Composer and saxophonist whose father was a piano player and whose brother Randy became a trumpeter. He started out on clarinet and alto sax before gravitating to the tenor sax when he was in high school. In 1967, he graduated and then attended Indiana University for one year and moved to the Big Apple in 1969.
In 1970, he co-formed a jazz-rock group called Dreams, which comprised his brother Randy, Billy Cobham, Jeff Kent, Doug Lubahn, and Barry Rogers. They only lasted for a year, but apparently attracted the attention of Miles Davis, among others.
Michael was an extremely prolific session musician and one of his early recordings was 1972’s One Man Dog by James Taylor, on which he performs the saxophone solo on “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”. From 1973 to 1974, Michael and Randy hooked up with The Horace Silver Quintet, and then formed their own group, The Brecker Brothers. They were active from 1975 through 1982. In between time, Michael appeared on 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon, performing the saxophone solo on the titular song.
Michael and Randy also owned their own club called Seventh Avenue South and it attracted musicians such as Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez, and Mike Mainieri. This was the core group that became known as Steps, then Steps Ahead, with Peter Erskine eventually supplanting Steve Gadd.
When he wasn’t performing with the Brecker Brothers or Steps Ahead, Michael was a giant in the 1970s and 1980s studio scene. Artists and groups with whom he worked include Aerosmith, Chet Baker, George Benson, Eric Clapton, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, the Saturday Night Live Band, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, McCoy Tyner, and Frank Zappa.
In 1987, he released his first solo album, a self-titled affair that garnered him Jazz Album of the Year honours from Downbeat and Jazziz. His sophomore effort, Don’t Try This At Home, won a Grammy award. In 1990, he released Now You See It… Now You Don’t, then rejoined Randy for the 1992 reunion album, Return of the Brecker Brothers. They released Out of the Loop in 1994 and Michael released Tales from the Hudson in 1997. Both albums won Grammy awards. Michael followed these up with Nearness of You: The Ballad Book, Time is of the Essence, and Two Blocks from the Edge.
In 2001, he went on the road with the newly formed Hancock-Brecker-Hargrove. One of their concerts, at Massey Hall, in Toronto, Ontario, was captured on the Grammy-winning CD, Directions in Music. In 2003, Michael expanded his forces to include fifteen musicians on an album entitled Wide Angles, which won another pair of Grammys.
At 2004’s Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, Michael began suffering from acute back pain, and was later diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome. After waiting for a bone marrow donor to no avail, he eventually received a partial stem-cell transplant, but the procedure was experimental and he passed away in a New York hospital on 13th January 2007.
A funeral was held two days later at Hastings-on-Hudson and nearly a month later, a memorial was held at New York City’s Town Hall. His memory was also honoured with four posthumous Grammy awards, two for Randy’s Some Skunk Funk, and two for his own, last album, Pilgrimage, released four months after his death. In 2007, he was also ensconced in the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Michael leaves behind a legacy of music that is staggering in its breadth and scope, some 700 albums, in genres ranging from jazz to fusion to pop to R&B to rock, and is considered by his fans and peers alike to be one of the greatest saxophone players who ever lived.
Here he is performing “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”…