Michael Brecker's untimely passing at age 57 last January was, to me at least, one of the bigger blows to jazz music in a long time. But this piece isn't going to be a eulogy to him because we've covered that already. Instead, it's a celebration of some terrific music he posthumously left behind.
After laying out for about a year while he underwent treatment for his myelodysplastic syndrome, Brecker came back in August, 2006 for one more album, Pilgrimage, just released last month. Most likely knowing that he likely wasn't going to be around much longer, Brecker followed the Warren Zevon Plan for a finale: assemble top drawer talent and follow the formula that made everyone fall in love with you in the first place. But do so with a little more gusto and don't get overly sentimental. Like Zevon, Brecker succeeds in making you miss him simply by doing everything that he does best.
And what does Brecker do best? Blowing that tenor sax is on the top of the list, natch, but it's also about jazz squarely straight ahead but still as challenging as anything coming from the avant garde. Brecker's compositions are another strength containing unexpected chord changes galore yet shadings that emerge a little more with each listen. Incidentally, all the selections here are Brecker originals, which I believe is a first for him. And lastly, Brecker is about interplay that demands much from all players, not just him.
So, it made sense that the aforementioned top drawer talent are no less than pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. For Brecker, these aren't guys he pulled in for the sake of having big names on his records, he's played with all of these guys extensively before in various configurations, such as Metheny and him playing together in Joni Mitchell's band way back in the mid seventies.
While one could detect some slippage in the technique of other heavies like Miles Davis and Stan Getz on their last recordings, you'd be hard pressed to tell from Pilgrimage that Brecker was in any way an unhealthy man. He plays with as much fire, passion, and control as he is legendary for. And if anything, he took good advantage of the involuntary time off to write a uniformly strong set of songs.
The closest that Brecker comes to alluding to his impending demise is the melancholy "When Can I Kiss You Again," which refers to a time in his treatment where his family wasn't allowed to touch him. It's not Brecker's saddest song, honestly, but it's well played with Metheny's guitar solo being particularly touching, here.
Much of the rest of the selections are more spirited, and to those unaccustomed to this kind of music, it sounds much like blowing sessions. They're more than that, actually, but even if they weren't, these would makes for some damned fine blowing sessions.
The ending "Pilgrimage" deserves a special spotlight. It has a "A Love Supreme" type extended introduction underpinned by Hancock's electric piano before settling into a mid-tempo groove with a knarly chord progression where Hancock, Metheny, Mehldau and Brecker (this time on the EWI) take turns before the song climaxes at the second go around of the head. The track serves as a demonstration that Brecker could sometimes evoke Coltrane — not in his sound, but in his ambition.
Michael Brecker went out fighting and left his fans one last gift. The ol' list of jazz's best swan song recordings is in need of an update. Pilgrimage is a deserving addendum.
*photo by Darryl Pitt