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Michael Brecker: The Recordings

It's a bittersweet exercise to consider a comprehensive overview of a nearly 40-year career when it comes to a premature end. It's also daunting in Michael Brecker's case, given his voluminous output. What follows are the recommended crests of his recordings, divided into his work as a member of jazz-rock groups, as a pop/rock session man, as a featured guest on various jazz albums, and as a leader in his own right.

The Band Member: Most of Brecker's recordings with pioneering jazz-fusion outfits like Dreams (an early-'70s group that Miles Davis was rumored to have checked out) and the Brecker Brothers (which made its debut in '74) have fallen out of print. A worthy best-of CD of the latter group is Sneakin' Up Behind You, a fun and revealing compilation that includes Brecker's standout track "Funky Sea, Funky Dew." Steps Ahead — a furthering of the fusion formula that blended jazz, funk and rock inspirations — was founded in 1979 by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri with Brecker as an original member; its 1983 self-titled release was reissued on CD in 2004 and is worth hunting down.

A shared reverence for John Coltrane's enduring contributions was the raison d'etre for two recent groups that included Brecker. Each yielded a stunning recording: Directions in Music's Live at Massey Hall (2002; with keyboardist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove) and Saxophone Summit's Gathering of Spirits (2004; with fellow saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano).

The Session Man: Creative distillation was an inherent part of Brecker's genius: an uncanny ability to construct custom 20-second solos that fit as seamlessly into pop, rock and funk songs as his longer improvisations did in extended jazz jams. Five solos that bear out this aspect of his legend: James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" (1972), Aerosmith's "Same Old Song and Dance" (1974), Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" (1975), Donald Fagen's "Maxine" (1982) and Cameo's "Candy" (1986).

The Guest: Ask any number of musicians to name their favorite jazz album featuring a Brecker appearance, and as many responses will be offered. Among the albums most often mentioned: Horace Silver's In Pursuit of the 27th Man (1970), Chick Corea's Three Quartets (1981), Pat Metheny's 80/81 (1981), McCoy Tyner's Infinity (1995), and Elvin Jones' The Truth (2004).

The Leader: Brecker's output as a leader numbered a little more than a dozen after he finally stepped out on his own at the age of 37. Cityscape (1983) married Brecker's lyricism to the lush string arrangements of Claus Olgerman. Tales from the Hudson (1996) and Two Blocks from the Edge (1997) comprise a stunningly confident and constantly inventive one-two punch in his discography. Nearness of You (2001) successfully matches Brecker's modern sensibility with the standards of yesteryear. Despite its unintended role as his swan song, Pilgrimage (2007) carves a wide emotional swath with an all-original collection of tunes. Clear proof that as a composer, Brecker was still finding himself.

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Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.