Monday, January 15, 2007

Another, gone too soon.

I feel the need to mention* that the jazz world—my first and ever-enduring love—lost one of its most prolific and influential figures the other day when tenor-man Michael Brecker lost his long battle with leukemia at age 57. Brecker actually got his jazz legacy off to a dicey start by devoting some of his early years to electro-funk fusion music, and in more recent decades became so ubiquitous on other leaders' albums that people with only a casual knowledge of jazz might've figured him as "just some studio guy." Such labels could not possibly be more wrong. History will remember Michael Brecker as one of the handful of truly inventive tenor-men to pick up a horn in the post-Coltrane era—along with, say, Joe Henderson, Joe Farrell and one or two others. He was a stylist in his own right as well as an absolute tenor virtuoso who could fly through even the most challenging set of changes at breakneck speed. Not only that, but along the way, he'd invent spontaneous riffs that would literally stop you cold; you'd have to immediately rewind the tape or CD just to listen again and savor what he'd done. Brecker was also a gifted composer.

In my own first life as a jazz musician I played mostly local venues in New York's outer boroughs as well as the occasional more prestigious gig in "The Village." (This was back in the days when, at a famous/infamous club like Slugs in the Far East, you could enjoy an evening of great jazz, several large drinks with actual booze in them, and perhaps a stabbing, all for just ten bucks...) Though I never met Michael Brecker, I was lucky enough to cross paths with his brother and fellow modern-day jazz icon, trumpeter Randy, when he came to Brooklyn College for one charmed evening to solo with the BC Jazz Ensemble; I was a student there and the group's featured clarinetist. The ensemble was then led by bassist Chuck Israels, who'd paid his dues with jazz icons whom you need identify, among jazz lovers, by first names only: Billie, Benny, Herbie, etc.

The photo is from one of Michael Brecker's mid-90s albums, Tales from the Hudson (featuring an almost frighteningly good, and yet typical, uptempo solo by Brecker on its first track). Though this blog can't do the photo justice, it is one of my favorite album covers: haunting and sensitive, like the sounds that emerged from Brecker's horn when he was in a more contemplative mood.

I'm always amazed that in a world where we elevate people who can't do anything* to the most dizzying heights of celebrity, enormous talents like Michael Brecker will simply pass through, unknown in both life and death to all but a relative few hard-core fans. Rest in peace, Michael. You enriched my life, and the lives of millions who understand the difference between fame and talent.

* This post may be a bit esoteric for some, so just let me vent and then we'll get on with it.
** Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that they're "shams."

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Alice Coltrane also passed away.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, I saw that, and I should've at least included a mention in my item on Brecker. Though I was never overly fond of her work (my criticisms were along the lines of what some people said about Yoko--how she just sort of "came along with the package" and didn't contribute that much in her own right), she certainly occupied a central role in the movement at a key time in jazz history. And I did admire some of the ensemble string stuff she did. I regret the oversight.

Incidentally, I used to live right down Bagatelle Road from Coltrane in Dix Hills. Could never quite picture a guy like Trane raking leaves in the front yard...

Anonymous said...

Tell me something, how is it that you white cats look at a medium like jazz which was invented by blacks and dominated by blacks and yet you always find other white cats to hold up as "innovators" and your inspriational role models somehow? I feel as bad about Brecker as anyone, he was a solid tenor man. I just don't know how you single him out before guys like Pharoah Sanders, Charles Lloyd, Yusef Lateef, Lockjaw Davis, Brandford Marsalis and who knows how many others? Of course you had to mention JOe Farell another white dude, too. I guess I should be thakful that you even mentioned Trane and Joe Henderson.

Anonymous said...

And p.s. you couldn't even really find anything nice to say about Alice Coltrane either while you're at it.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't even know how to respond to these last two anonymous comments, so I suppose we'll just file them under "signs of the times." It amazes me, though, the cans of worms that you can open these days simply by virtue of whom you eulogize, of all things, or the manner in which you eulogize him. Who'd have thought that THIS post would be the controversial one!

Luther "Luke" Setzer said...

Is this site at all related to you?

http://www.stevesalerno.com

He is a musician and even looks a little like you.

Steve Salerno said...

I get that question all the time, but no. People also ask whether I write children's books, because there's a highly regarded illustrator, also Steve Salerno, who's done a half-dozen of them. In fact, for a time, when we both freelanced for The New York Times, we used to get each other's checks on occasion. And to Random House's eternal chagrin, when SHAM was first released, they placed HIS biography next to my name in the online author catalog.