Michael Brecker North Texas Q&A
Hey everyone! Thought I'd try something a little different this blog, and share my transcription of a lecture from my all-time favorite saxophonist Michael Brecker. Understandably, my target audience here this time is other musicians, so if you're new to my website, welcome! Feel free to take a look around and see what else might interest you on my site. To my returning friends and family looking to keep up on my #shiplife adventures, I'll be honest nothing too crazy exciting will be happening for a little while. I mean, I have what feels like another ho-hum couple of beach days in Jamaica and Mexico (although, it could be my last ones looking at the itinerary), I'm not planning to do much when I'm back in the states (besides find some familiar comfort food and maybe go watch Black Panther with some band mates), and then we have the final eight sea days back to Southampton! I find it funny some of the passengers who have been around since the start of the world cruise have been grumbling about signing on for too long (48 days), and are looking forward to leaving...??
Our next cruise will be another trip to the Canary Islands which I'm looking forward to exploring more in depth, but in the meantime, I thought I'd try to dive heavily into trying to understanding my current favorite artist of all time. From beautiful melodies to blazing solos, Michael Brecker was a versatile monster of a saxophonist. I've scoured the internet for everything, interviews, discussions, any anecdotes of him, and there's unfortunately not as much as I'd hope for, as he did die relatively recently (2007), but this lecture has always stood out to me because he talks about his own journey with music and how he found his unique sound that revolutionized the music world. For me, he drops some powerful lessons about music here as well as shows that he's just a passionate individual who achieved his success through hard work and love for his art, a very inspiring person in a lot of ways. It's truly a great feeling to know my respect for his artistry goes beyond the music.
I've highlighted certain topics with the timings in the video, as well as edited out repeated words, and "ya knows" from the text, however I did leave in some stuff I found amusing, if you notice any errors (I had a hard time hearing the questions clearly and I wasn't 100% sure of some of the names he dropped) please send me a message and I'll get it fixed ASAP. Enjoy!
If you want to read along with the video, I'll attach a link here
This is kind of a funny situation, cause I really feel like playin’, it’s great musicians, you know this is fun
Well, but the whole point of me comin’ here is partially to talk, I think, you know… nah
Alright, well we’ll split the difference and I’ll tell ya a little about my life I guess and what I’m doing right now, and then we’ll play a little more and maybe take some questions, ok?
I’m not used to having a… there’s no microphone here to… I don’t know…
Early Childhood (:43)
I’ll run through a brief history, real quickly: I was born in Philadelphia, I came from a musical family, every one of my family plays, some instrument or another- my father’s a pianist, my mother’s a pianist, my sister’s a pianist… I play a little piano, and when I was a kid I thought everyone was a musician, it was the kind of family I grew up in. It was a shock to me to find out that we were kind of an oddity.
I began on clarinet at a very young age, and played it, not too well. Was more interested in sports really, my first influences that I can remember were Clifford Brown, and Jimmy Gieuffre. I remember learning clarinet solos off of Jimmy Gieuffre records when I was about six years old, I used to play into a garbage can, for reverb, I had a little gold wastebasket, and that’s where I practiced. And to this day I still love reverb, whenever I do an album they always have to turn my echo down in the mix.
I switched to saxophone after hearing Cannonball Adderly play, and began to take it seriously, I guess, in Jr. High School- also playing basketball, that was my major pastime. And I started playing professionally really, in High School. I started listenin’ to a lot of Coltrane and was playing with a lot of musicians that were older than me, and I studied privately, which I generally always did and still do.
College Experience (2:34)
And I played a lot around Philadelphia and eventually went to Indiana University, initially, to be a music major, and I switched my major at the last minute. This is one of my moments of rebelling, I realized that I had been playing music half my life, partially to compete for my parents’ approval, cause that was the way my family was. So I switched, I was in Indiana University and I switched to Pre-Med. A brilliant decision. And there I was stuck out there, in Pre-Med and that wasn’t workin’ too well, so I tried fine arts. And meanwhile all the time all I did was spend time in the music school, practicing. My fine arts teacher; I had some talent in drawing- I became friends with one of my teachers, and he just told me to move to New York, and play music. [laughs] he dropped a subtle hint.
