Category: Brecker, Michael

Mike Brecker: Music Is What I Do!

michaelBreckerHere is a cool 1973 Downbeat interview with Michael Brecker when he and his brother Randy were with the Horace Silver Quintet that I found this posted on the Mosaic Records blog, which always has cool postings. From the interview conducted by Herb Nolan:

“Actually, I never really studied music in school and I never went to music school, but I did have some really good teachers…

“Most of what I’ve learned, I’ll have to admit, comes from listening to records and from a few people in New York who really influenced me a lot like Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman. There are some other guys in New York nobody knows about who I think are great. I love the way they play. Bob Berg, a tenor player, is one, and Bob Mover, alto, who’s playing with Mingus now, he’s really good.”

Click here to read Mike Brecker: Music Is What I Do!

—Peter Blasevick


Michael Brecker at North Texas State University in 1984

Here is a really cool four part video interview with the late, great saxophonist Michael Brecker. It is kind of a hybrid interview/lecture that includes performances, and it has plenty of Michael discussing his influences and the like. He even sits behind the drums and plays a tune with the band!

Michael Brecker with David Demsey 1987

Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dr. David Demsey, the Coordinator of Jazz Studies and curator of the Living Jazz Archive at William Paterson University. He was kind enough to chat with me for a couple of hours and show me around the archive and some of their major collections (Clark Terry, Thad Jones, James Williams, etc). Seeing a few pages from Clark Terry’s 1960 appointment and address book was worth the trip alone!

When the topic of this blog came up, he mentioned that he had done an interview with his good friend the late Michael Brecker for a 1987 issue of Saxophone Journal and offered it to me to post here. Below find the original interview along with a short tribute piece added after Brecker passed. Thanks David!




Michael Brecker: 

Reprint of a 1987 SJ interview, with an added tribute

3454 words

David Demsey

I first learned about Michael Brecker’s untimely death in surreal surroundings: in the middle of the exhibit floor at the International Association for Jazz Education convention in New York City.  I was with Jerome Selmer and sax technician Roberto Romeo, owner of Roberto’s Woodwinds, who has many associations with Mike; we stood only feet from Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Hal Galper, and many other individuals who knew Mike nearly all of his adult life.  Although Mike has musically influenced most of the literally thousands of musicians who were in attendance at that convention, those who knew him best spoke first ab out what an incredibly loving, giving, warm and open person he was.  He was a true musical giant and saxophone titan, but he also had the rare gift of making so many feel as though they were his close friend, and they were.

I first met Mike in 1978.  I was a 22-year-old grad student at Juilliard, introduced to him by our mutual teacher, the great Joe Allard.  Listening to the Brecker Brothers, live and recorded, I had already been blown away by Mike’s sound and ideas.  It was hero worship at first.  At that point, Mike was at the center of the New York recording scene, playing with everyone from Jaco Pastorius to Frank Zappa and Yoko Ohno, co-owner of the Seventh Avenue South jazz club.  He could easily have brushed me off.  Instead, my naive questions were met with just the right answers from Mike.  In an early conversation, I blurted out that I was transcribing all of his solos, that I loved his playing, that I was trying to emulate him.  He thanked me, but told me not to do that.  I was stunned – why not?  I’ve quoted his reply to countless students since then: “If you just listen to me, you’ll get to be my age and sound like an imitator; but if you listen to who I’ve listened to, you’ll become my peer.”  It was an amazing, life-changing statement.

Our relationship continued after I moved to my first teaching job in 1980 at the University of Maine at Augusta.  I worked with him to bring his groups to Maine twice, first with Steps Ahead, then to perform his first major concert as a bandleader in March 1987.  Each of those visits was filled with still memorable conversations that continued to point me in a better direction as a player and as a person.  His daughter, Jessica, is a year apart in age from my daughter Laura, and he always loved to compare notes, always wanted to see Laura when we came to his gigs and was amazed by her growth and maturity, and expressed his delight and amazement with his own daughter.

