Jazz Great Brecker: A 'Pilgrimage' Before Dying Shortly before he died, saxophonist Michael Brecker recorded one more album with some long-time collaborators. Discussing Brecker's legacy are pianist Herbie Hancock and guitarist Pat Metheny, as well as Brecker's long-time manager.
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Jazz Great Brecker: A 'Pilgrimage' Before Dying

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Jazz Great Brecker: A 'Pilgrimage' Before Dying

Jazz Great Brecker: A 'Pilgrimage' Before Dying

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You could say jazz musicians respond to two types of inspiration. The first is the muse within themselves, the one that gives birth to the musical ideas in their compositions, their solos and musical identity. The second is the unspoken communication they share with the people they make music with. Saxophonist Michael Brecker responded to both.

Brecker was a multiple Grammy winner who was respected and praised by critics and fans for his playing in a variety of jazz and pop styles. Michael Brecker died in January from leukemia - the end result of a two-year struggle against myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of cancer that affects the bone marrow. He was 57.

Shortly before he died, Brecker called up the strength to record one more album with musicians who are longtime musical partners, as well as friends.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: "Pilgrimage" is the CD. And with us in NPR's New York bureau are guitarist Pat Metheny. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. PAT METHENY (Guitarist): Great to be here.

HANSEN: And Darryl Pitt, Brecker's longtime manager and the executive producer of "Pilgrimage." Welcome to you, Darryl.

Mr. DARRYL PITT (Michael Brecker's Manager; Album Producer): Hi.

HANSEN: And musician Herbie Hancock. Thanks for coming in to the studio.

Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Musician): Glad I could make it.

HANSEN: I'm glad you could make it, too. I know you're on your way to the airport.

Pat, I'm going to start with you. Your musical association goes back with him a long time. What was it about making music with Michael Brecker that still leaves an impression on you?

Mr. METHENY: Well, I first became aware of Mike as a musician at a time when I was really beginning my own career. Mike is five years older than I am. And, you know, when I started to play concerts and gigs and stuff around Kansas City that was right around the time, you know, I was 16 or 15 years old. Mike was just arriving in New York at that time and played on that James Taylor record with that great solo in "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight."

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

Mr. JAMES TAYLOR (Singer): (Singing) No, no. I don't want to be lonely tonight.

Mr. METHENY: And I remember vividly hearing that solo for the first time and almost having a car accident. By virtue of the fact that that was the most good notes that had ever been transmitted into everyday America's lives, you know. I mean, this was an incredible short, but really an improvisational statement.

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

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

Mr. METHENY: Who was that saxophone player? A new guy, Michael Brecker. And I became a major fan from that point. Shortly after that, a couple of years later, I started making records on my own and finally, Mike and I crossed paths. And he was a hero to me right from the beginning. But that transformed relatively quickly into a pretty meaningful musical association, I think for of us.

HANSEN: Herbie Hancock, what do you think he brought out in your playing? His compositions, what do you think they brought out in your playing?

Mr. HANCOCK: First of all, his compositions are - they're always a challenge, there's a series of interesting ideas, you know, one after the other, after the other, after the other. You know what is does for me? It stimulates me. It stimulates my own creativity.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Pat, you wrote in the tribute to him: the most treacherous location in the jazz world was to be a bandstand as the guy who has to play the solo right after Mike Brecker.

Mr. METHENY: And of course I say that with a smile on my face, but at the same time, you know, a real intimacy with having been in that position. And, you know, somehow everything that's happened is so Brecker-esque. In the sense that the ending of this solo, his existence on Earth, was classic Brecker, you know. I mean, you know, there's no way anybody can ever follow this in the jazz world.

I mean, you know, it's - to have played at the level that he played under the conditions that he played under on this record will be one thing. To play like that under any conditions would be another thing. And then to add to that, to write the music that he wrote for this thing. It's just kind of unbelievable, and I use that term in the literal sense, as his playing was, as he was.

