Michael Brecker: Testament, The Story Behind His Last Album

JAZZIZBrecker

JAZZIZ Magazine, June, 2007

Most jazz recordings are little more than souvenirs, true-color snapshots of moments in the music’s history and in artists’ careers. Michael Brecker’s Pilgrimage (Heads Up) is a different matter.

Recorded over four days in August 2006, and mixed shortly after Brecker succumbed to leukemia on January 13, at the age of 57, Pilgrimage is the saxophonist’s first recording entirely comprised of his original compositions. The balance between written passages and improvisational spaces suggests architectural designs rather than conventional song forms. Every musical element — the knotty melodies, laconic harmonies, and oddly metered grooves — is pared down to its essence. The music sounds both deeply felt and precisely thought out. The intensity is relentless. Unsurprisingly, nothing on Pilgrimage resolves easily or predictably. The writing is demanding — even for a group that included Pat Metheny, John Patitucci, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, and Brad Mehldau — and it elicits superior ensemble work and soloing. As for Brecker, his playing throughout is taut, eloquent, and technically stunning — illness or no illness.

Still, for all its musical achievements, what makes Pilgrimage truly transcendent is that it stands as a testament to one man’s humanity. It’s Michael Brecker fighting a losing battle and still transmuting hope, pain, love, friendship, the miseries of a broken body, and whatever comes when facing your own mortality into a profound, life-affirming statement. “There is so much life to this record,” says Metheny, one of the mainstays of the project. “Going in, I’d say to people, ‘Well, Mike’s been sick, so probably we’re going to play something sad.’ And now you hear it, and it’s bang! — maximum Mike Brecker life force. He left it all there. He left it all there.”

“I understand that the news headline is ‘Great saxophone player gets sick, makes final record,’” Metheny continues. “But then there is also the fact that this is one of the best records anybody has made in the past 15 years. Certainly it’s the best record of the past few years.”

Yet Pilgrimage was not the record Brecker planned to make — and even when it became so, it almost didn’t happen.

“Mike music”

After an enjoyable experience with the Quindectet, his 15 piece group, and the success of the band’s debut album Wide Angles (Verve, 2003), which won two Grammys, Brecker wanted to record a follow-up with the large ensemble. But it wasn’t going to be a conventional follow-up.

“Mike had been studying Bulgarian music with two guys in New York: Entcho Todorov, a violinist, and Ivan Milev, a famous accordionist and bandleader,” recalls composer, arranger, and producer Gil Goldstein, who orchestrated and co-produced the Quindectet disc and co-produced Pilgrimage. “He wanted the next record to be [composed of] these Bulgarian pieces he wanted to write. We didn’t know if it was going to be a Quindectet record. The idea went through many versions. It was always going to center on the violin. Every song was going to have violin and accordion, but maybe it was going to have vocals, maybe there was going to be a choir on some tracks. It was going to be this ethnic, Bulgarian, Eastern European-sounding project.”

Brecker was ready to go into the studio in 2004 when he became ill. He began to experience excruciating pain, which prompted surgery to repair what had been diagnosed as a broken back. A biopsy, however, revealed the bone-marrow disorder myelodysplastic syndrome. This condition eventually developed into leukemia.

In late 2005, Brecker underwent an experimental treatment at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. Then in February 2006, after a nearly three-month stay, he returned to his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

“There was a period of time, about a year ago in May,” Metheny remembers, “when he could see that he was well enough and was going to be able to record. He was bouncing back, and we all had high hopes that [the treatment] was going to be the cure or get him a whole bunch of more years. So I went to his house and he played me his Bulgarian stuff, which sounded like great, fantastic music that should get recorded at some point. But I just remember sitting on his back porch with him and [his wife] Susan, having listened to that music and knowing that he had just been through a year and a half of just hell — I mean, something beyond anything anybody should ever have to go through. And I remember talking with him and saying, ‘All this Bulgarian stuff is great, but I know that for me, as a fan, I’d just sort of like to know what’s been going on and how you feel about all of this.’ And he just sat there and looked at me like, ‘Well, I don’t even know how I feel about all this.’

“About two days later,” Metheny continues, “I got an e-mail from him saying, ‘I went downstairs and wrote three tunes last night.’ I think that conversation got the ball rolling.”

Whoever expected Brecker to make concessions to his illness or wallow in self-pity is in for a surprise. Despite the circumstances, or perhaps because of them, the music on Pilgrimage jumps off the disc with startling clarity, intensity, and focus.

Goldstein recalls a conversation with the saxophonist about writing music that would reflect his life-and-death struggle. “And Mike said, ‘Yeah, maybe you’re right, maybe I should do all ballads in minor keys.’ He turned it into a total joke. What’s he supposed to do, write sad songs?”

