The Practice Notebooks Of Michael Brecker

The sax virtuoso's notebooks reveal a collection of musical fragments that he transmuted and expanded as part of a rigorous practice regime


Speaking in this book of Michael Brecker in particular, pianist Richie Beirach sums up the point of instrumental technique in general: “All this consistent, intense practicing and analysis gave him such wonderful freedom to be creative in the moment. . . He used his technical mastery of the tenor to bring out such beautiful, tender, emotional phrases that would make grown men cry!”

This book demonstrates the practice regime that helped Brecker become perhaps the most admired and imitated tenor saxophonist of the 1980s and 1990s, presenting professionally engraved transcriptions from some three decades of his handwritten practice notebooks, along with commentary from his fellow musicians.

When, in the early 2000s, Brecker became ill with myelodysplastic syndrome (he died from the blood disorder in 2007) his brother Randy wondered about the fate of the notebooks. The answer came from the brothers’ longtime friend David Demsey, coordinator of jazz studies at William Paterson University, who added them to the Michael Brecker Archive he keeps at the college. Publisher Chuck Sher and editor and engraver Larry Dunlap have now converted most of the books’ contents for general consumption.

The material is arranged chronologically, ranging from 1967 (when Mike was an 18-year-old student at Indiana University, where he studied for three semesters in 1967-68 as an art major but spent much of his time practising saxophone and playing gigs) to 2002. For illustration, the book’s 141 pages include copies of a couple of Brecker’s handwritten originals.

There is no grand scheme in Brecker’s books. Rather they contain the spontaneously collected observations of a deeply committed and ambitious jazz improviser. These are mostly fragments of a few notes’ length and ideas of three or four bars that Brecker typically would develop through transposition, alteration and repetition. This sounds much like the exhaustive method John Coltrane is said to have followed. (I once suggested to Brecker that he had succeeded Coltrane, creating a new and distinct style from Trane’s example; although a notably mild-mannered man, Brecker bridled, utterly rejecting the idea and saying that he couldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.)

Brecker’s fragmentary approach appears to have been deliberate. Larry Dunlap says in his foreword: “He often cautioned students in his master classes not to get hung up by feeling obligated to transcribe entire solos, but instead to transcribe quick passages of 4-8 measures, short licks – whatever attracted their ear. Then, he advised them to use those ideas as inspiration, launch points for their own practice.”

Brecker himself said: “If I have an idea, I try to put it in every key. I try and get all over the horn. I have books and books of exercises that I’ve made up, but I don’t write the exercises out completely. I’ll write out just the idea, and then I try and do it in my head.”

As if there were any doubt, the notes prove Brecker’s command of 20th century harmony as applied to jazz improvisation, including numerous Lydian augmented, melodic minor, altered and diminished ideas. It’s the usual stuff of the more sophisticated forms of post-bop and modal jazz, but as the books suggest and the solos show, Brecker brought the material to a surgically organised, exceptionally virtuosic, intensely expressive and creative peak. Such can be seen in his reading of Softly As In A Morning Sunrise at Jazz Baltica in 2003. Note the almost gratuitous double-timed phrase (around 1:08) that he tucks into a crevice at the end of the middle-eight of his first solo chorus – it’s a throwaway, a musical joke, but stunningly effective.

Michael Brecker at Jazz Baltica in 2003

Pertinently, the book includes some saxophone-specific exercises, including fingering and breathing.

The publication is not an exhaustive replica of the 800 pages of Brecker’s eight practice notebooks. David Demsey says: “Some material had to be omitted from this book. The lead sheets and solos that Mike transcribed are not here due to size and copyright issues – but the important list of tunes and solos that he studied is included in Appendix I.” Significantly, the great majority – 17 – of the solos Brecker transcribed in his books are Coltrane’s; the rest of the 24 are by Rollins, Shorter, Corea, Parker or Clifford Brown.

There are also insights into the source of Brecker’s tenacity – namely, a sense of how much was unknown and how insufficient his own playing was. Demsey says in his preface: “He was humble, almost to a fault – always dissatisfied with his own playing and sound, always intensely curious about what other saxophonists were practicing and what equipment they played. He was often baffled as to why people paid so much attention to his playing.” And later: “I hope that Mike would approve of this publication; I believe he would, although he might be puzzled as to why his ideas and work would be so interesting to all of us.”

The answer to Brecker’s puzzlement might lie in the rigour evident in this book. Fellow saxophonist David Liebman emphasises a quality that was surely key to Brecker’s success, namely actual execution rather than the dream of it: “Mike was quite attracted to patterns which demanded in-depth practicing. For sure whatever he practiced he finished. He was dedicated to improvement at all cost.”

Given Brecker’s pre-eminence it’s tempting to imagine he stood alone as a creator. But it’s clear from the attributions attached to many of the fragments that he was a pre-eminent member of a brotherhood, a continuum of improvisers. Among the credits (not all to saxophonists) are “McCoy II V”, “For rock #9 feel”, “Joe” (presumably Henderson), “Woody lick” (presumably Shaw), “Jerry” (presumably Bergonzi), “Practice Sonny tonguing”, “Abercrombie quintuplets – pentatonic”, “Sanborn fingering”, “Feldman lick” (presumably Lawrence Feldman), “Harrell”, “Mintzer”, “Bob Berg”, “Practice Stern – 6th’s (sic) down in major 3rd’s (sic)” (brother Randy notes that Mike didn’t worry about grammatical accuracy in his haste to get down ideas), “Dolphy”, “Eric Alexander” and “Adam Rogers”.

Biographies of famous musicians are useful, but this sort of book reveals the musical and personal character of its subject to an extent that biography rarely does – a unique and valuable work.

The Practice Notebooks Of Michael Brecker, by Chuck Sher and Larry Dunlap. Sher Music Co., 141pp, illus. Pb $32, PDF $21, ISBN 978-0-9910773-5-9. Available from Sher Music Co. (where sample pages can be seen).