The amazing weekend that was IAJE did have a slight pall cast over the final evening when this announcement preceded the introduction of John Fedchock's big band: "I have some news, and it's not good. I have to report the passing of perhaps the most influential tenor saxophonist of the past thirty years.." He didn't have to say anymore. It couldn't be Sonny Rollins. because his career goes back way longer than that. It could only be Michael Brecker.
There was some hushed murmuring among the crowd, but mostly stunned silence. Sure, we knew of his illness for a long time, but I think everyone had really assumed he was at least somewhat on the road to recovery. It took a while for the news to sink in as we listened to Fedchock's band.
I first heard Michael on a recording when I was in high school; I was in one of those music clubs, and I had a bunch of free stuff coming my way, so it was like, "OK, this looks interesting and it has a saxophonist on it, so I'll try it;" I thus became the proud owner of my first Brecker Brothers recording. As I got older, and more and more into music, I found out that Michael was turning up on all kinds of recordings, both jazz and pop (the article said he appeared on over 900 records all told). I was dazzled by his technical mastery of the horn, but there was something else that made him stand out: that sound, which would be much-imitated by tenor players throughout my college career.
I was fortunate to see him six times, going back to my college days (one of the shows is documented here) and as recently as the Spring 2005 Directions in Music tour (which I wrote about here). At the Directions gig, my friend and I managed to find the stage door and wait around with a bunch of other UNT people, and we eventually got to talk to Michael for a while. I had always heard that he was quiet to the point of being shy, but he was very friendly to us and spent quite a bit of time talking. (I have a picture that my friend took on his camera phone from that night, and I really hope that the picture still exists; if so, I'll post it here.)
The influence that Michael had on not just tenor players, but jazz musicians in general, cannot be overstated. I'm glad to hear that, despite his illness, he had just finished work on what will now be his final new recording. And I realized that, as I listened to the tenor players in Fedchock's band and heard little Brecker-isms in their playing, that his music is already living on through the countless thousands who have been inspired by him. He truly is the Coltrane of his generation.
(Speaking of Coltrane, his widow Alice Coltrane, a performer in her own right, passed away over the weekend as well.)