Monday, December 13, 2021

Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker by Bill Milkowski - An Appreciation

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For Jazz fans of a certain age [mine], the focus on the music has been the styles that developed from approximately 1945-65.

The elements of free Jazz, Jazz-Rock fusion and the use of electronic instruments that really took hold in Jazz in the late 1960s and early 1970s generally left this generation cold [not me].

As the music progressed into the 1970s to form a synthesis of these new elements, this 1945-65 generation regressed almost to the point of developing a reverie for the older forms of Jazz while shunning these new directions.

Enter Michael Brecker and the Jazz musicians of his generation who, rather than reject this synthesis, flat out embraced it and made these new forms their own while establishing a place for them in the history of the music.

If you are interested in the details of this transition, look no further than Bill Milkowski’s Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times of Michael Brecker [Backbeat Books 2021].

Bill’s Brecker Bio offers a variety of illuminating perspectives on Michael’s career while at the same time documenting the development of the trends in Jazz that came to characterize the music in the last quarter of the 20th century.

In chronicling Michael’s career from his arrival on the New York scene in 1970 until his death in 2007, Bill’s Brecker Bio also treats us to a look at many of the other major artists who shaped the Jazz Rock fusion of this era because Michael played with just about everyone and anyone of importance.

Ode to a Tenor Titan follows Michael's story from growing up in Philadelphia, finding his tenor sax voice during his brief stint at Indiana University, making his move to New York City in 1969, and taking the Big Apple by storm through the sheer power of his monstrous chops. A commanding voice in jazz for four decades, Brecker possessed peerless technique and an uncanny ability to fit into every musical situation, whether it was as a ubiquitous studio musician (more than nine hundred sessions) for such pop stars as Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Todd Rundgren, Chaka Khan, and Steely Dan; playing with seminal fusion bands like Dreams, Billy Cobham, and The Brecker Brothers; or collaborating with the likes of Frank Zappa, Charles Mingus, Pat Metheny, and Herbie Hancock. But his biggest triumphs came as a bandleader during the last twenty years of his career, when he produced some of the most challenging, inspired, and visionary modern jazz recordings of his time.”

Since “everyone comes from someone” in Jazz, it was certainly obvious to anyone with a listening knowledge of Jazz that Michael “came from” tenor saxophonist John Coltrane for as he explains in Chapter 1: Becoming Michael Brecker:

“[As he recalled in a 2004 interview at the Newport Jazz Festival,] The first Coltrane album that I bought was Live at Birdland, which was a pretty bizarre record for a fledgling listener because the music was so intense and absolutely riveting. A lot of it was modal music with long solos. And I'd never heard drums play with that kind of intensity and crashing. And Coltrane was playing in a style and with a sound that I was not accustomed to. I didn't like the record at first, but I began listening to it every day until finally after listening to it over a period of probably months, I began to understand what was going on. From there, I started buying other Coltrane records and became really interested in his music, to the degree that it became an enormous influence in the direction that I chose for a life's endeavor. Coltrane's music was both spiritual and certainly intellectual, technically highly developed, emotional and immensely creative and courageous. Put all those things together, plus the phenomenon quartet, which was one of those groups where the sum is greater than the whole, and the power of that group literally kind of propelled me into choosing music as a livelihood."

But it would be a mistake to assume that Michael was little more than a John Coltrane clone for as Ravi Coltrane, the son of Michael’s biggest role model and inspiration and himself a fine tenor saxophonist delineates:

“I think Michael came about at a very unique time in music and was able to really utilize everything coming out of the late '60s and early '70s in the jazz and funk-rock scenes. He absorbed so much at a prime time and just got ahead of the game really quickly because he was a focused musician and very diligent about how he practiced. And clearly, he worked out a ton of shit on the saxophone and was able to kind of take it to another place. He also had a very distinguishable sound. And there was a point in the '80s where that sound became THE sound among aspiring saxophone players. There were so many younger players trying to play like Michael then. We used to call them the Breckerheads. But I always thought Michael's thing always sounded most genuine — because it was his shit! And, obviously, his influences were not only John Coltrane but Joe Henderson as well. But he put a lot of shit together and worked it out, all over the horn, and was able to play in a variety of styles of music with a kind of proficiency that made him one of the best of the best. And I think it was his curiosity and passion and the profoundly deep connection he had to the music that really set him apart from other great saxophone players on a similar technical level.” [Emphasis mine]

In an era which has as one of its socio-cultural keynotes the concept of “cultural appropriation,” one has to be careful about making assertions, but although the comes-from-influences of Coltrane and Henderson are certainly apparent in the early Brecker style [as are Stanley Turrentine, Junior Walker and King Curtis], they were soon superseded by “ a kind of proficiency that made him the best of the best.”

Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano expressed Michael’s genuineness this way in the following excerpt from an interview he gave Bill Milkowski:

“Mike was a true virtuoso on his horn. I remember being down in his basement studio in Hastings [New York] just trying out these wooden mouthpieces that Francois Louis, the Belgian mouthpiece maker, had made for him. This was probably around 2004. I drove Francois up to Mike's pad, and we went down to his basement studio, and you should have heard him try these mouthpieces, man. He was like Heifetz or something the way he played the harmonics and the overtone series on the horn from the lowest register to the highest register. And that's how he would practice. He would play from the bottom of the horn to the upper extensions and really feel all the overtones and undertones within that. Mike lived in that world. He was constantly searching, constantly evolving, and he had a deep passion and a lot of love in his playing.”

Aside from his innate talents and abilities, it was Michael’s practice regiment that set him apart and helped him become a true virtuoso; a practice regiment that Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool describe as “deliberate practice, … the gold standard, the ideal to which anyone learning a skill should aspire” in their book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” [Eamon Dolan, 2016].

Not to distract from the focus on Bill’s Brecker Bio but briefly, deliberate practice “ draws a clear distinction between purposeful practice — in which a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve — and practice that is both purposeful and informed. In particular, deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers' accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.

Deliberate practice is characterized by many traits - “Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.”

Michael was lucky to have two marvelous teachers in Vince Trombetta and Phil Woods who early on instilled another of Peak traits: “Deliberate practice takes place outside one's comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”

Fortunately for Mike, he arrived in New York during the 1970s, a time in which lofts with plentiful space were available for inexpensive rates which allowed him to “deliberate practice” incessantly both alone and with many other musicians who would later become bandmates and/or stars in their own right in the burgeoning Jazz-Rock Fusion scene including Billy Cobham, John Abercrombie, Don Grolnick, Peter Erskine, Steve Khan, Mike Manieri, Bob Mintzer, Hal Galper, David Sanborn, Jan Hammer, Alex Blake, Barry Rodgers, Jack Wilkins, Lenny White, Dave Holland, et al.

“In their freewheeling loft jams, the saxophonists tended to hone in on latter day Coltrane. "That was the period of Trane that we were most affected by and were emulating," said Liebman. "And us being young guys, as is always the case, you want to emulate what you hear around your environment. And Ascension is the record that stands out as 'Let's do that!' Meaning, play group improv with as many horns as possible at the same time, even with a couple drummers ... no basic heads, no melodies, no chords, just completely free association and a lot of energy, which, of course, is a big component of it. And Michael was very much a part of that."

Liebman added, "If you were a young musician in New York at that time, you had to deal with Trane; you couldn't avoid it. Why would you? You had to deal with Coltrane's oeuvre, his work and his language. So, we were all enamored by that and really affected by it. Trane was everywhere, and the immensity of what he did was on everybody's mind. And when you hear tapes of some of our jams from back then, you really hear the personalities coming out between me and Michael and Steve Grossman and Bob Berg. It was the beginnings of what would become our way of being stylistic; playing a vernacular that's known and putting it together in your own way." …

According to Bill, Randy Brecker confirmed that the sessions at Liebman's and other lofts around New York at that time were, indeed, happening around the clock. "There were sometimes three sessions going on at once in that building on 19th Street on each floor, as well as other lofts around town where cats would go to play at any hour. Liebman's loft became a main focal point mostly for free jazz jams. The bebop and Miles-infused fusion jams were over at Gene Perla's loft, who shared a space with Jan Hammer and Don Alias in Lower Manhattan on Jefferson Street near the Fulton Street Fish Market just off the East River. I had gone to Berklee with Gene one summer and met Jan at the Vienna Jazz Competition in 1966, so I was over there jamming quite a bit, too, along with a lot of people who were under the electric Miles wing.

"And then you had the big band rehearsal spaces like Lynn Oliver's uptown on 89th and Broadway and downtown at Tom DiPietro's place Upsurge on 19th between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, where the Chuck Israels [Jazz] Orchestra and Joe Henderson Big Band used to rehearse. I went to those places as well. There were so many places to play then."

"It was a special time to be in New York," Michael told [Lorne Frohman in a 2004 Distinguished Artists interview] "That's when the so-called boundaries between what was then pop music and jazz were becoming very blurry. And those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you'll excuse the word, of various elements. The music was fresh, exciting, powerful, and exhilarating. We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as jazz-jock."