So I did that, I moved to New York when I was 19, my older brother Randy had been living in New York for about 2-3 years at that point, and was playing beautifully, and starting to work quite a bit. He did really well, very quickly, and he was very nice to me when I went there and introduced me to a lot of people and I didn’t have to scuffle real hard, because I did have some connections through him. Of course, I scuffled for a couple years, but I always managed to work, I just took any gig I could get. Any kind of weird rehearsals that didn’t pay anything, and I always was fortunate to meet people, particularly at the weirdest rehearsals, it’s where I met sometimes the people that became most important later on. I also continued to study privately with various people, I studied the Schillinger system and took some lessons from Joe Henderson, and studied with Joe Allard, who uses me as an example of what not to do on the saxophone. [laughs]
Am I walking off camera here, where is the camera? Ahh, here’s the camera
Early Influences (5:00)
At that point, I neglected to mention, I guess, that I had always been playing Rock & Roll and R&B. In Philedelphia I grew up listening to Ray Charles, had always been listening to AM radio much to the dismay of my parents. I began really getting into rock music in college and was very serious about it. And I really listened to a lot of Blues and studied that idiom, checked out a lot of guitar players and by the time I moved to New York it just happened to be that kind of timing, where there was kind of a need for horn players that wanted to play on records, that could play something other than Bebop, which I also was able to do.
Early Career (5:50)
So I started getting some work on some albums and I formed a group with my brother and some other people called Dreams and we did some recording for Columbia. The records were an amazing failure, they were great musically, but they didn’t sell anything, but we did get a reputation in the business as a good horn section, Barry Rodgers was playing trombone with us. So we started doing dates, a lot of dates as a section. I continued doing other things, playing a lot in the lofts of New York, and jamming a lot, just trying to stay active.
After Dreams broke up I went with Horace Silver for about a year and a half, and that was one of my favorite gigs, ever, cause that was like going to college for me, I really worked hard, I practiced a lot during that period, all the time- before the gig. I don’t know how I did it in retrospect, I had a lot of guts, I always make amazing noise in the hotel rooms and get complaints, and, I really wanted it. So I stayed with Horace and after that I went with a Myriad of different groups I played with Billy Conovan for a while and then my brother and I formed a group called the Brecker Brothers. I made a bunch of albums for Arista records and continued to tour a lot and practiced a lot, and also do record dates.
Work in 1984 (7:20)
Right now I’m playing in a group called Steps Ahead, we just did another album, we finished it a couple days ago, and that should be out in a couple weeks, believe it or not. I’m studying composition, presently, and working pretty hard on that, and I’m working around New York and I play on Saturday Night Live every week, which is fun.
And, I’m drawing a complete blank, what else did I want to say?
I’m going to throw it open to questions in a minute cause it’s hard to talk to a whole group of people not knowing where, everyone’s at a different place and it’s silly for me to talk about harmony and improvisation cause that’s real well covered here, this is really the best music school in the world, I think. And I guess I’m not really here to talk about that but if anybody has any questions about that
Saxophone Setup (8:23)
I use a Selmer saxophone [laughs] and it’s a La Voz medium reed and this happens to be dying, this reed, and the mouthpiece is presently a Dukoff D9.
Finding Your Sound (8:44)
I’m not suggesting that all saxophone players use this, this is what works for me. Everyone is different, everyone hears differently. The only suggestion I can make is go for what you hear and if possible, try not to let anyone sway you if you’re looking for a sound. Stick with it, unless it’s really obviously not working. I know when I switched to this I had been playing a different setup for a long time and I had to switch because of some physical problems I had and I found this setup and I liked it a lot, a lot of people in New York, a lot of the saxophone players told me not to use this, and now pretty much all of them are using the same thing. So I kind of learned a lesson from that. I just have to go with what I think sounds good, for me. And hope that (?) (video cuts out)
Boy, I made this list of things to talk about but I don’t really feel like looking at it, so maybe if you feel comfortable enough to ask some questions, I’d be happy to answer them, the best I can. Does anybody want to put something in to the air?
What is happening on the saxophone solo for Funky Sea, Funky Dew on the album Heavy Metal Bebop? (10:00)
What was happening was that I was playing electric saxophone and at that time I was using a real cheap effect. Cheap thrills. There really wasn’t much I could use in terms of electric things, times have changed quite a bit now, but at that time I think it was called a frequency analyzer, and it cost $40 or something like that and I push a little button. I found a good use for it, it was kind of limited but I found a couple things that I could do that enabled me to play chords and play along with it and I think I was using an envelope follower and some other things. I say they’re cheap gimmicks but the trick is figuring out how to use them so they sound good. Thank you.
