Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) and Michael Brecker (1949-2007): An Appreciation

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by S. Victor Aaron

The jazz world took a double whammy over the weekend as Alice Coltrane and Michael Brecker passed away. Both of these artists were among my favorites, and like many of others, I’ll miss them and the major contributions they’ve made to the art form.

Alice Coltrane was already an accomplished bop pianist when married John Coltrane in 1965, having playing under luminaries such as Barry Harris, Stan Getz, Terry Gibbs and Yusef Lateef. She served as John’s pianist in his final year and a half, replacing McCoy Tyner in 1966. Along with former bandmate Pharoah Sanders, she has done the most to carry and even expand JC’s vision of spiritual, free form, Eastern mysticism music that sometimes went well beyond the normal boundaries of what was widely held as being “jazz”.

She didn’t just stick with the piano, but also organ and later, synthesizers. She could also play a mean harp. 1970’s Ptah the El Daoud was an early post-John high point for her, which demonstrated that the modal form of jazz championed by her late husband was not quite yet exhausted for ideas.

Coltrane’s 2004 release Translinear Light after a 26-year hiatus was a triumphant return for her and showed she didn’t lose a single bit of her creative fire. It was a fitting coda to a career that perhaps unfairly got seen too much in her late husband’s shadow. Alice died of respiratory failure at age 69.

Michael Brecker possessed both an unsurpassed technique and an easily recognizable signature sound on the tenor saxophone. His style became a big influence to legions of sax players that followed him, but few of these have approached his level of playing.

Michael worked many years in relative obscurity since the late-sixties as a session player in very diverse settings. His exhaustive list of session dates included such big-time artists as Aerosmith, Luther Allison, Chet Baker, Blue Oyster Cult, Cameo, Eric Clapton, James Brown, Pat Metheny, Horace Silver and Yoko Ono.

He also served co-lead with trumpet-playing brother Randy for the pioneering jazz-funk outfit The Brecker Brothers, and was a key member in the early fusion band Dreams as well as the eighties fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.

When Brecker finally went solo with his self-titled album in 1986, he revealed amazing depth as a composer and the music he crafted for his own records were mostly a very challenging and creative form of fusion deeply rooted in bop.

His solo works were also often the best showcases for some head-shaking saxophone performances; the solo that serves as the introduction to “Syzygy” on his self-titled album is nothing short of astonishing.

Always looking for new challenges, this seven-time Grammy award winner later experimented with blending bluegrass with jazz, leading an organ quartet and putting his own mark on ballads. His third outing Now You See It, Now You Don’t was my personal favorite, as he tackled some of his most interesting material on that album.

Tragically, Brecker was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) back in 2005, a form of pre-leukemia. An experimental stem cell operation was unsuccessful and doctors were unable to find a suitable bone marrow donor. Michael was 57 when he died on January 13 from complications of leukemia.

Rest in peace, Alice and Michael. And thanks for some great music.

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