Bill’s description of Michael’s work in the 1970s includes his time with Horace Silver’s and Billy Cobham’s Bands, the Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears inspired Dreams with a front line of Randy and Michael along with brass instrumentalist Barry Rodgers, the music of Michael’s best friend pianist Don Grolnick, and early iterations of the Brecker Brother Band, among many other musical associations during this period. But what is patently obvious was the lack of a recording under Michael’s own name.

This “preternaturally gifted player whose facility seemed super human, who was modest to a fault and universally beloved by fellow musicians” asserted that he just wasn’t ready to issue an album under his own name.! This was not to happen until 1987!!

In the meantime, we are treated to Bill’s annotations and discussions about a whole host of recordings that Michael made with other musicians and groups among them The Brecker Brothers, Steps and Steps Ahead, Billy Cobham, Hal Galper, Don Grolnick, Claus Ogerman, Jaco Pastorious, among many others.

As a point in passing, I along with some others friends, used the annotated discography provided in Bill’s Brecker Bio as a read-along, play-along platform to better familiarize ourselves with the points about Michael’s style and music that Bill makes in his book, to fill-in-the-gaps of Michael’s music that was new to us, as well as, to reconnect with Brecker recordings already in our my collections.

Of particular poignancy, largely because I was unaware of this fact, is Bill’s description of the dark side of Michael’s heroin addiction in the 1970s and how he “turned his life around and became a beacon for countless others to lead clean and sober lives.”

Also unknown to me:

“By the end of 1977, Mike and Randy took out a ten-year lease on a downtown space that would become a popular haven for them and other like-minded musicians to put together new projects and experiment with impunity. Seventh Avenue South, as it was christened, would also become a notorious den of iniquity for those people who were interested in doing the wrong thing right. Coke fiends and fusion fans rubbed elbows at the downstairs bar and in the upstairs performance area, and the lines flowed like champagne. After all, it was the '70s.”

By the 1970s, Jazz had pretty much been abandoned by the national press. There was Downbeat and a few other specialty magazines and some newspapers offered the occasional column about Jazz, but the music had lost much of its following to Rock and this was reflected in the lack of coverage in news outlets.

Bill’s Brecker Bio offsets some of this obscurity with his accounts of Michael’s activities in New York, Japan and the international Jazz festivals such as Montreux in Switzerland during the 1970s and beyond.

On a more personal level, if you love “Love Stories,” Michael’s marriage to Susan Neustadt will tug at your heartstrings and Mike’s association with Darryl Pitt will make you wish that every prominent artist could have such a caring and competent manager. The scientifically curious side of Michael as manifested in his adoption of the EWI [the electronic wind instrument] reveals another side of the Brecker Genius. Others have played the EWI; no one has ever played it like Michael and Bill goes into a graphic, yet very readable, description as to why this is so. 

Thankfully, by 1987, we have Michael creating and issuing recordings under his own name and all nine of these are fully annotated by Bill.

The book contains a full discography of Michael’s recordings and concludes with an Appendix of “Testimonials to a Tenor Titan” by David Sanborn, Dave Liebman, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Bill Evans, Ravi Coltrane, Branford Marsalis, John McLaughlin, Tim Ries, Steve Slagle, Bob Mintzer, Adam Rogers, Chris Minh Doky, Ben Wendel, Chris Rogers, David Demsey, Rick Margitza, Michael Zilber, Bob Reynolds and Franco Ambrosetti.

Of course, throughout the book, Bill includes comments by many of the musicians who worked closely with Michael over the years, not the least of which were brother Randy, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, McCoy Tyner, Mike Stern, Peter Erskine, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Mike Mainieri and Antonio Sanchez among many, many others.

The word “tragic” is all-too-often associated with the word “genius” and, unfortunately, this turns out to be the case with Michael whose death from multiple myeloma in 2007 deprived the Jazz World of a singular voice and a very special human being. 

“Michael Brecker was a player of tremendous heart and conviction, and a person of rare humility and kindness. His story is one for the ages.”

In the dedication he entered in the review copy he so graciously sent me Bill wrote:

“Steven - Hope you enjoy reading this sad and beautiful tale of the great Michael Brecker. He was a friend and a hero to me. I put my heart and soul into this one. All the best! Bill Milkowski.”

With the reading of each page in this definitive work, it shows Bill; it shows.

Taking on the responsibility of writing the biography of someone with the astounding abilities and legacy of Michael Brecker is no easy task. Bill Milkowski’s biography is fittingly the equal of the man and his music that it chronicles.

The book is available through all retail and online booksellers.

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