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