It all goes together so perfectly as the classic Brecker wrap-up, you know. I witnessed that sort of as the guy that had to play after him so many times. And, you know, the benefit of it is that it makes you yourself dig deep, you know, you just want to try to be something like that.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Darryl Pitt, his strength in this recording - and knowing how ill he Was, to summon up that strength - to play that well when he was undergoing his medical treatments, what kind of talks did you two have when you were planning this record?

Mr. PITT: We went to lengths, Mike and I went to lengths, to not let the musicians know how sick he really was. He didn't want the guys to be focused on the extent of how sick he was. And he put on a game face and then there'd be a side where he'd steal me aside and go, I'm really having trouble. And I was like, what can I do to help? And he's like, no, just stay here, you know, I'll be okay. And - because he really wanted the guys to just feel the music and have the freedom and creativity to do what it is that they all do so magnificently well.

HANSEN: Herbie Hancock, what was the session like for you knowing how ill he was and what it was taking for him to play?

Mr. HANCOCK: When we actually got in to record, I didn't want to be thinking about him being sick while I'm trying to make music. Not anything, but he didn't look sick. He looked healthy and he looked well, and the color was back in his cheeks. And the main thing is he was completely alive, you know. He wasn't a dying man, he was alive, you know. And listen to him - listen to the record, obviously he's alive, you know. That record is alive, a hundred percent or more alive Michael Brecker.

The only thing I could think of in the back of my mind realizing what a tremendous struggle he was waging was that I wanted to make sure that I gave him the very best that I could give.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Darryl Pitt, how difficult was it for you in the studio knowing that you'd been Mike's friend for a really, really long time, knowing how difficult this session was for him physically, but what was it like for you emotionally?

Mr. PITT: You're almost evoking tears now. It was a collision of so many feelings. I was ecstatically happy and scared, filled with wonder and awe, and so many things - sadness, you know.

HANSEN: Yeah. It must have been tough, too.

Mr. PITT: It was extremely tough. But I found a way to distract myself during the thing.

Mr. METHENY: You know, also, just one more word about the sessions. You know, it was the summer, it was - we were in a beautiful recording studio that had lots of sunlight, and all of our kids were there running around, and we had great dinners.

Mr. PITT: Right.

Mr. METHENY: And I remember Mike saying to me just before, he said, you know, sometimes when I make records I really struggle with it. He said, I just want to have fun this time. And he really enjoyed it. We all had such a great time. I mean...

Mr. PITT: Yeah.

Mr. METHENY: You know, as much as the sort of back story of this sort of paints a certain picture, the reality was it was a great time. One of the greatest times I think we all ever had together.

Mr. PITT: Yeah.

Mr. METHENY: And, I mean, you know this is a real community of musicians; we've all played together in lots of different situations. And it was a very joyous occasion for all of us. And I think that's also there on the record and, you know, that's a really great thing to know about all this.

HANSEN: Darryl, when did Mike know the album was done? When did he stop putting his fingerprints all over it?

Mr. PITT: He told me it was - it was actually four days before he died. And he said, okay, that's it. And I said, again, just to make sure, you see, there's no fixes here, there's no overdubs, because there was a discussion about having percussion overdubs. And I think he goes, no, that's it. And that was on a Tuesday.

And on Thursday, he was back in the hospital. And feeling fine for someone who's sick, but, you know, bouncing around in bed and walking around, we're walking around and talking. And on Friday, he was dying; it was a very precipitous ending. In my mind, there can't help but be a connection of, okay, the record is done, and now, I am too.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Guitarist Pat Metheny, thank you.

Mr. METHENY: Thank you.

HANSEN: Pianist Herbie Hancock, thank you.

Mr. HANCOCK: Thank you.

HANSEN: And executive producer Darryl Pitt, thank you.

Mr. PITT: Thanks.

HANSEN: Michael Brecker's CD "Pilgrimage" is on the Heads Up label. You can hear clips from the CD, as well as extended excerpts of our conversation with Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Darryl Pitt on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR's Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen.

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