Musician Michael Brecker; Won 11 Grammy Awards

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007

Michael Brecker, 57, a bold-toned, versatile tenor saxophonist who won 11 Grammy Awards and whose work as a studio and backup musician and leader appears on thousands of recordings, died Jan. 13 at a hospital in New York. He had leukemia.

Mr. Brecker was regarded among many musicians and critics as a virtuoso of technique and melodic expression.

He adapted easily among jazz musicians of wildly different styles -- among them Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Pat Metheny and George Benson. Mr. Brecker also backed performers as varied as Frank Sinatra, Yoko Ono, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel and Joni Mitchell.

He provided memorable saxophone licks to James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," Bruce Springsteen's "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." Simon also admired Mr. Brecker's experiments with the electronic wind instrument, a hybrid of sax and synthesizer, in the late 1980s.

Mr. Brecker made his solo debut, in 1986, with a self-titled album featuring guitarist Metheny, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

The release, showcasing slower mood pieces and quicker musical flights, was named Down Beat magazine's Jazz Album of the Year and was nominated for a Grammy Award for best solo jazz instrumental.

He later won Grammys for such albums as "Don't Try This at Home" (1988) and "Infinity" (1995), the latter of which featured pianist McCoy Tyner. His last Grammy was for "Wide Angles" (2003), featuring a 15-piece orchestra he called the Quindectet.

Michael Leonard Brecker was born March 29, 1949, in Philadelphia. His father, a lawyer, played jazz piano between courtroom dates and in their home kept a Hammond B3 organ that he eventually sold to future rock star Todd Rundgren.

Brecker, who played clarinet before switching to saxophone, said his musical role models were Joe Henderson, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. He recalled a turning point in his style when he bought Coltrane's 1963 album "Live at Birdland."

"I ran home so I could play it right away, but when I heard it, I was disappointed," Mr. Brecker told the New York Times in 2001. "The music sounded harsh, and I couldn't really understand it. I thought there seemed to be too many notes lying around. I kept listening to it, though, until one day something clicked for me and the doors swung wide open."

At 19, he appeared on the album "Score" with his older brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker. Afterward, Michael Brecker left Indiana University to focus on a music career in New York.

He was mentored by trombonist Barry Rogers, who introduced him to Cajun, African and Latin rhythms. Rogers played a significant role in helping Mr. Brecker form his first group, Dreams, a rock-jazz band whose lineup included Randy Brecker, drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist John Abercrombie, keyboardist Jeff Kent and bassist Doug Lubahn.

Michael and Randy Brecker went on to play in Horace Silver's quintet and Cobham's rock-jazz fusion band Spectrum before they formed, in 1975, the Brecker Brothers jazz fusion group. Brecker Brothers recorded with saxophonist David Sanborn and other leading pop musicians.

From 1977 to 1987, the Breckers also owned a New York club called Seventh Avenue South, which became a laboratory for their music. The club was often called the birthplace of vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's jazz-rock band Steps Ahead, in which Michael Brecker also played.

Mr. Brecker formed musical partnerships with pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, among others, and toured prolifically until in May 2005 he received a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone-marrow disease that ultimately gave way to his leukemia.

Besides his brother, survivors include his wife, Susan Neustadt Brecker, whom he married in 1986, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y; two children; and a sister.

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