Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's take a moment to remember and listen to the saxophone player Michael Brecker. He was one of the most respected and imitated sax players in recent times. He won 13 Grammy Awards - 13 of them - and he found success working in both the worlds of jazz and pop music.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Michael Brecker died earlier this year while finishing his new CD, "Pilgrimage." Journalist Ashley Kahn witnessed those sessions and has this story on Brecker's career and his final recording.

(Soundbite of music)

ASHLEY KAHN: 1969 was a magic year for music. Barriers were tumbling down. Rock groups were improvising like jazz bands, while jazz bands were exploring rock and funk rhythms.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: 1969 was also the year Michael Brecker arrived to New York City.

Mr. RAVI COLTRANE (John Coltrane's Son): He came out during a time where there was all these other strands of music happening - funk, rock and soul music -and he found a way to make his sound kind of work within those genres.

KAHN: Ravi Coltrane is the son of jazz legend John Coltrane. He knew Michael Brecker as a friend. And like generations of saxophone players, he found Brecker to be a major influence.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COLTRANE: I began studying the saxophone in the '80s. You know, there were basically a few modern-day saxophone players, you know, that most people focused on. And for those followers of Michael, you know, it sort of demanded another caliber of focus and study.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Brecker's approach to his instrument was about more than just awesome technique. He brought an intense passion that owed much to his own source of inspiration: John Coltrane.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COLTRANE: Michael Brecker is one of the most complete saxophonists of the post-John Coltrane era. And what I mean by complete is he not only understood the emotional and spiritual content of John Coltrane's music, he also dealt with it on a technical level.

(Soundbite of song, "Naima")

KAHN: That's John Coltrane playing the melody that he wrote for his first wife. In recent years, Brecker paid tribute to his mentor with his own solo version of the Coltrane ballad, "Naima."

(Soundbite of song, "Naima")

Mr. COLTRANE: That's, you know, at the core of Michael's thing. You know, his technique is highly evolved. But I don't think it's out of touch with the emotional content of the music.

(Soundbite of song, "Naima")

(Soundbite of applause)

KAHN: Throughout his career, Michael Brecker straddled opposites.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: From 1970 on, he was a leading session musician, recording with funk bands and hard-rock groups like Aerosmith, while playing with influential jazz ensembles like Steps Ahead and the Brecker Brothers.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Perhaps Brecker's most remarkable achievement was maintaining the respect of the jazz community - a world very picky with its affections - while finding success in the arena of popular music.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight")

Mr. JAMES TAYLOR (Singer, Songwriter, Guitarist): (Singing) I don't want to be lonely in time.

Mr. PAT METHENY (Guitarist, Composer): I remember it vividly.

KAHN: Guitarist Pat Metheny first heard Michael Brecker in 1972.

Mr. METHENY: I was driving a major intersection in my town, and on the radio was the James Taylor single "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." You know, I was just, like, that's the best tenor sound and best tenor conception - I mean, it's like, who is that?

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight")

Mr. METHENY: Found out, oh, that's Michael Brecker.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight")

Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) I don't want to be lonely tonight.

KAHN: Brecker and Metheny played together on a number of recordings, including Metheny's breakthrough album "80/81."

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: This past August, Michael Brecker asked Metheny to join him and an all-star lineup to record a new album. It was a small miracle the recording session even happened. For nearly two years, Brecker had been battling a cancer of the bone marrow. A transplant from his daughter enabled him to return to the studio.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: I'm really just thrilled with what he came up with. You know, knowing what he's been through this year, I mean, playing saxophone is hard. It's a very physical activity.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Brecker called the album "Pilgrimage," and it turned out to be the last album he would record. He died in January. I witnessed the recording sessions and spoke with Pat Metheny.

Mr. METHENY: Or you're playing with the guy who hasn't really played for a year. You know, I mean, and he sounds as good or better than ever. I would say that there is a new component in Mike's playing after all of this, and there's a certain kind of seriousness or value that he's putting into each gesture.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Musicians list the components of Brecker's signature sound: his rich tone, his fluid and lyrical flow, and recently, his growth as a composer. On Michael Brecker's musical farewell, one can hear all these things. What you can't hear is a sense of goodbye. "Pilgrimage" stands as one of the most energetic and welcoming albums of his career.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Ashley Kahn is the author of "The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records." Michael Brecker's new CD "Pilgrimage" has just been released. And to hear music from throughout Brecker's career and read about his best recordings, visit npr.org/music.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.