When jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker succumbed to leukemia Saturday, the plaudits all but immediately started appearing in the press. Pieces appeared hailing the man's prodigious gifts, noting his carrying on of the groundbreaking work of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, and touting his remarkable discography of recordings, measuring some 900 by the time of his death. At 57, Brecker was taken too soon. He was a masterful, eloquent jazz musician.
The mourning of Brecker's passing transcends the jazz world, however. In fact, many fans of popular music may have been hearing Brecker for years, without even knowing it. Brecker's influence on the pop music of the past four decades is vast. He brought deep harmonic intelligence to a form of music not normally regaled for the depth of its musical information. In the process, he introduced jazz phrasing, chromatics, swing, the eloquence of tone and the virtues of improvisation to audiences largely unaccustomed to such. Did Brecker turn rock and pop fans on to jazz? Surely he did - at least a few. But even if hearing Brecker on a rock album didn't turn a listener into a rabid be-bop fan, even if the listener never even knew it was Brecker they were hearing, there remained something subversive about Brecker's "sneaking" jazz language into a pop discussion.
Recall that Joni Mitchell was a revered "folk icon" in the mid-'70s, when she suddenly appeared fronting a jazz band with elements of folk, pop, rock and a pre-"dirty word" version of what is now called "fusion." This was the end of the '70s, and Mitchell had gathered some hot young guns, jazz legends in the making. Brecker, guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Lyle Mays, bassist Jaco Pastorious, drummer Don Alias - this was a dream band, one quite adept at interpreting and augmenting Mitchell's then-recent forays into jazz-folk terrain, as exemplified by her brilliant "Mingus" album. Brecker simply killed on this tour, bringing added sophistication and taste to Mitchell's already hip compositions, and doubtless, baffling the members of her fan base who remained hardcore folkies, even after Mitchell had so clearly moved on from strict folk.
All of this was captured on the live document "Shadows and Light," now available as both a remastered CD and concert DVD. Nearly 30 years on, this stuff still sounds like music from some pleasantly imagined future, one where rock isn't for dummies and jazz isn't for snooty guys who smoke pipes and have patches on the elbows of their corduroy jackets. It's all brave, adventurous, often even radical music played with a fiery attitude that is shared by the best jazz and rock music.
Brecker's finest moments on record certainly come during his pure jazz recordings, and much will be written about those sessions and concerts in the coming weeks, as Brecker's death is lamented. (For my money, his playing on Metheny's "8 0/8 1" is one of his finest hours.) His efforts outside the strict confines of jazz will probably receive less attention. Conventional wisdom suggests that jazz musicians are slumming it when they play with rock and pop types, that indeed, they do it only for the money, stooping down to mix with the riff-raff in order to grab some quick cash with which to fund more artistic projects. This has certainly been the case with some players. But Brecker was an R&B and rock musician in his teens, long before he fully aligned himself with jazz. He never seemed to be faking it when he stepped outside of the cloistered jazz world.
Here are a few of Brecker's finest "non-jazz" moments.
*"Same Old Song & Dance" and "Pandora's Box," from Aerosmith's "Get Your Wings" album. Some fine, funky, throaty playing.
*"True Confessions," from Blue Oyster Cult's "Agents of Fortune" album. Brother Randy Brecker joined him, spitting out some sassy R&B lines.
*"Further to Fly," from Paul Simon's "The Rhythm of the Saints" album. This is simply sublime, a blending of African music, pop and jazz harmony, as Brecker offers transcendent phrases on an electric wind instrument.
Brecker was a jazz musician, first and foremost. But his work in popular music went a long way toward expanding the form's accepted language. He'll be missed by anyone who cares deeply for the music of the last 40 years.