You say you listened to a lot of guitar players, how come? (11:08)
The question is: why did I listen to guitar players? I did because I liked the way they played. But seriously, pretty much my playing is generally mimicking other things that I’ve heard. I’m not tremendously original, I listen to things, I learn them or I hear them enough and then they get in to my psyche and then I distort the hell out of them. What I was doing then, I was very excited by guitar players, particularly around the beginning, late 60s and early 70s it was just a whole excitement happening on the instrument, the way they bent notes and the way they played the blues. And I really liked what they were doing so I figured out weird fingerings on the saxophone to emulate the way they would bend notesx and try to get in between the major and the minor 3rd.
Thoughts on Transcribing (12:28)
I was experimenting, looking for other avenues, I don’t just copy saxophone players, although I still love to copy saxophone players. If I hear anyone play a phrase, if it really gets in my ear I try and figure out what it is or find the record that it’s on, slow it down if I have to, and figure out what it is. I think it’s a useful tool to learn solos or learn parts of solos, I know that’s a question that’s often asked me: did I learn solos? The answer is yes, but I didn’t have the discipline to learn whole solos, I did it occasionally, I found it helpful for me if I was gonna do it to copy it out myself and not do it out of a book because somehow it sank in more. I also found it helpful once I learned it to play it along with the record to figure out how it lays over the rhythm section. But more often I took pieces: guitars, saxophones, trumpets, piano solos, and if I heard a lick that I liked I’d steal it. My memory is not so good so I’d forget it, and it would come out in some weird bizarre way a few months later. I found that it was usually two months, if I worked on something like two months later, all of the sudden it would creep out. I’d be playing somewhere and all of the sudden that would come out.
It was never really a conscious process, I was never one of those people that could learn something and play it that night. I always have to trust that it’s going to come out somewhere in my psyche. Music for me is largely intuitive, I’m not a real intellectual kind of player, my mind doesn’t work that way. I think fairly quickly, I’m aware of the chords when I’m playing, most of the time. I’m not real tuned in to that, lately I’ve been more tuned into shapes pivot points, and melodies. Particularly when I’m recording, I’ve been trying to concentrate on playing melodically and less mechanical- playing looser, and just let what naturally happens happen, without trying to color it.
I wanted to do this, I was thinking about it earlier, this is a risk…
Understanding Time (14:55)
I was talking earlier about time, about rhythm. For me, I think the most important thing is time, I don’t know the world to use for it: swingin’ or cookin’, without that, it doesn’t matter what notes you play. Notes are important too, for me, but if I’m not somehow really connected in a meaningful way to what’s happening in the rhythm section it really is pointless in Jazz music, or Jazz related music.
One way I worked on it was to play the drums, this could be real embarrassing!
We’ll just play a couple choruses, play for a minute and then I’ll STOP.
Plays blues on drums (16:25)
Understanding Rhythm Section Instruments (17:47)
I did that just to show I’m serious, for me, rhythm is the whole thing. I’m real attached to the drums, I don’t play it too often any more but when I was younger I sat down I tried to figure out how three goes against four, what makes music swing. And from playing with a lot of saxophone players, I used to play drums a lot with saxophonist, they used to like to play with me cause I knew where they were coming from. It was like the reverse side of the coin, it’s just a suggestion but if anyone wants to learn more about that stuff take up a rhythm section instrument and screw around with it, it’s amazing what you learn.
You said you study privately, do you still study saxophone privately? (18:30)
No, I’ve been thinking about it lately, I took a breathing lesson last week from a trumpet player. A lot of times I end up getting together with saxophone players and a couple times I ask people for lessons and they don’t take me seriously. But I’ve been thinking about trying to get back together with Joe Allard a little bit. Thank You
Who, (?) and where do you study composition with? (19:14)
I study with a guy named Edgar Granner, who teaches at Juilliard in New York and it’s kind of an expansive thing I’ll probably be there for a long time, a part of it is just a psychological approach, it’s interesting. Thank You.
Could you talk more about that? (19:35)
It’s kind of hard to talk about, it’s composition- giving me some basic tools. We’re going to start working on string writing soon. Right now he has me working on Erzots lines, it’s 12 tone writing, making a matrix out of a melody and then getting voicings from the matrix. It’s just another way of thinking for me, I’m used to chords, notes and lines and it’s another tool I’ve been using trying to voice lines using this guys system. It remains to be seen if it’s going to help me a lot, but I’ve written a couple compositions based on that approach.
