Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker, Bill Milkowski, Backbeat

Sometimes you just wonder what jazz would be like today if Michael Brecker was still around. We were certainly robbed of the potential of years of great music and a beautiful spirit when the saxophonist died in 2007 aged just 57. Just think of how …

Published: 23 Oct 2021. Updated: 11 months.

Sometimes you just wonder what jazz would be like today if Michael Brecker was still around. We were certainly robbed of the potential of years of great music and a beautiful spirit when the saxophonist died in 2007 aged just 57. Just think of how many albums might have been possible, and how many lives could have been changed hearing him in person for the first time.

There are so very few truly great jazz authors out there, meaning those who really ''get'' their subjects and can tell their story warts and all – in all empathy. And Bill Milkowski is one of these. To me he is one of the few heirs of Joe Goldberg whose book Jazz Masters of the 50s is what jazz writing in a journalistic style that actually values words and imagery is all about without being at all fancy for the sake of it or stuck in a dusty museum and out of touch. In other words you believe the authorial voice completely because the writer is speaking not just to you but for you as a reader as a there but not ego-there interpreter who sort of cues us in to it all. He is renowned for the classic Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius.

Ode to a Tenor Titan is a worthy successor and the story of a very different man. The best parts of the book are on the wild Seventh Avenue South years. And beyond you get a strong narrative which points to Brecker's perfectionism, his love of pranks, star soloist power harnessed by Paul Simon and many more, interest in technology, ability to turn around his life by dealing with his lifestyle choices and mentoring his band members when they too needed help. Dennis Chambers is a characterful presence in the book in tales of pranks on the road and Adam Nussbaum has some of the best one-liners. The ''Joe Hen'' details are also fascinating particularly how much Brecker idolised Joe Henderson and knew he played in the great tenorist's spirit as much as Coltrane even when things between them went a little sour at a distance.

It was cruel when illness cut short Brecker's life and Milkowski deals with this empathetically and without over-sentimentality. It seems that Brecker was the bridge between the Coltrane generation through jazz-rock, funk and free jazz to navigate his own sound and inspire particularly saxophonists who came after him and like Chris Potter who continue to carry the message and high creative and technical standards forward.

When Brecker actually played with McCoy Tyner and separately with Elvin Jones you get that sense of a circle that has expanded and still expands in our consciousness today when you listen to the classic records that Brecker was involved with and that also was manifested when he played with Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano taking Trane on the ultimate threeway sax sky ride.

There is strong input from Michael's brother Randy particularly in the earlier parts of the text and lots of testimonials at the end from a who's who of players who bring up new points not touched on so much in the main text. There's plenty of humour too. And believe me you will be hunting down jingles that Brecker was on even such as the 1970s Toyota ad 'You asked for it, you got it' he's on with David Sanborn, Randy and the baritone icon Ronnie Cuber. An excellent book. I spent happy hours and more than that in dreaming, thinking and listening time with the book breaking off to listen to Brecker on numerous records and examples. Because listening is what it's all about and Milkowski sends you there right to the heart of it all. Stephen Graham

Hardcover, 408 pages. Published on 1 November

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Chris Potter, Craig Taborn, Nasheet Waits, Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho

Playing to the second house on the first night of a two-night residency on Dean Street at the resurgent Pizza Express Jazz Club basement club open and getting into its groove again a few months on from re-opening definitely a coup for bookers Joe …

Published: 21 Oct 2021. Updated: 11 months.

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Playing to the second house on the first night of a two-night residency on Dean Street at the resurgent Pizza Express Jazz Club basement club open and getting into its groove again a few months on from re-opening definitely a coup for bookers Joe and Ross of the club getting Chris Potter, the Chicagoan who is just about the greatest tenor saxophonist alive, of course ex-Dan, Metheny, and a significant leader and composer in his own right and the natural heir (if any others exist answers on a postcard please) to Michael Brecker. There were a lot of musicians in the audience including the great altoist Zhenya Strigalev, trumpeter Nick Smart head of jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and top new generation bassist Conor Chaplin, among an array of faces from the UK scene.

Gig of the year without a shadow of a doubt the trio was not as advertised because the idea was to have James Francies, who is now with Potter's ex-Unity Band leader Pat Metheny and the Charles Lloyd-ian Eric Harland who are both on Potter's excellent new Edition record released earlier this year and titled Sunrise Reprise.

Instead, an extraordinary dream team the equal of Francies and Harland took their place with Craig Taborn unbelievable a few years ago on the classic trio record The Bell and more recently solo in Vienna taking to the Pizza's fine Steinway. And joining Potter and Taborn, Nasheet Waits best known for his work with the great piano polymath Jason Moran as one third of The Bandwagon reinventing for instance Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk.

Playing completely new music Potter told us without giving away any details, all untitled pieces (to us in the audience anyway) the Chicagoan opened on alto flute and hardly spoke apart from saying ''I can't see your faces but I'm sure they're lovely!'' and ''See you at the other end''. A masterclass, later of course he played immaculate tenor flowing like a river and best of all the most delicate soprano sax, the interesting factor was how Taborn, an avant player very different to the kind of pianists Potter usually works with, gelled with him. Of course it's easy although a little while back to forget that Taborn is on Underground, Follow the Red Line, Ultrahang, The Sirens and Imaginary Cities with Potter. It's just since he has such a strong personality as a leader himself in different idioms. He played brilliantly and there were no compromises or any cognitive dissonance in terms of style variation or lack of focus.

Early on the energy fire music came through but it is so stimulating to hear how Taborn comps, no pianist sounds like him in finding the most savoury chord, like blues and the abstract truth, time and time again. Waits was powerful and his drum solos if anything while extensive could have gone on and on much longer. The reggae-type groove later was good as too was a kind of an AfroCuban passage which really worked. It's hard to compare him with anyone but it's clear he is a different class entirely because he can react and be pro-active just as convincingly. You could see Potter listening to him when he took his horn out of his mouth after yet another prodigious solo to dig the groove. Equally Waits just seemed to be loving hearing what Potter and Taborn were able to conjure together.

World class improvising and all the more remarkable given not at any time did you crave the presence of a bassist. Let's leave it at that. Cancel all plans if around this evening. Call the club and you might get lucky if quick to bag one of the last tickets left.

Review: Stephen Graham