When Pilgrimage, Michael Brecker’s last album, was released in May, the criticism, even when sharp, was unusually compassionate.
That’s because Brecker, who died Jan. 13 following a long bout with leukemia, was widely regarded, unusually spirited, original and prolific. His discography contains more than 900 albums, and he was a sideman for everyone from Average White Band to Frank Zappa. He recorded numerous discs as a leader, with the group Steps Ahead and, with his brother, Randy, a trumpeter, in the Brecker Brothers. A groundbreaker in the John Coltrane mold, he played with a biting, rich tone, was a harmonic innovator and a technical prodigy.
How fitting that guitar great Pat Metheny joined him on his final outing, along with pianists Brad Mehldau and Herbie Hancock, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Like Brecker, these trophy jazz players never have played better. Pilgrimage, one of the best albums of 2007, attests to Brecker’s prodigious talents as a tenor saxophone player and composer. It also is a startling paradox that showcases a man at the height of his powers even though he was on his way out. Brecker, who was 57, is gone. But on this album, life trumps death.
Brecker found a way to express the vibrancy of life while in the company of death, says Darryl Pitt, who was Brecker’s executive producer and manager.
“In the course of a life, it’s difficult for that to happen. But when you’re an artist, that’s your outlet, a means of expression, and you’re able to get a full dose, in this case, of a tremendous amount of life.”
Patitucci recalls how excited everyone was going into the project, because Brecker suddenly felt up to doing it.
“What was amazing was that during the rehearsals, he was playing so strong and he seemed excited about it,” he said.
Ten Brecker originals, including the bracing, motile “Anagram,” the wistful “When Can I Kiss You Again?” (a nod to Brecker’s son, Sam, who asked that when Michael was particularly ill) and the heart-rending title cut were recorded at Right Track (now Legacy Recording Studios) in Manhattan in August 2006. The album also showcases Brecker’s virtuosity on EWI, or electronic wind instrument, on the sexy, torrid “Tumbleweed.”
During the week of recording, Brecker’s legs were sore, but not when he played, Patitucci recalls.
“I remember Pat saying to him, ‘Man, c’mon, Mike, I think you’re messing with us.’ He was playing so good, and Mike was cracking up. It was so strong we just had to comment, like, ‘Geez, Mike, you sound amazing. It wasn’t like he was struggling to play music, I’ll tell you that.”
“Anagram” is particularly vigorous. “There were some really exciting, unbelievable, ridiculous solos he played,” Patitucci recalls. “The power of what he was getting into with Jack, the whole atmosphere, was incredible with everybody there. He was thrilled by what was going on; he was also concentrating really hard. He was really encouraged by how well he was doing, too. Pat said, ‘Well, man, since you’ve done so well and you feel strong, when it comes out, let’s do some gigs. How do you feel? What do you think? Maybe we can do some gigs around Manhattan?’ And Mike was, like, open to it; this is at the end when we’re all done. He had done so well. I was very hopeful; I think Mike was, too. We all felt like he was doing really well and I think he had a lot of ideas.”
The Pilgrimage sessions were “phenomenal,