Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage (Heads Up)

brecker_pilgrimage.jpgThis is the late tenor master’s elegant and substantial swan song project. In the final stages of his lost battle with leukemia (he passed away in January of this year) Brecker summoned the strength to create his last and perhaps most profound work. No simple task considering his deteriorating condition or the fact that over his 30-plus year career, he appears on something like 900 recordings. Brecker’s technique of fusing Coltranesque expression through a modern fusion prism created a unique voice in jazz and pop. The result: session appearances for artists from Aerosmith to Zappa, from top 40 to the obscure niches of the jazz world.

Pilgrimage brings together supporting artists of the highest caliber: superstar guitarist Pat Metheny, magnificent drum avatar Jack DeJohnette, versatile bassist John Patittucci, and pianists Brad Mehldau and Herbie Hancock. Throughout the 75 minute set, the players maintain a raised-bar standard of brilliance. Hancock’s rippling keyboard solos shimmer, Metheny’s guitar work is subtly powerful, and the others aboard connect and share very special time with the late saxophonist.

The soft poignancy of “When Can I Kiss You Again?”, inspired by the question asked by his son, demonstrates the artist’s ability to wrest beauty from a most despairing circumstance. Metheny contributes quietly exquisite guitar on the piece. Indeed, the entire ensemble’s recording experience during these sessions was spiritually and emotionally unique. Circumstances led the players to a more sympathetic and communicative realm. There is beautifully fluid interplay on the up-tempo grooves “The Mean Time” and “Cardinal Rule” with Mehldau and Brecker’s fluttering trade-offs, and Brecker’s riffing coda with DeJohnette’s drum magic. The edgy ten-minute title track, with its complex alternating of blue tones and spiritual light, is Michael Brecker’s last-ever recording and aptly concludes the album.

The nine original compositions cover sonic terrain so rich that even after weeks of listening, one still gleans more as Brecker’s message unfolds. His signature riffing, flurries of altissimo passages descending to lower depths and soaring again, is passionate, energetic and full of affirmation yet at times has simultaneous undertones of deep sorrow. We are hearing the soul of an artist who knows his demise is near, leaving his final statement. – Tali Madden

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Mr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio.

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