Recording of May 2007: Pilgrimage

Michael Brecker Pilgrimage
Michael Brecker, tenor sax, EWI; Pat Metheny, guitars; Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, keyboards; John Patitucci, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
Heads Up International HUCD 3095 (CD). 2007. Michael Brecker, Gil Goldstein, Steve Rodby, Pat Metheny, prods.; Darryl Pitt, exec. prod.; Joe Ferla, eng. DDD. TT: 77:57
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

When, following the superb Wide Angels (2003), recorded with his 15-piece Quindectet, Michael Brecker decided to end his long-term contract with Impulse!/Verve and hook up with Heads Up International, part of his goal was to adventurously expand his repertoire in a jazz direction more oriented toward world music—specifically, an album influenced by Bulgarian music, which had forced him to harmonically reconceptualize how he played his tenor sax. However, his Bulgarian speed-jazz project, which was to include Bulgarian artists, was shelved in 2005 when Brecker was stricken with the rare bone-marrow cancer Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which ultimately led to his death, at 57, in early January 2007.

Despite long periods of complete inactivity enforced by the severity of MDS, Brecker found pockets of time to begin working on a compositional journey that would entail the enlistment of some trusted longtime collaborators, including guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Herbie Hancock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Pianist Brad Mehldau alternates with Hancock, and bassist John Patitucci anchors the entire album. Initially titled This Just In, this appropriately changed to Pilgrimage following Brecker's death, the CD, released four months after that passing, is Brecker's brilliant final hurrah, a nine-tune swan song written and recorded in his last few months. Well aware that this could indeed be his ultimate outing, Brecker meticulously composed music that teems with complex arrangements and a soulful urgency in which every note counts.

Brecker didn't quite complete the project. He recorded and mixed all of the tracks but was unable to master them, a task painstakingly carried out after his death by coproducers Metheny, Gil Goldstein, and Steve Rodby, executive producer Darryl Pitt, and engineer Joe Ferla. Their labor of love and dedication to detail makes Pilgrimage a sonic treat that wholly reveals the crystal in Brecker's clarion sound. Also impressive is the impeccable instrumental mix: each player is given equal weight, most notably Patitucci's affective mélange of bass lines and grooves. Case in point: his slow, sad steps on the melancholic ballad "When Can I Kiss You Again."

The performances are inspired. All participants rise to the occasion, obviously fired up that Brecker had new musical ideas and was healthy enough to express and document them. Although Pilgrimage features, in essence, a studio supergroup, the cumulative effect is that of a celebratory band with a deeply ingrained improvisational chemistry. The playing is lofty—everyone listens and responds, spurring each other on and clearing the sound space for instrumental showcasing.

On many tracks, the operative word is uptempo. The album opens with the robust "The Mean Time," which features Hancock's unmistakable dashes across the keys, Metheny's soft-toned but molten droplets of glee, and Brecker's fine-tuned excitement. "Anagram" has irregular tempos, but its gallop carries the day as Brecker ecstatically wafts articulate leads above Patitucci's imaginative bass lines, which move from a walking gait to reflective pulses. In "Tumbleweed," Metheny leaps, rolls, and somersaults on his synth guitar, and rocks with a trace of funk.

While Pilgrimage afforded Brecker the rhythmic license to juxtapose sounds and colors in his time-shifting flights, the saxophonist also gave himself ample space to muse, including his inspired end statement on "Cardinal Rule," and his moving prelude on "Pilgrimage," on which Hancock dances on electric keys.

The most remarkable characteristic of Pilgrimage is how potent and flawless Brecker's performance is, given how ill he was. He's absolutely fierce in his blowing, wailing on "Tumbleweed" and, on the playful, midtempo "Loose Threads," elatedly sketching an angular architecture while bursting at the seams with gravity-defying buoyancy. Purportedly, after completing one tune in the session, Hancock expressed amazement at Brecker's strength and stamina, then joked, "Hey, I thought you've been sick." In an interview, Mehldau observed that Brecker's vital and at times intense playing didn't reflect ill health. In reality, according to those close to the sessions, much of the time Brecker was playing in pain. You can hear and feel that in his horn.

Over time, Michael Brecker will be counted among the few giants in the jazz pantheon as the singular-voice tenor saxophonist who took the baton from his mentor, John Coltrane.

Throughout his career Brecker made many excellent recordings, beginning in the mid-'70s as a member of the Brecker Brothers, the seminal skunk-funk fusion band. Later, during his stint at Verve, he sought to establish a closer musical connection to Coltrane, first by linking up with Trane's pianist, McCoy Tyner, for his 1995 masterwork, Tales from the Hudson. He then furthered the connection by employing Trane's drummer, Elvin Jones, for Time Is of the Essence (1999). The Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (2001) was inspired by Coltrane's classic Ballads. Other Coltrane projects ensued, including Brecker's collaboration with Hancock on Directions in Music: Celebrating Miles Davis & John Coltrane (2002, Verve), and the Saxophone Summit project with Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman, which focused on Coltrane's later material and resulted in Gathering of Spirits (2004, Telarc).

While he carried on the Coltrane tradition in a respectful way, Michael Brecker did so in his own distinctive voice. That voice is in full frontal view on Pilgrimage, a captivating disc of jazz elevated to a fine art, and the apex of a too-short career.—Dan Ouellette