Here is a great, little-known example of Michael Brecker’s personal strength and integrity: Mike was scheduled to open at the New York jazz club Iridium with his band on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the day of the Trade Center disaster.  That night, of course, the club and the entire city shut down – but he did open two nights later, insisting that “we have to show the world that this is what we do in New York, that our city is still alive.”  He played the rest of the week gratis, donating the entire proceeds to the Red Cross.  I was there one of those nights, sitting with some people from his management office, his wife Susan, and less than ten others.  Outside, the city still smelled of burning jet fuel and other even more horrible things, the usual roar of Broadway in Times Square was completely silent except for a few security motorcades speeding across town – and the music downstairs in the club was absolutely unforgettable.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have known Mike Brecker as long as I did, and to have gained so much from him as a person and as a musician.  It’s rare in life to have a true mentor, and when that person also exerted a great musical influence, the connection is all the more precious.


This article was published in the Fall/Winter 1987 Saxophone Journal, from a lengthy session with Mike that previous summer.  I still learn from the recording of this conversation.  Unlike many interviews, this discussion covered much more meaningful material than simply talking about a new project.  This was a crucial time in Mike’s life and career, for several reasons.  He had recently married his wife Susan, and his first solo album was about to be released (Michael Brecker, MCA/Impulse 5980).  He had just undertaken a switch to the Guardala mouthpiece that he would use for the rest of his life, and he was beginning his work with the EWI.  Aside from these topics, we also discussed his practice methods, his early life and musical roots, his views on the pervasive influence he had on other players, and his advice to young musicians on developing their own sound.  Perhaps because of the “timeless” quality of much of the subject matter, this article has been highlighted as one of Mike Brecker’s important interviews; it is listed as a bibliographic entry in the “Michael Brecker” article in both editions of the Grove’s Dictionary of Jazz.


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Michael Brecker is one of today’s most influential saxophonists.   His music and his improvisations command the eager attention of legions of young musicians.  He has also been one of the most labeled, or rather mislabeled musicians of the day.  From his earliest recordings with the New York-based Dreams, with drummer Billy Cobham and with the Brecker Brothers (co-led with his brother Randy), Mike was branded a “fusion” player.  For a period, each new release seemed to be an excuse for a flurry of critical verbiage condemning the fusion movement.  These critics, however, failed to recognize what many musicians (saxophonists in particular) had noticed: that Brecker had taken the very significant step of recombining the heritage of the jazz saxophone, particularly the harmonic concepts of John Coltrane, with a rhythm and blues style.  Before his first solo album, there were only a few recorded examples of the jazz, or acoustic side of Michael Brecker.  New York club audiences were among the few lucky ones to hear him away from the commercial environment of the 70s studio scene.  An example: what was originally vibist/composer Mike Mainieri’s quintet (with Brecker, Steve Gadd, bassist Eddie Gomez and pianist Don Grolnick) was born in the Greenwich Village club scene as a “recreational” release from commercial pressures.  This group took the name Steps and released three hard-to-find acoustic jazz albums before negotiating an American record contract as Steps Ahead, then moving to a more electric/digital direction.

Our conversation for this interview took place in the music studio of Michael’s Lower East Side Manhattan apartment, which he now shares with his new wife, Susan.  We sat among the subjects of our talk: tapes of the new album, Mike’s practice setup, reeds and mouthpieces, a wall of albums and tapes, and his new focus, the EWI.  The conversation began with the subject of his first solo album, and the reasons for such a long wait to record as a leader.

“To be honest, I never felt ready.  I had offers, actually, for quite a few years from different companies and always put them on the shelf because I had other projects happening.  And I think that there was a certain underlying amount of fear stopping me.  I finally felt ready this year and an offer came from Ricky Schultz, who has been a prime mover in the reemergence of MCA Impulse as a jazz label.  He started to talk and I felt like the label was right for me.

“Without describing the music too much, it is basically a ‘jazz’ record, whatever that means anymore.  It’s pretty acoustic…we went for a ‘live’ recording, less produced….we left a lot of space for playing.  With the advent of new technology, there’s a tendency to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, to use tons of different sounds.  These records are not listenable after the first few times.  There’s no mystery left.  I wanted to make an album that withstood many listenings; always exposing new things, with something left to the imagination.  That’s what I feel we’ve accomplished here.  We got together every day and experimented.  Once we had everything mapped out, the trick was to keep it loose and not over-arrange it.  With musicians of this caliber, the idea was to allow them to really improvise.”

Now that Michael spends more time on the road with numerous groups and is planning additional travels with his own band, the way he uses his time at home in New York is changing, both in the recording studio and in his practice studio.

