In addition to leading his own bands, co-fronting the Brecker Brothers fusion
band with his trumpet-playing brother Randy, and founding the groups Dreams and Steps Ahead, Brecker worked with such legendary
jazz figures as the drummer Billy Cobham, and the pianists Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. He was also one of the most prolific
session players in history, contributing to more than 400 freelance dates by artists as varied as Paul Simon, James Taylor,
Steely Dan, Dire Straits and Joni Mitchell.
From the early 1990s he worked most frequently with his own quartet, renowned
for the way its members, the pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist James Genus and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts matched
Brecker’s energy. Yet he also undertook a major recording project of
his own almost every year from 1987 onwards, and from 2002 found time to tour with Hancock’s tribute to the 1960s Miles
Davis band, Directions In Jazz, which pitted Brecker against the formidable trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Brecker was born in 1949 and grew up in Philadelphia, where he and his brother
were taken by their father to see the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Brecker studied the clarinet
and alto saxophone, before transferring to the tenor instrument, which became his principal focus.
For the most part, despite owning an array of saxophones, he played an aged Selmer
Mark 6, with which he became so familiar that he once said: “It’s as if I own every molecule of the instrument.”
The degree to which he eventually became at one with the instrument was obvious in a sporadic series of unaccompanied solo
concerts which began in 2001 with a recital at London’s Union Chapel as the opening of that year’s jazz festival.
So accomplished was Brecker that he appeared to conjure an invisible band of backing musicians through the passing harmonic
nuances and jumps between registers that he achieved within the broad sweep of his melodic lines.
Having studied at Indiana University, he followed his older brother Randy to New
York, where in 1969 they joined Billy Cobham in the fusion band Dreams. Yet both brothers could not be typecast merely as
jazz-rock players. In 1973-74 they became the horn section of Horace Silver’s quintet, playing soul jazz and hard bop
at a level that matched any of Silver’s previous recruits.
On leaving Silver, after a brief return to Billy Cobham, Michael and Randy formed
the Brecker Brothers, which made a series of successful albums for Arista between 1974 and 1981 that included the 1978 chart
single East River. The band combined rock and soul rhythms with tightly written arrangements, and both brothers had
plenty of opportunities for extended solo playing. The formula was successful, but the band ceased touring in 1979 and broke
up in 1981, although it reformed briefly several times in the 1990s, finally touring as a conventional acoustic jazz group,
and reinventing a high percentage of its original repertoire for this new format. During the 1970s the brothers also owned
the New York jazz club Seventh Avenue South, where they played frequently.
In the meantime, Brecker formed Steps, with the vibes player Mike Mainieri, a
group which in its second incarnation, Steps Ahead, brought a high level of instrumental virtuosity to a repertoire that tightened
aspects of the Brecker Brothers sound into what became a universal paradigm for 1980s rock fusion. Outstanding instrumentalists
who worked with the band included the guitarist Mike Stern, the pianist Don Grolnick and bassists Eddie Gomez and Darryl Jones.
Brecker led the group for the latter part of the 1980s, but in 1987 he cut the Michael Brecker album for Impulse, which
effectively launched the solo recording career that became his main interest. On this album he used the Electronic Wind Instrument
which allowed him to convert his formidable saxophone technique into input for a synthesiser.
Brecker’s subsequent discs include Tales From the Hudson, Two
Blocks From the Edge, and Time is of the Essence, plus a ballad collection, The Nearness of You on which
he was joined by Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock, with James Taylor making a guest appearance in return for Brecker’s
numerous cameos on the singer’s discs. He won eight Grammies, and he achieved the unique double of winning both best
instrumental performance and best instrumental solo in two successive years.
In the summer of 2005, Brecker was found to have MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome),
cancelling all his concerts, and undergoing an extended course of chemotherapy. Despite his illness, which later developed
into leukaemia, he recorded a final album, completing it two weeks ago.
He is survived by his wife, Susan, and their two children.
Michael Brecker, jazz saxophonist and bandleader, was born on March 29,
1949. He died on January 13, 2007, aged 57