How did you like working with Hal Garper? (20:50)
I liked working with Hal Garper, he’s a great pianist and that was a chance to play a lot in an acoustic setting cause I was playing with the Brecker Brothers a lot, totally electric, and I get crazy in either way if I get too much one way or the other so we did quite a bit of playing acoustically. Did some touring and made a few albums and he’s a wonderful pianist. Thank You.
What’s your rehearsal schedule for Saturday Night Live? (21:26)
[sarcasm] It’s a very, very hard gig. It’s a tremendous test of will, patience and persistent. I get there Saturday morning and rehearse from 12-1, and then I show for the gig.
Occasionally we do a pre-tape, most of the playing we do on the show is during the commercials and we play the theme and the closing theme and just, it’s fun, it’s a fun job just to watch what goes on in the studio, it gets really crazy and I enjoy it.
[Chat about violinist with Stray Cats] (22:19)
That particular show though, it was a rerun, we did a skit with Eddie Murphy playing James Brown in a hot tub. And there’s two things that I don’t like to do, that I always get embarrassed: one is go to the beach, right? And the other one is dance, both of them, I do them but I’m queasy about it. That was my first show, and what did I have to do- but get dressed up in a bathing suit and dance. [laughs]
…? We had very native degrees of comment on today’s contemporary fusion, could you elaborate on that and do you consider it Jazz? (23:30)
I think it’s balls-less fusion tripe!
That was from a review of Brecker Brothers.
In fact, that was a review of Brecker Brothers we weren’t even playing on the album that they reviewed, they just singled us out for some reason.
I guess my only comment, I never liked the word fusion first of all, there was a kind of fusion sound happening in the late 70s. Right now all I can say is I’m real excited by what’s happening in the whole kind of techno world. I know it freaks a lot of people out- a lot of horn players, and rhythm section people get paranoid cause they think the machines are going to take over. I really find for me it’s a state of mind, with Steps we’re really working now with that, with a lot of synthesized sounds and a sequencer and drum machine and we’re trying to work it into the music. And we’ve been really considerably successful, I’m real pleased about it, I said earlier it’s like all of a sudden for me it’s like playing in technicolor instead of black and white, we have a sequencer playing behind us.
It’s a tough question to answer cause it’s so general, there’s so many kinds of music and so much good music happening, and some not so good. And I really don’t think the issue is electronics but the people who are playing it. I guess that’s my answer, thank you.
In your album Cityscape, was that a good project/challenge for you? (25:30)
It was a challenge, I loved the album, I’m very proud of that album. That was a real unique experience I hope we do it again, Clas Ogerman is a really unique arranger. Next time we do it I’d like to spend more time, we did it fairly quickly, and the music was difficult, particularly the chords that he writes. What I did was I just threw the chord sheets away and use my ears, he’d write the chords and then the strings would be playing something really bizarre. I had to throw the music, what I tried to also is leave some space in some if it. That was a great experience, thanks.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you used to practice? (26:45)
I practiced with a metronome, I’ve never been real good on discipline, I hate to say it. I know I’m supposed to stand up here and say, “practice, practice, practice, discipline, 8 hours a day.” I’ve always grown in spurts, I’ve at times used a metronome on two and four, I get depressed when I do it cause I rush… it does help. I used to do a lot of arpeggios, I’d figure out a series of notes, I like to phrase, of four notes- I’d put it in major, I’d do it in whole steps, do it minor 3rds, do it in major 3rds, backwards, just string a bunch of things together and that helped me quite a bit. As I said I learned solos, for me, the trick was I played as much as I could, I played along with records. I spent a lot of time wasting time, I have no system- I’d just sit around and get something in my head and then, work on it for a while. Then maybe the next day if I was lucky I’d work on it, and somehow it would sneak into my playing. I try to practice things that are going to be practical, certain licks or certain phrases only sound good in certain keys. I’ll learn them in every key, just to know it, but I have to stay aware that I’m really not going to play a certain thing at the bottom of the horn cause it sounds like crud.
Playing with other saxophone players has helped me a lot, playing with drummers, just tenor and drums was a real good tool for me. That’s really kind of a saxophone thing, I don’t how well that works on other instruments, but that helped me a lot. I also keep a notebook, I always write the date and what I practiced, or the ideas that I came up with.