“There’s no typical day, much to my chagrin, because I sometimes have a craving for a schedule.  That doesn’t exist.  It’s different every day and different every week.  It used to be I’d get a lot of calls through an answering service.  I’d be told there’s such and such a company that needs me from 11:00 to 12:00.  I’d show up, do what was required, then leave.  The only procedure was that you get there on time and have your instrument ready to go.  There’s a lot less studio work now, though, and that’s right on time for me, because I don’t wish to be in the studios that much right now.  There was a time, particularly in the late 70s, when there was a tremendous amount of recording going on.

“When I’m at home, my practicing goes in phases.  I don’t have a real practice routine.  I do warm-ups and I do overtone exercises.  then I work on interval-type things, some scales, some changes, composing and the EWI.  I play with a metronome; ii-V’s with the beats on two and four, to simulate a rhythm section.  It’s looser that way,  I’m very conscious of time.  I have great difficulty if someone is trying to swing and it doesn’t lay right.  I take it very seriously.

“I get into periods of practicing and periods where I don’t have the time.  I’m not a real disciplined person and never have been.  At one time I was amazingly driven, and I’m not saying that was particularly healthy either.  What I’m looking for now is to try and get a balance happening where I’m not obsessed or driven in music or other areas, and just to try and keep myself centered.  There are times when I can’t practice, and sometimes those are my most creative times.  That can’t continue indefinitely though!  It doesn’t work that way!  Sometimes things I practice don’t come out in my playing for months.  And sometimes they never come out.  It’s an interesting process.

“I’ve put myself through some chops changes over the last few years.  I’m trying to stand a little differently, trying to concentrate on playing softer, and not exerting myself as much but getting the same intensity.  I’ve done various things with my chops, and I’m also using a different mouthpiece.  Right now, I’m playing a mouthpiece by Dave Guardala. Dave and I spent a lot of time with different facings and we came up with something that works for me.  Some of my needs are possibly different than other saxophone players because I have some problems with my throat.  I needed something that was not a real resistant mouthpiece which gave me a sound that had a nice center with no ceiling on it.  I’m going for a very warm, dark sound that still allows for clear and responsive articulation.  Dave’s spent a lot of time researching and he’s very dedicated.  He has, in certain ways, saved my playing life.  I’m even able to play ballads now!  I was actually shying away from them because I didn’t like my sound.  I once played Otto Links and still love them, especially for certain very true sounds, but they’re too resistant for my throat.”

The influence of Michael’s sound upon the saxophone world is profound.  Reviewer and critics often use terms like “Breckerish” to describe new players.  I wondered whether Mike was aware of the number of players whose styles he has deeply affected.

“No, I don’t think I’m aware of it.  It feels a little unnerving, scary and also flattering.  For me, borrowing is important.  Improvising and playing jazz is kind of like learning a language.  Transcribing things is important for me, although I never transcribed many whole solos.  I took off phrases and I still do that.  I’ll take something off a record and somehow make it my own or change it a little bit.  I still try to learn phrases in all keys.

“Improvisation for me has been a process of gradually piecing things together without doing it too mechanically.  If I learn something, I almost try to forget it later, while playing only parts of it and mixing it with other things, and it comes out in a kind of style.  When I first started playing tenor, I was listening heavily to Coltrane for a number of years, but I eventually had to go back and start finding out what was happening before him.  That took me to Charlie Parker and before that.  Lately, actually, I’ve been buying recordings by Louis Armstrong.  My favorite players, the people I listen to, are all very aware of time.  I don’t mind hearing strange notes if it’s swinging, but all of the right notes, if it’s not laying right, I can’t listen to.  It drives me crazy.

“If you want to sound like a particular player, don’t listen to that person solely.  Listen to the players that person listens to.  When I go to schools, I find younger players that have listened to me and emulated my style, without having gone back and heard where that came from.  Pretty much everything I play comes from sources before me.  I strongly urge younger players to go back and check out all of the great, vast recorded history of jazz players on every instrument, as well as the new players.  I’d encourage checking out everything; going back and listening to as much as possible of all the great masters.

Observations on the value of listening to other players, and the process of learning to improvise, prompted Michael to reflect on his own development.  His beginnings as a youngster outside of Philadelphia found him in a musical family.  His father, an attorney, is a very talented jazz pianist; his sister is a brilliant classical pianist, and brother Randy’s talents on the trumpet are well known.  Michael’s first exposure was gained listening to jam sessions at his home, hosted by his father.  Michael was attracted to the clarinet at once, and began his musical study at age seven on this instrument.

