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Michael Brecker, a versatile and highly influential tenor saxophonist who won 11 Grammys over a career that spanned more than three decades, has died. He was 57.
Brecker died Saturday of leukemia in New York.
His work as a studio and backup musician and leader appears on thousands of recordings with headliners ranging from Frank Sinatra, James Brown and Simon & Garfunkel to Frank Zappa, Laura Nyro and Funkadelic.
His most recently released recording, “Wide Angles,” won two Grammys in 2004.
Brecker’s technique on the saxophone was widely emulated and became the subject of studies in music schools worldwide. Jazziz magazine recently called him “inarguably the most influential tenor stylist of the last 25 years.”
It was Brecker who provided memorable saxophone licks to James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
He adapted easily among heavyweight jazz musicians of wildly different styles — among them Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Pat Metheny and George Benson. Brecker also backed performers as varied as Sinatra, Yoko Ono, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel and Joni Mitchell.
During the past year, Brecker continued to muster the strength for occasional performances. In June, he startled a delighted audience at Carnegie Hall by walking onstage to play an impressive, extended solo with Herbie Hancock on the pianist’s “One Finger Snap.”
His last studio outing, completed two weeks ago, will be released in June on Heads Up International. Not yet titled, it features Hancock, Metheny, drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist John Patitucci.
Brecker was born in 1949 in Philadelphia to a musically inclined family. His father, an amateur pianist, would take his sons to performances of such jazz legends as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.
Brecker, who first studied clarinet and alto saxophone, decided to pursue the tenor saxophone in high school after being inspired by the work of John Coltrane, according to his Web site. He followed his brother, Randy, a trumpet player, to Indiana University, but he left after a year for New York.
In 1970, he helped found the jazz-rock group Dreams. He later joined his brother in pianist and composer Silver’s quintet. Michael and Randy also started the successful jazz-rock fusion group the Brecker Brothers. The two owned the now-defunct New York downtown jazz club Seventh Avenue South.
His solo career began in 1987, when his self-titled debut was voted Jazz Album of the Year in both Down Beat and Jazziz magazines.
Brecker formed musical partnerships with Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, among others, and toured prolifically until, in May 2005, he received a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone marrow disease that ultimately gave way to leukemia.
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