ODE to a TENOR TITAN The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker written by Bill Milkowski was released on October 1, 2021. Immediately musicians and particularly saxophone players with a history of reverence for the tenor titan began singing the praises of columnist Milkowski’s new book.
Bill Milkowski, a seasoned author and columnist is no stranger to jazz or the music business. He has interviewed his friend Michael Brecker on several occasions in addition to being a contributing writer for Downbeat and Jazz Times among other publications. Milkowski has also penned several books including those on the subjects Jaco Pastorius, Pat Martino and even Keith Richards prior to taking on MB as his latest subject in ODE to a TENOR TITAN.
ODE to a TENOR TITAN by Bill Milkowski chronicles the life of Michael Leonard Brecker from his early years near Philadelphia, through a storied career based in New York City. The book offers the many insights of many Brecker collaborators who knew Mike the musician and more importantly – Mike the man. His older brother Randy, wife Susan and countless contemporaries such as Herbie Hancock and Pat Methany shared their many remembrances of Michael.
A synopsis of the entire book is not possible or even warranted here, however it is important to note the depth of detail which was included in this offering from the author. Bill Milkowski, paired with a parade of Michael’s bandmates, friends and colleagues has painted a graphic image of Michael Brecker the human within all his triumphs and insecurities.
The entire text reads as a combination of finely crafted record reviews along with humorous and compelling anecdotes from Michael’s life and times. Friends and family document his years in the recording studios as a top session player to his many tours on the road and ultimately becoming the solo artist beginning with his own self titled Michael Brecker on Impulse! Not to be outdone by his success as arguably the greatest living tenor sax player since John Coltrane, Michael Brecker was as much a dedicated family man and a mensch by many accounts.
As I read the book so many of my own memories of Mike and his influence resurfaced. I was fortunate enough to hear Michael Brecker live on several occasions. We also spoke at length on a couple of those meetings. Each time I met Mike his soft spoken manner and open, warm spirit presented itself. This same experience was echoed by several young saxophonists in ODE to a TENOR TITAN.
Like many others of my generation, we grew up listening to saxophonist Michael Brecker on pop recordings, jazz albums and even jingles. I first became aware of Mike after discovering David Sanborn, and ultimately The Brecker Brothers. Then it was over for me. Like so many others I became a “Breckerhead”, a “Brecker Clone” and I was proud of it! It took me years to realize I needed to be me, not a poor copy of Mike. Again, much of this same sentiment was echoed in ODE to a TENOR TITAN by Bob Mintzer, Rick Margitza and others.
As he did with Tim Ries and Ravi Coltrane and so many other, better known young players, Michael Brecker gave me his number and encouraged me “hang out sometime.” It was around 1984 and Michael was playing for Saturday Night Live. It was also the height of my “Brecker Clone” days. My friend Otto and I traveled from Atlantic City where we were playing to NYC. Our target was 48th Street or “Music Row.” We went upstairs to Art Shell to try some horns. I had my mouthpiece in my pocket with intentions to try the many Selmer Mark VIs found on the walls back then.
Otto and I had joked on the way to 48th Street, “What if we actually bumped into Mike Brecker!?” What would be do? Would we be cool or star struck? Would we talk to him?
I had met Mike before at a clinic in St. Louis. We were on the road with a show band and the drummer told me he heard an advertisement for the clinic and gig at a local college. I had to play that night in the hotel but borrowed a van to get to the afternoon clinic. Many of the students there asked questions about what to play over a C7 or his practice regimens – things like that. As a full time road musician playing 6 nights a week 50 weeks of the year, I was interested in asking questions like, “Is most of your income from sessions or live dates or tours?”
After the clinic I walked up to the stage, introduced myself and we talked for what felt like an eternity! It was probably only 10 minutes or so but Michael was attentive and made you feel like the most important person in the room. I digress.
Back to Art Shell: Sure enough, just as Otto and I had joked about, we DID run into Michael Brecker that day. I was standing at the counter waiting to try some horns when it was my turn. Otto taps me on the shoulder and motions with his eyes as if to say, “Look to your right!” I turned right and was staring at the shoulder of a blue jean jacket. My eyes went up a few inches and saw it was Mike! I reintroduced myself as being the guy from the clinic in St. Louis a few months earlier. He said he was in a hurry as he was going to a SNL rehearsal and was picking up some reeds.
This now was the second time I had met Michael Brecker and wanted him to know that I wasn’t a schmuck but could actually play. I asked the sales person if I could try a particular Mark VI on the wall, which I did. I took my Dukoff D8 out of my pocket and put it on the horn. Facing the wall, I began to play every Brecker lick I could conjure up in front of Mike. (Laughing as I write this now) I had some B*&#s.
Mike walked behind the counter, grabbed some La Vox reeds and muttered something to a worker and we said our goodbyes. Before walking downstairs to the sidewalk, Mike grabbed part of a flyer, tore off a small piece and gave me his number. He said give him a call and we could talk more.
I did call Mike a couple times over the next few weeks but only got his answering machine. After reading ODE to a TENOR TITAN it became apparent that he did this all the time with younger players. He did it with older players too. He was warm and open and made me and others feel special – something I will never forget.
In ODE to a TENOR TITAN Michael was often cited as losing things or leaving them behind. His soprano was left behind on multiple occasions and his tenor at least once when he met his wife Susan. Later, in my own experience, when I saw Mike at the Village Vanguard with John Abercrombie, he was searching for something after the 1st set. I asked him if I could help him, as I was sitting as close as possible to the stage. He said, “Well, I’m just looking for my keys.”
My last interaction with Mike came on April 15, 2006 right before he recorded Pilgrimage. I had been writing for Saxophone Journal and my own website SaxShed.com and requested and interview. He wrote back a lovely letter noting his health and went on to tell me he would follow my articles in the Saxophone Journal.
What started out as a book review of ODE to a TENOR TITAN has quickly turned into my own recollection of Michael Brecker and the few times I had the pleasure of being in his company. But that’s the point for me and I feel it’s the point from author Bill Milkowski. Mike was a mensch. He was a great saxophone player, composer, bandmate, session player, improviser – all those things. More importantly he was a great father, husband and human being who is greatly missed by those who knew him well and many like me who only knew him just a bit.
Go out and buy ODE to a TENOR TITAN The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker written by Bill Milkowski. You will be glad you did. My only regret is that it took me a month to open it but only a few days to finish it!