When he heard the new tunes, Goldstein realized that “it was a completely different music. It wasn’t Bulgarian anymore. It was ‘Mike music.’ The first song he wrote [for this disc] was the first song on the record. It was originally called “Wing and a Prayer” [now called “The Mean Time”]. Then he wrote the ballad [“When Can I Kiss You Again?”], and he just started writing. It started to seem like a different record, and the songs started to imply the players. It sounded like Pat and Jack and Herbie and John Patitucci. It almost didn’t need to be orchestrated because he had orchestrated it from the music.”

Goldstein breaks down, composes himself, then continues. “It had to be Pat, Jack, Herbie, and John. And then there was a kind of complex, modern-sounding piano style that implied Brad [Mehldau]. At some point, I called Pat. We talked about Mike, and I told him, ‘And we are also trying to make this record.’ And Pat said, ‘I’m there.’”

The recording

There were two days of rehearsal and four days of recording. Darryl Pitt, Brecker’s manager and friend, says he is “utterly convinced that it was Mike’s will to make this record, what helped keep him alive. We had to cancel the session at one point. And 24 hours before the first rehearsal, Mike talked to me about calling everybody and telling them not to come, that it was going to be cancelled. So it was a very joyous and a very fragile situation at the same time. And I told Mike, ‘You can cancel the session at any time. It could be from hour to hour.’ Everybody acknowledged that every session could, in fact, end or not even begin at any moment. I brought it up to everyone, and everyone was very understanding. It was dicey.”

Engineer Joe Ferla recalls that they were “all aware of the fact Michael was not 100 percent, so we were all sensitive to Michael needing a break or if the sessions were going too long. But these weren’t short sessions either. My recollection is that these were nine, 10-hour sessions. Michael had that energy. He was his old self.”

When Brecker showed up for the first rehearsal, “he was a little slow,” Goldstein recalls. “But as soon as he sat down and took out his horn, it was business as usual. There was not ever a sense of ‘Mike sounds a little weak.’ It wasn’t even an issue — to the point where I kind of forgot he was sick. And Mike was very vocal about the future. I remember him saying, ‘These are the next records I want to make.’ And I went, ‘Great.’ There was no talk of this being the last record.”

Furthermore, Metheny recalls Brecker telling him before they went into the studio that he really wanted to “have fun” during the sessions. “This from someone who struggled with recordings,” Metheny continues. “This is something we could both always relate to. We’re both very critical of things and ourselves. And having played on a whole bunch of Mike records, I can tell you, making records for him was a mixed bag of emotions. This time he wanted to have fun, and, you know, he really did.”

If, in fact, anyone thought this might be Brecker’s final recording, such a mindset was not apparent in the mood of the sessions.

Bassist Patitucci — who spoke of being friends with Brecker for more than 25 years and how “he and his family came to the hospital when both my daughters were born” — says everybody in the studio was excited about the recording. “There was so much support and love for Mike and the project. Of course, in the back of our minds, we knew that there was a possibility,” he says, his voice trailing off. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but during that project he did so well that I think we all really came out much more encouraged that he would beat this thing. I came away feeling so energized and with so much hope. I think you can hear that in the music — the power, the hope, the celebration. It was a very special week. The vibe at the studio was incredibly great.”

Metheny paints a scene “with everybody’s kids there, running around in this beautiful, amazing recording studio in New York. We were in the big orchestral room, and there were beautiful, sunny days, and the studio was filled with sunlight. And we had really great dinners together. It was a very happy, celebration-type atmosphere.”

He pauses, then continues. “And Mike was driving,” he says, still unbelieving. “He drove me home every day as we always did on record dates, and talked about what we did and what we needed to work on the next day. It really was Mike just being Mike.”

The music

While the recording circumstances were warm and upbeat, Metheny says the work at hand was “unbelievably hard.”

“When he sent me the book, I was ready to have a heart attack,” the guitarist recalls. “‘How am I going to learn this?’ I mean, I wasn’t thinking about memorizing it, but just being able to play it. I spent the next four or five days practicing it. The piano book Brad had, the guitar book I had, and especially the bass book that John had, was some of the hardest music I’ve ever run across.”

Patitucci concurs. “The music was challenging. There were a lot of beautiful, linear counterpoints. Mike was a great composer but was very self-effacing about it. He used to downplay it, but he was. He wrote beautifully and very carefully conceived, well-thought-out arrangements.”

Some tracks still show traces of the Balkan music project. One can hear the odd time signatures on the bridge of “Tumbleweed,” (“A complicated tune,” says Goldstein. “Ridiculously hard,” says Metheny). The vocalizing on the recording is from Brecker’s original homemade demo. “That was a sample of a real, kind of Arabic, melismatic singer,” recalls Patitucci. “We don’t know who he is. Mike just dug his sound and threw him in there. But he didn’t have any intention of leaving him in until, at the rehearsal, we all went, ‘Man, I love that guy.’ And he would say, ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah, Mike, you’d better leave him in there.’ So the cat made it onto the record.”

