Sunday, March 01, 2009


“You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here’s a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They’re either going to thaw out or freeze
Strains of Michael Brecker
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees…”

- Joni Mitchell, “Hejira,” as performed on the Shadows and Light live LP and DVD (1979)

Since we’re talking about music…

Every once in a while my friend Peet sends me a passionate e-mail describing an artist by whom he is especially moved, sometimes with a link to YouTube clip attached, and it is remarkable how often our tastes align. Almost exactly a year ago he sent me a heads-up about a new artist that was hijacking his iPod named Missy Higgins. Peet said this at the time: “"I keep thinking of you... when playing this song, probably because it sounds from something out of a forgotten Western.” The song was called “Forgive Me,” and indeed it did evoke for me some of the pain-ravaged landscapes of a movie like The Proposition, and I glommed onto the new Missy Higgins album quickly afterward. (It also provided me with a haunted, comforting soundtrack to an intense period last year when I was preparing for my CSET teaching exam.)

So whenever I get a music-related e-mail from Peet I have learned to sit up and quite literally listen. Here’s what I found in my inbox late last week: “Do you have 9 minutes and 13 seconds? I have no idea if this is your cup of tea, but given your love for music, it almost has GOT to be. To me, this man was God.”

Attached was a link to a performance clip that does indeed give a whole lot of weight to Peet’s claims for the divinity of Michael Brecker. Here is the influential and supremely talented artist, who died in 2007 of complications from leukemia, performing a spectacular, otherworldly solo on EWI entitled “Song for Barry.”

Peet also sent along another clip illustrating the singular brilliance of Michael Brecker, this time with the beloved standard “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Brecker’s inspired career started in the early ‘70s, and the list of people with whom he collaborated is a literal who’s-who of defining musical talent from that important era of jazz and rock and pop, everyone from Billy Cobham to Steely Dan to Frank Zappa to Frank Sinatra to Quincy Jones to Chet Baker to Charles Mingus, just to scratch the surface. I heard all that music growing up, but probably the first time I was actually aware of Brecker as a force all his own was during that Joni Mitchell Shadows and Light concert video from 1979. It was Mitchell in concert during her much maligned and/or misunderstood jazz phase, coming off two brilliant albums (Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) and in the midst of ostracizing nearly her entire fan base with the more outre inspirations of Mingus, and she had a backup band apparently assembled by Apollo himself—Brecker on sax and woodwinds, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on keyboards and Don Alias on drums. Brecker’s ethereal way with the instrument was evident throughout this concert (which is available on DVD), so when Mitchell substituted his name for Benny Goodman’s in the lyric of her paean to the impulses of movement for movement’s sake and how each mile forward expresses precious freedom but also awful finality it never felt like a cheap promotional stunt or gag. Instead it was a moment of handing over the baton that allowed Brecker the keys to Mitchell’s existential vehicle, acknowledging the yearning of the notes floating from his horn that expressed so well what even Mitchell could not. Here’s Brecker with the Shadows and Light band doing Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”:

Michael Brecker has been gone for over two years now. Thanks, Peet, for the reminder of just how great he was.

And one more sublime moment from Shadows and Light, if you would allow me. This concert marked the very first time I ever heard Pat Metheny or saw him perform. This solo, the transition between Mitchell’s awe-inspiring solo performance of “Amelia” and the aforementioned “Hejira,” was a watershed moment for me as someone whose appreciation of the possibilities of guitar music was about to be expanded immensely (Frank Zappa would explode that appreciation and reform it, but that’s another story…) Just watching the possession of Pat Metheny in this clip literally floored me—I could not sure if I wasn’t witnessing the jazz fusion equivalent of someone speaking in tongues, or whether this was just a new language altogether that I would have to someday learn, but either way it moved me at a subterranean level and continues to do so to this day. Behold, “Pat’s Solo.”


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