BRECKER'S CATCHY SAXOPHONE SHAPED JAZZ HISTORY: AN APPRECIATION



Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Michael Brecker, who died on Jan. 13 at the age of 57, was one of the premier jazz voices of his generation and the generation following him. He expanded the vocabulary and the accent of the music, something not many white players have done.

Along with Miles Davis and Weather Report, the Brecker Brothers band, with Michael on tenor saxophone and his brother Randy on trumpet, was a franchise sound of jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s.

They played the sort of backbeat jazz that Miles Davis (``Jack Johnson,'' ``Bitches Brew'') had spun off from Sly and the Family Stone, and from James Brown. Randy's tunes, like ``Inside Out'' and ``Some Skunk Funk,'' were big hits.

But fusion's dependence on commerciality and electronic gimmickry -- harmonizers, wah-wah peddles, sequencers -- has been sounding increasingly dated. In the 1980s, Brecker went on to refine his style into a more sophisticated, more linear, but still accessible form with stylish polyrhythmic drummers like Elvin Jones and Jeff ``Tain'' Watts backing him up on such streamlined tunes as Don Grolnick's ``Nothing Personal.''

Brecker took legendary solos on sensitive commercial recordings with James Taylor, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell, among others. He won 11 Grammies. For many years, he made his living as an A-list studio shark. Studio sharks are instrumentalists who never flub a note or play out of tune, whose profession it is to make polished music with feeling from notes printed on paper in a maximum of three hours. They take particular pride in getting it right on the first take, although that doesn't happen all that often.

Scared of Sinatra

One reason he was so in demand was that he could handle the pressure involved in all of this with more ease than most. He once told me that the only person who had really scared him on a record date was Frank Sinatra, a notorious believer in first takes.

One of Brecker's biggest accomplishments was the way he, you might say, housebroke Coltrane's extended sheets of sound. Some people considered Brecker too fashionable, a sort of popularizer, although he was much more than that.

But many of the young players attracted to Brecker found analyzing John Coltrane just too intimidating. They took courses in the conservatories to learn Brecker's harmonic innovations, but many of them did not take the trouble to look further back into the history of the music. This, of course, was not Brecker's fault. Such superficiality should not come as a surprise in the U.S., a country that uses ``history'' as a synonym for washed up.

Desire, Angst

Brecker's combination of desire, talent, intelligence, and angst was breathtaking. His playing was not unlike the late Bob Berg, another ground-breaking white tenorman of his own generation. They were both Jewish, intense and spiritual, and had a good sense of time and chops to spare. (They could both get schmaltzy at times.) Most of all, they had a sense of adventure.

Toward the end of Brecker's life, a highlight of his sets would be his soulful, almost frighteningly passionate free-flight version of John Coltrane's ballad ``Naima.'' Working night after night without a net like that can be dangerous.

Brecker may have been too original and influential for his own good. The way he played the saxophone was so catchy and swinging, and had such a distinct and attractive personality, that it became pervasive, and in the end, his army of imitators turned his sophisticated and personal style into a collection of cliches. This was not Brecker's fault either.

Something similar happened to Charlie Parker, which is good company to be in.

In his eulogy at Michael's funeral on Jan. 15, Randy Brecker said that the passing of Coltrane's widow Alice within 24 hours of his brother was particularly significant because of the common Coltrane connection.

The veteran drummer Roy Haynes, who played with Coltrane, told the saxophonist Dave Leibman, who was featured with Miles Davis and is also an important part of the Coltrane connection, that this was the time for the community to pull together and keep the faith.