I had the tremendous fortune of meeting saxophonist Mike Brecker – literally one of the greatest saxophonists to ever walk the face of the earth – in 1979, about six months before this album was recorded in May of 1980, and we kind of hit it off. Mike and his brother Randy came to Boston to play, I knew the cats in the band, went backstage at the pre-gig rehearsal to introduce myself, and we spoke briefly. There was a party after the gig, I tagged along and much later, ended up giving Mike a ride back to his Harvard Square hotel, in my mom’s car. We sat in the car talking until sunrise.
I was 20 years old when we met, Mike was 30 and already a giant. A warm, humble, generous giant, who talked to me and not down at me. I asked him literally every question a young saxophonist would ask a mentor, and once we got past that point, we just talked – about anything and everything. In a particularly profound moment he told me, “I’m just now getting to the point where I realize I can play, like, really play.” I was shocked. During the months that followed, whenever I left a message on his answering service, he always called back once he returned to New York. I wanted to hang with Mike any chance I could, either in Boston (my hometown) or New York, and he graciously did whatever he could to make that happen. On a number of treasured occasions, I got a chance to know Mike just enough to never forget him – may he rest in peace. Through his generosity, Mike inadvertently gifted me with the best saxophone lesson of my life:
The week before recording the 80/81 album, Pat Metheny brought the entire band, sans Dewey Redman, to Ryle’s in Cambridge (MA) to ‘rehearse’ over the course of ten shows. I was on the guest list as a personal guest of Michael Brecker. It was a blast. Lyle Mays (I’m a fan) came by to hang. Pat lobbied, unsuccessfully, to become the guitarist in the Brecker Brother’s Band. I sat front row middle, 2 shows a night, all 5 nights, Mon. – Fri. The bell of Mike’s horn pointed directly at me. The music was unfamiliar to everyone in the band except Pat. Witnessing the process of this music taking shape, powered by these gifted musicians – with particular focus on Mike’s journey from cautious sight-reading to glorious, winged flight (the end result magnificently captured on ’80/81′) – continues to be one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever had. The experience was an epiphany for me, and my (at the time) rather basic, theoretic, scale/arpeggio relationship to jazz improvisation was forever transformed: Energy. Stories. No fear. The work it takes to achieve that level of artistry.
At one point, for the better part of a decade or more, I had to stop listening to Mike Brecker (the pull of influence was too strong) – and eventually all other saxophonists, just to start sounding like myself. It worked. Thankfully, by the time I heard Kenny Garrett, I had successfully developed my own musical personality.
Check out the Pat Metheny podcast, ‘The Stories Behind 80/81’ – Mike Brecker’s playing on my fav ’80/81′ track, ‘Every Day (I Thank You)’ is absolutely breathtaking, ditto for Pat’s performance and composition.
In 1987, from my base in Copenhagen, I had dinner with Mike Brecker and interviewed him for the Danish music magazine ‘MM’. You’ll find that interview (written in danish) here.