Michael Brecker

(WA Records)

Review by Brad Walseth

The loss of tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker this year to a rare form of leukemia at the young age of 57 was tragic. Before passing, he was able to record one final album, "Pilgrimage," enlisting some of his musical friends to assist him. These friends include John Patitucci on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau on piano and Pat Metheny on guitar. With this stellar crew backing him, Brecker shows no sign of the illness that eventually would kill him, but plays with the fire and intelligence that always marked his best work. That it would be his last seems only to heighten the intensity and all players come through with some of the sharpest ensemble playing of the year.

Patitucci and DeJohnette form one of the most vibrant rhythm sections ever. Their interplay doesn't detract from the overall sound, but at times is jaw dropping in the energy they produce as a unit. Hancock and Mehldau both provide exceptional support on the piano, with Hancock again reminding why, when focused, he is perhaps the preeminent jazz pianist of the current generation. But it is Metheny who really surprises with some of the best playing of his career. Playing it mostly straight ahead, his sensitive mirroring of Brecker's line and counterpoint to the saxophonist's playing is impeccable. Meanwhile, Brecker's lines, which update classic Coltrane with modern post bop, funk and pop elements, are strong and rewarding; the saxophone viruoso goes out on top.

"The Mean Time" opens up with some exciting, burning and churning modern post bop. The rhythm section is hard charging, while Hancock and Metheny are simply brilliant. Brecker's lines exhibit no lack of energy and make one feel sorrow at wondering what more the saxophonist could have accomplished had he been granted more time, while at the same time appreciating what he has given us here.

The bittersweet and prescient "Five Months from Midnight" (Brecker died five months after the recording) is sad, but never maudlin, thanks in large part to the shifting rhythms, unusual changes, and unsentimental tonal choices by the soloists. Like a roller coaster, "Anagram" starts off at breakneck speed and moves through some superb changes. A true highlight, with some incendiary and memorable playing by all, especially Brecker and DeJohnette. Meanwhile, "Tumbleweed" is also one of most exciting compositions included, featuring some uncredited "African" vocals, Brecker on the EWI (electronic wind instrument) and Metheny on effected guitar, building to an explosive climax.

But it is perhaps the ballad "When Can I Kiss You Again?," written by the saxman to his children while in a medically-imposed isolation, that may haunt the most. Again, Brecker avoids the cliches and self-pity that one would expect and produces a surprisingly heart-felt and resonant composition. Metheny and Hancock play some of the most gracious and touching solos on record here, while Brecker's tough lines inspire more hope and resilience than sorrow.

Patitucci adds a killer solo on the sparkling "Cardinal Rule," while "Half Moon Lane" and "Loose Threads" showcase Brecker's influential playing style in fine and varied settings. The title track ends the album with Hancock on shimmering electric piano. Again one is startled by the lack of sentimentality; Brecker refuses to go gently into that good night, instead choosing to center his attention on a life full of great joy and accomplishment as well as pain and struggle experienced and overcome on this pilgrimage we call life. Truly a appropriate and rewarding finale to the great life and career of a very important jazz artist.

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Contact Brad Walseth and JazzChicago.net at bwalseth60@aol.com

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