Patitucci also brings up “When Can I Kiss You Again?” as an example of Brecker’s emotional depth. “Obviously he is an amazing virtuoso and such a powerful player. But I always thought his ballad playing was unbelievable, so gripping. And then you learn about the title [a question from Brecker’s teenage son to his dad during one of his hospital stays, when physical contact was prohibited] and it just melts you.”

According to Goldstein, “Anagram” — an urgent, complicated, up-tempo burner — had been somewhat overlooked until Metheny tried it and loved it. “Once I heard Pat in the mix, ‘Anagram’ took on a new life. And so did other songs that really didn’t have a focus [in terms of] orchestration, like ‘Five Months From Midnight.’ It was going to be for violin and I don’t know what. But once Pat’s sound came into the mix, it was really clear what the song was about.”

But understanding the music better made it no less demanding to play. Over time, the sessions seemed to both energize and drain Brecker. He was so exhausted after recording “Tumbleweed,” Pitt recalls, “that he actually stumbled and fell in the parking lot, and Chris [Hinderaker, Pitt’s assistant] and I caught him and held him up. He was just absolutely depleted — and yet, at the same time, the [recording] process was creating so much joy for him that it gave him the strength to come back the next day. But I was fully prepared, on some level, that there was going to be an interruption, and we wouldn’t be able to continue. The intensity of the playing belies the fact of how sick he was.”

The mix

If the recording of Pilgrimage was an unexpected celebration, the editing and mixing became a painful, emotionally taxing affair.

After the initial editing, done by Steve Rodby over a two-month period, Darryl Pitt recalls: “Mike was hoping to mix, do a few fixes, and have a percussion overdub, as well as do some work on the EWI [Electronic Wind Instrument, a soprano-sax-like, wind-controlled synthesizer] far earlier, but was not able to do so as a result of illness.”

            A few days before he died, Brecker finished some EWI overdubs. He’d hoped to begin mixing at the end of January, when the principals’ schedules would coincide next.

“And suddenly Michael became very ill,” says Pitt somberly. “He went into the hospital initially to be part of a new clinical trial, and then he just began to fail very, very quickly. It was really unexpected at the end, really unexpected. Thursday, he seemingly was largely fine, getting up from the hospital bed, walking around, joking about everything under the sun. Friday he was critically ill, he had difficulty breathing. Saturday morning he died.”

“I was in total denial until the minute he left this Earth,” says Metheny. “I was maybe the last holdout. I’d keep saying, ‘No, he’s going to be fine.’ That was always my thing with him. ‘There is no way he’s going to die. It’s impossible. It can’t happen.’ So I was not ready for this at all. I actually was on to ‘Let’s do this record first, and then let’s do the Bulgarian record.’ And that’s the way Mike and I were talking right up until the week before he died.

“When Jerry [Wortman, Brecker’s friend and Metheny’s road manager] called me the night before Mike died, I was working on the tune that now is called ‘Five Months From Midnight.’ And he said, ‘You know, it’s just going to be any minute now.’ And I’m like, ‘Any minute what?’ ‘That Mike leaves.’ And I was just, ‘Nah, that’s just not going to happen. That’s not true because I’m working here on the music now. I have to get the music done.’ I was kind of crazy. I didn’t make sense. I felt if I just kept working on the music, he’d be OK.”

The mixing of the record, scheduled well in advance, began exactly two weeks and a day after Brecker’s passing.

“It was surreal, and I give the guys [Ferla, Metheny, Goldstein, and Rodby] so much credit,” Pitt says. “I wandered into the mixing room a few times, and I was just amazed that they were able to pull it off. What the guys were doing, shutting down [emotionally] to do the work they had to do — the only thing I can compare it to is what I imagine a surgeon has to do in case he finds himself in a position of having to operate on a loved one.”

Ferla, who weeks later broke down while recounting the experience, called it “probably the most difficult mix I’ve been involved with. This was not the norm. We make records with people who are alive and are there and can represent themselves. And here we are now, with someone that we loved dearly and is gone, and we are trying to represent what Michael would have wanted.”

Coda

“Even though we all knew he had been fighting for his life for the last few years, when it happened, it was still a shock because every time there was a setback, he had come through,” recalls Patitucci. “So everybody thought he’d make it through again. We didn’t want to accept that it could happen. Mike was such an extraordinary human being. His kindness, his warmth, his sense of humor — there were so many things that made Mike special. And he was such a dear, dear friend to so many of us.”

“This record was an act of love, from start to finish,” says Patitucci. “It’s about our love for Mike and his love for us all. He shared a very deep part of him on this.

“For all of us who were there, the thing that we want is for the record to touch people’s hearts. Let’s face it, the older you get as a musician, the more you realize that’s really why you do it — to touch people. You don’t do it to say ‘Check me out, I’m so bad.’ That’s not really why music is special. But when you touch people with music, it can change their awareness, it can encourage them, and it can be healing.”

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