“I was studying with Leon Lester, who was in the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I had a good teacher; I was not a good clarinetist.  I chose the clarinet because I liked the way it looked, but my heart was always in the saxophone and my roots were always jazz.  When I was playing clarinet I was not able to make it do what a saxophone could do (of course, I was only nine years old).  My influence at that time was Jimmy Giuffre, and I learned a solo of his when I was eight or nine.  The way I got his recorded sound was by playing into a big brass trash can that gave me reverb.  I eventually stopped playing for a while, and got into sports and other things that kids do.  I got back into it when my brother bought me a Cannonball Adderley record, Live at the Workshop, with the tune ‘Jive Samba.’  That did it!  It was off to the races.  I had a couple of Music Minus One play-along records, way back before Jamey Aebersold was doing it.  It was Gigi Gryce on alto with a rhythm section on one side, and rhythm section minus sax on the other side, which was a neat idea.  I’d hear him play and then I’d turn it over and try and do it.  I was in high school at this point, and started studying with Vince Trombetta, who was very influential in my growth.  He taught me how to play the saxophone and had me switch to tenor.  At that point I started to play jazz around Philadelphia with a  drummer named Eric Gravatt, who later went on to play with Weather Report.  Occasionally, I played with my brother when he came home from Indiana University.

“There were no classical influences when I was a kid.  Later on, when my sister grew up, I was hearing her classical piano every day, and hearing Randy.  I went to Indiana University briefly, and was briefly exposed to a lot there.  Later, I studied flute classically, but my conception really changed from hearing the virtuoso players in the New York studios.  I also have been studying composition for a while now.

“Most of my main influences have been jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, pop and some Indian music.  It’s endless.  I think that my sound is just a culmination of a lot of playing, a lot of taking risks, and a lot of recording and hearing myself back while experimenting with different microphones and their placement; using the studio as an instrument.

The variety of sounds that have come to be expected from Michael Brecker have evolved (with some exceptions on soprano sax and flute) around the tenor saxophone, until recently.  His new focus is the application of digital electronics for wind players, in the form of what is officially called the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).  It is heard on small portions of his first solo album, as well as on Steps Ahead’s release Magnetic.  It was invented by west coast musician and electronics whiz Nyle Steiner.  The original unit is custom made.  It is its own self-contained two-oscillator synthesizer.  It has the same fingerings as a saxophone, but with eight octave rollers for the left thumb and U-shaped pitch-band device for the normally inactive right thumb.  Vibrato is controlled in the mouthpiece, and added air pressure increases volume and adds upper overtones.  The keys are touch-sensitive, with no moving mechanisms.

Mike proceeded to put the EWI through its paces in a mind-boggling flurry of acrobatics.  As he described the workings of the system, it became apparent that current keyboard synthesizers may prove to be only the primitive beginnings of a much more expansive wind-triggered generation.

“For wind players, this is a big step into the future.  This instrument feels reminiscent of a saxophone, but I’d prefer that it doesn’t feel like a saxophone because it isn’t.  I love the way this thing feels.  You can go straight into an amp and speakers from the EWI, or MIDI it to other synthesizers, like the Oberheim Expander that I use.  You can program strength of articulation, etc., but I leave all of the filters wide open so that I can determine the sound because the mouth is the most natural envelope.  If I want a little articulation, I just tongue lightly, like a real instrument.  There are no other adjustments to make.

“I’ve been into programming the Expander, and I’ve found a way to play polyphonically!  I practically fell out of my chair when this happened a few months ago.  It’s very hard to explain; it’s voices moving within zones, six independently moving non-parallel voices.  I can’t sit here and play “Stella By Starlight,” but I can come up with some pretty out things.  Each patch is certain color of chord voicings that are revolving and alternating.  It’s incredible and it’s made the last two years very exciting musically.  It gave me an area to go where I can make all of these other sounds my imagination can dream up.  Coming back to the saxophone is such a freeing, great feeling.  A saxophone is acoustic, and its sound can never really be reproduced.  It feels so good to vibrate that reed!”

Despite the weight of the “commercial” label attached to his playing, Michael Brecker is a musician who exudes a sense of knowledge and deep respect for the traditions in jazz, and particularly for the heritage of the saxophone.  The result of his intense practice and listening to the master improvisers of the past has brought about an ironic twist: his own playing has now become a primary focus of attention in the jazz world, and is adding to the very heritage which he has studied.