Can you publish it? (29:25)
The book is only one page long
It’s been a little thin lately, I look back at it and I see the last time was two months ago, as I said I practice in spurts. There will be a whole series or few weeks where I’ll really be hitting it and then I stop, other things come up. I should also say right now in my life, my priority was always music, music, music, before everything, and nothing else really mattered. And that’s kind of turned around for me in the past two or three years. Not that it has taken a back seat, but it has taken a back seat, a little bit, it’s still very important to me but I kind of found through trial and error that the rest of my life directly affects the way I play, spiritually and mentally. So I’ve been trying to stay healthy and keep a good balance on a spiritual, mental and physical level, and then music fits in and it’s a lot more healthy. I’m just not into killing myself anymore, I tried that route and it was not happy. I sometimes played well but I was very miserable. Thank you.
Why have the Brecker Brothers never done a tour in the United States before? (31:00)
Where were you?
I’ve never heard of the Brecker Brothers ever coming to Detroit, when was the last time it happened? (31:20)
We stay away from Detroit [laughs]
No, we have played Detroit, we haven’t toured in a good two or three years, so I don’t where that puts you chronologically.
When are you going to tour again? (31:54)
It’s in the works, there’s nothing definite plan, we needed to take a little bit of a break cause we had been playing together for years. For our own health, we wanted to do separate projects for a minute, which we’ve done and we’re in the process of doing. [Randy] is making an album right now, it’s real good and he and his wife are expecting a baby and there’s some exciting stuff happening there. In the future I suspect we’ll do some touring and playing together cause I love to play with him. I guess from being brothers and growing up playing in the bathroom together, we have some weird kind of intuitive communication, I never have to ask how he’s going to phrase something if we have to play a part, we can just play it right off. I suspect Wynton (Marsalis) has that with Branford (Marsalis) who knows? I’m trying to think of another, but you catch my drift- Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey?
What was it like playing with Pat Metheny? (33:12)
It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, we did a tour with Joni Mitchell together and that’s where we found we had an affinity, and since recorded with him and toured with him. We play really well together, there was about talk of us doing something in Japan together over the summer, I don’t know if it’s going to crystallize. But I love his playing, his conception and maturity in his playing and really a phenomenal musician.
Have you thought about doing an album with Keith Jarrett? (33:46)
No. It hasn’t come up lately, but certainly if the situation came up I would love to do that, thank you.
How do you feel about playing with James Taylor, and how do you feel about Dave Sanborn? (34:03)
I respect James tremendously because he’s a very innately, natural musician. Extremely talented and creative, he’s a real brain, in every way. And I liked the recording I did with him, cause he let us get involved, in making up parts and determining where the music was going to go. Whenever a musician does that, in the kind of sales bracket that he’s in, it’s fun. It becomes real creative and we enjoy it.
And as far as Dave Sanborn, he’s one of my favorite living musicians and I’m a complete fan of his. The man can say more in one note, than a lot of people in ten. He just plays amazingly well, he’s a real voice, he has a unique sound, and a gorgeous way of playing lyrically passionate. It’s a real pleasure to stand next to him and listen to him play, he’s also pretty much my favorite player to play with in a section, our sounds bond. You’d think that they wouldn’t blend but they kind of blend real nicely. I’ve learned a lot from him.
Maybe let’s play? (36:06)
A lot stands out here for me, I think what I've found to be most surprising about Brecker is his conserved, gentle, humble nature and attitude, when you hear him play, it's the exact opposite! It's crazy how that tends to happen with musicians, similar to the saxophonist Coltrane too, the friendly, gentle artists seem to play extremely aggressive music! Flip that over, and look at guys like Miles Davis and Stan Getz (they played beautiful music but had aggressive personalities).
I also particularly enjoyed where he talked about how he lay the early foundation to his music career and discussed how he found his sound, at what worked for him individually. A lot of great stuff here to anyone looking to pursue music, let me know what you think in the comments!
*Note: this Q&A happened before this legendary concert!
That’ll be all for this blog, I'll be talking about my adventures in the following cruises in the next. One month left! Thanks to you who are reading! Please give it a thumbs up, or share with anyone you’d think would find it interesting! If you’d like to ask me anything feel free to do so in the “Contact Me” box that should be in the bottom right of the screen.