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Michael Brecker, shown at a New York rehearsal for his final recording, “Pilgrimage,” in 2006, died of leukemia in 2007.
Courtesy of Marsalis Music
Jazz musicians Joey Calderazzo (left) and Branford Marsalis, who have made music together for years, were “great friends” with Michael Brecker, said his widow, Susan.
Friday, March 22, 2013
In the world of tenor saxophone, Michael Brecker is an immortal.
The 15-time Grammy winner put his combination of sound, technique and style to work as a sideman to such artists as Charles Mingus, Willie Nelson, Parliament, Jaco Pastorius, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Arturo Sandoval, Carly Simon, James Brown and more in a list that could stretch for the rest of this space.
He and his trumpet playing brother Randy led The Brecker Brothers, a phenomenal jazz-funk outfit. Michael Brecker was part of Steps Ahead, yet another revered jazz act. And leading his own bands, he made 10 musically influential and critically lauded albums, including his double Grammy-winning final work, "Pilgrimage."
But Brecker, like all of us, was mortal. He wrote and recorded "Pilgrimage" as he was dying of leukemia, barely able to move but still able to play. Even though thousands of jazz fans and friends had donated cheek swabs in hopes of finding Brecker a bone marrow match, none was found. He died on Jan. 13, 2007. He was 57.
Those thousands of cheek swabs created a legacy, one that his wife, Susan Brecker, and jazz giants Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo hope to build on Friday night at Jefferson Center. They need your help.
"More To Live For: An Evening Inspired By The Life Of Michael Brecker" brings the jazz, courtesy of pianist Calderazzo and saxophonist Marsalis. It brings a documentary, "More To Live For," which follows the stories of three men, including Brecker, who needed bone marrow transplants to defeat leukemia (see the trailer via youtu.be/EPHljNdPGFc). And it features cheek swabbing for the International Bone Marrow Registry.
Brecker's widow will be at Jefferson Center with a mission. Susan Brecker, who co-produced the documentary, said that her family's search for a match for Michael has already saved lives. In Israel, for example, the so-called "Michael Brecker pool" of swabs has led to at least 24 matches.
"We had hoped that we would find Mike's match, but in the process, we were able to find matches for other people, which is quite a legacy for Michael and for our family," she said. "We are very humbled by the response that we got and by the fact that people's lives are being saved."
Sax and family
Jazz and pop players, fans and critics knew Michael Brecker as a player and composer of rare talent and influence.
"Having taken a deep understanding of John Coltrane's saxophone vocabulary and applied it to music that merged with mainstream culture - particularly jazz fusion and singer-songwriter pop of the 1970s and '80s - Mr. Brecker spread his sound all over the world," Ben Ratliff of the New York Times wrote in his obituary.
But he was also deeply devoted to his family, Susan Brecker said.
"He was an amazing father," she said. "He was a very loving guy. And even though he had prominence on the world stage, his favorite thing was being home with his family. He really treasured that time.
"He had an amazingly acute sense of humor, so it was really fun to be around him. He was funny and smart and charming. And you know, we were really happy for 25 years."
Brecker was determined to work through his illness to finish "Pilgrimage."
"It was about passion," she said. "Michael loved making music, and he wrote every tune on the record, so he was very involved in the music writing, even from the hospital. He would write to his producers ... and make charts and listen to the demos in the hospital room, when he was gravely ill."
The documentary includes scenes from both his final studio sessions and final times at home with his family. And it shows that donating a cheek swab, even donating the marrow itself, is simple for the donor.
"For most of us, the match is available somewhere," Susan Brecker said. "Somebody is carrying that special lineup of leukocytes that will save our lives. But you don't know when you're going to need it, so that's the motivation behind making the movie and testing people.
"It's an insurance policy for the world - not just you and your family but for everyone."
Michael Brecker heard a young Calderazzo playing piano with a college jazz band and "flipped ... astounded by Joey's talent," Susan Brecker said. And he called on Calderazzo to play piano with him.
"And they became fast friends," she said. "And Joey has remained a very important and dear friend of mine."
Marsalis, who like Michael Brecker comes from a musical family that includes a trumpet-playing brother, was also "great friends" with the tenor sax man, Susan Brecker said.
Marsalis and Calderazzo have worked together for years and in 2011 released a duo album, "Songs of Mirth and Melancholy."
"Joey always said if I need him or want him to play in conjunction with the film, that he'd be happy to ... and Branford's such an unbelievable horn player, it just seemed right," Susan Brecker said. "And they both immediately said yes. They were thrilled to come."
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