Honorable Exit

Visceral examples of what it means to be dying are relatively rare in jazz. After he was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1980s, saxophonist Stan Getz appropriated Billy Strayhorn’s elegiac “Blood Count” for his own theme song, and his final duets with pianist Kenny Barron are a gorgeous fade to black. Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin is, without question, an unflinchingly grim portrayal of the ravages of dying. But Getz and Holiday were prone to, respectively, muted melancholy and emotional sadomasochism throughout their careers. And one imagines (hopes?) that in music as in life, there is more nuance and variation to the process of dying than the stereotypical dolor.


Bottom line: For a variety of reasons, it’s exceedingly difficult to create an honorable and emblematic capstone to your own career. That’s why Pilgrimage, by the late tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, is such a rare marvel, and the most magical musical pleasure I’ve heard thus far in 2007.

At the risk of sounding morbidly glib, Brecker, who died in January at age fifty-seven, was perfectly positioned to unfurl a durably splendid swan song. His career arc had already passed through a self-destructive period involving substance abuse—he’d come clean nearly a quarter-century ago while still in his thirties, and in turn had extended his hand to help countless others do the same (among them, the folk singer James Taylor). Brecker also didn’t want for critical acclaim or financial reward: Before Pilgrimage, he’d won eleven Grammys and appeared on literally hundreds of high-profile, major-label recordings.

In addition, although Brecker had known for months that he had a rare form of bone-marrow cancer, the disease wouldn’t necessarily be a death sentence if he could find a suitable stem cell donor. Consequently, instead of an extended epitaph, Brecker spent most of the early part of 2006 engaged in a more exotic Bulgarian music project. Then, perhaps because his health took a turn for the worse, his focus suddenly shifted. “Mike wrote the material for the record fairly quickly,” says John Patitucci, the bassist on Pilgrimage (and Wayne Shorter Quartet member) who was a longtime friend of Brecker.

Everything clicked into place. As a renowned mensch with a sterling resumé, Brecker could assemble a stunning array of players intimately familiar with his work: guitarist Pat Metheny, pianists Herbie Hancock and relative newcomer Brad Mehldau, drummer Jack DeJohnette and Patitucci. “We were all on call for months,” says Patitucci. “There was so much love for Mike in that room, so much emotional support.”

And here’s the magic: Despite tremendous discomfort and physical weakness to the point where he required a cane, Brecker has rarely if ever sounded so vibrant on the saxophone. Over the years, the lone flaw that kept him ranked a notch below the likes of Rollins, Shorter, and his idol Coltrane was a rigorous devotion to technique at the expense of open-ended, infectious emotion. Detailed, disciplined, and clinically thorough, it’s not surprising Brecker once considered a career in medicine. Still, it’s these qualities that prevent Pilgrimage, despite its melodramatic circumstances, from stooping to cheap, maudlin sentiment—even on a ballad entitled “When Can I Kiss You Again?” (the question Brecker’s son asked during his father’s radiation treatments). And at the same time, there is uncharacteristic, uncommonly beguiling emotion from Brecker, which seems to stem as much from surmounting the circumstances of illness as from the implacable illness itself. ,P.
The first song explodes from the gate, the rhythm supple and gamboling, the melody light-hearted, even as the composition becomes more complex. Brecker, who loved his titles to have multiple interpretations, called it “The Mean Time.” Other songs feature stark, pensive interludes between serpentine, muscular unison arrangements that require the enormous available talent to execute properly (Metheny and DeJohnette, in particular, sound more agile and alert than they have in years).

Pilgrimage was the first of his recordings on which Brecker composed every song. It contains depth in so many facets—the bold yet meticulous compositions that gush, wend into subtle crevices, and merge with innovative scholarship; the abundance of talent on hand and the longstanding love and experience they shared as a working ensemble; the fecund emotions related to Brecker’s health that were at once so palpable and unforced.

At Metheny’s suggestion, Brecker’s original title, This Just In, was scrapped in favor of Pilgrimage, the name of the disc’s closing tune, and the last song recorded. As with all the others, it has a lot of subtlety but no artifice or intrusive self-consciousness. It doesn’t cater to the fears, ignorance, or petty titillations of others because it is consumed in a fight for life that defines death, without the bullshit. An artist can’t force this kind of magic—just work, wait, and hope—but we know it when we see it or hear it. Dying of cancer, Michael Brecker created his best for last.

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