was 57.

The cause of death, according to his manager, Darryl Pitt, was leukemia, the result of Brecker's struggle with myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of cancer in which the bone marrow produces abnormal as well as normal blood cells.

Influenced by John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, Brecker transformed what he had learned from the two jazz icons, added his fascination with the timbres of rock music (and rock guitar), and enhanced it with that most intimate of jazz elements, a unique, immediately recognizable sound. The combination was pure magic for young players eager to approach jazz from a perspective reflecting their time and their generation.

Over the last two decades, Brecker's playing has had a powerful impact on such established artists as Chris Potter and Bob Mintzer, as well as a growing wave of emerging players. Like many jazz artists, Brecker was an active studio musician. But the scale of his appearances as a sideman was remarkable -- more than 900 recordings with artists ranging from Frank Sinatra, James Brown and Simon & Garfunkel to Frank Zappa, Laura Nyro and Funkadelic.

His warm-toned, lyrical solo on James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" in 1972 was a breakthrough performance, introducing him to legions of fans unfamiliar with his early work with his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker, in the jazz-rock fusion band, Dream. (Brecker subsequently rerecorded "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" -- again featuring Taylor's vocal in a drastically re-imagined version of the tune -- on his double Grammy Award-winning 2001 CD "The Ballad Book.")

A-list studio gigs may have paid the rent, but Brecker was always solidly in touch with jazz. In the early '70s, he played hard bop with pianist Horace Silver and fusion with drummer Billy Cobham. The Brecker Brothers Band, formed with his brother in 1975, was a fusion pathfinder, searching out -- and frequently finding -- common ground among Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious Monk and Sly Stone.

Remarkably, however, it wasn't until 1987 that Brecker -- at the age of 38 -- finally released his first album under his own name. The appropriately titled "Michael Brecker" won jazz album of the year awards in Down Beat and Jazziz magazines.

It was the first of a string of impressive CDs that ranged from the straight-ahead swing of his first two releases -- "Michael Brecker" and "Don't Try This at Home" -- with their all-star lineups (guitarist Pat Metheny, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Herbie Hancock to name a few) -- to the gutsy, in-the-pocket drive of "Two Blocks From the Edge" and the intimacy of "The Ballad Book."

On "Wide Angles," released in 2003, his inventive compositional imagination -- generally in the background on his small ensemble outings -- is given an opportunity to flourish via the instrumentation of his "Quindectet," a 15-piece ensemble.

The CD -- which was awarded Grammys for best large jazz ensemble and best instrumental arrangement -- is a poignant reminder of an aspect of Brecker's talent that will now remain unfulfilled.

Brecker's appearances in the Southland over the last few years affirmed the continuing growth and diversity of his playing that took place up until his illness intermittently began to shut down his music.

Performing at UCLA's Royce Hall in 2003, he displayed his characteristic blend of stunning virtuosity with a subtle use of time and space. Two years later, he appeared with Hancock and drummer Roy Hargrove at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in a program combining jazz and electronic sounds. His improvisations during the performance -- on tenor saxophone as well as the electronic wind instrument -- possessed that rarest of qualities: the capacity to engage the listener in every note he played.

Brecker was born March 29, 1949, in Philadelphia, and reared in a jazz-friendly environment with a father who was a piano-playing lawyer.

Like many saxophonists, Brecker started on clarinet at an early age, switched to alto saxophone as a teenager, finally choosing tenor in high school. Following in Randy's footsteps, he attended Indiana University -- known since the early '60s for its strong jazz studies program. Brecker tried music, then pre-med, before taking the more typical musicians' route and heading for New York City.

By the time he turned 20, he was playing in the front line of Dream with his brother and picking up his first sideman jobs.

When Brecker's disease was diagnosed in 2005, a campaign immediately began to find a donor with a sufficient genetic match to provide a blood stem cell and bone marrow transplant. Despite a search that rallied much of the jazz community, none was found. An experimental partial stem cell transplant earlier this year from his daughter, Jessica, was unsuccessful.

Over the last year, Brecker continued to muster the strength for occasional performances. In June, he startled a delighted audience at Carnegie Hall by walking on stage to play an impressive, extended solo with Hancock on the pianist's "One Finger Snap."

His last studio outing, completed two weeks ago, will be released in June on Heads Up International. Not yet titled, it features Hancock, Metheny, DeJohnette, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist John Patitucci.

It was, according to Pitt, one of the things, along with the love of his family, "that helped keep him alive." Additionally, the awareness that his transplant search raised had allowed him, as Brecker told the Associated Press in 2005, "to be a conduit to attract attention for a cause that's much larger than me."

In addition to his daughter and brother, Brecker is survived by his wife, Susan; a son, Sam; and a sister, Emily Brecker Greenberg.

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