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Keeping the Brecker spirit alive at the Red Sea Jazz Fest

The jazz world lost one of its most treasured and lauded members in 2007, Michael Brecker. The Jewish American saxophonist was just 57 when he finally succumbed to complications of leukemia, leaving a wealth of quality recorded material as well as cherished memories for the thousands of jazz fans around the world who caught his live act.

The first time I saw Brecker on stage was in 1988, at the second edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. He was in the company of his brother, trumpeter Randy, with whom he enjoyed a three-plus decade professional association in the Brecker Brothers Band. Over a quarter of a century after that first sighting in Eilat – I also managed to chat with Brecker a little after that 1988 gig – the festival’s long-serving founder artistic director, and jazz pianist, Danny Gottfried joined forces with Brecker’s wife, Susan, to run a bone marrow drive in Eilat to try find a suitable donor for her husband. Sadly, no matches were found.

Since her husband’s death, Susan has maintained efforts to raise awareness of cancer, and also raise funds for cancer research. The biennial Nearness of You concert – named after one of her husband’s record of that name on which he collaborated with an all-star cast that included guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist-keyboardist Herbie Hancock, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette, as well as feted singer-songwriter James Taylor – has brought in much-needed financial support.

This year’s edition of the country’s largest jazz festival, from August 25-27, features the debut showing of the Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition (MBISC), which will thereafter do the rounds of other prestigious jazz events across the globe. The competition is open to young sax players ages 16-30 who, among other conditions, have yet to produce a commercial release. The preliminary round was held in April, with eight youngsters making it through to the semifinal stage which will be held in Eilat, followed there by the final.

Susan Brecker feels her late husband would have been delighted with the advent of the competition which, it is hoped, will encourage budding artists to strut their stuff and get their creative ideas out there. “He really felt like each new person coming up has the potential to say something new.” During his lifetime, Michael did his best to provide rookie with a helping hand. “On a weekly basis he would receive tapes in the mail – back then it was tapes – that young saxophonists would send him, and he listened to every single one of them,” Susan recalls. “Often he would respond to them, and say thing like, “Keep going, you’re doing great.’”

That also took place on a face-to-face basis. “After concerts he would often meet young players and talk to them,” Susan continues. “He made time for everybody.”

Mrs. Brecker says the MBISC is a remedial offering of sorts. “I don’t think there were any jazz competitions around when Michael was coming up, certainly not for saxophone.” She is also delighted that the competition is taking its bow in Eilat. “Michael had a special relationship with the Red Sea Jazz Festival. I believe he was one of the earliest performers there.” Indeed, he was around for the very first time the festival took place, in November 1987, and again in 1988 when we had our all-too-brief tête-à-tête. “He helped plant it on the map as a significant festival, by appearing there.” He did indeed, and he is remembered fondly by Gottfried and all the Eilat faithful.

Intriguingly, the competition is open to a pretty wide age group. Brecker says that was designed to cater to as broad a cross-section of yet-to-be-established horn players in order to gain a firmer foothold on their career ladder. “We felt we wanted to encourage young people but also people that had played and experimented with their sound and were trying to their stamp out there. The market is inundated. YouTube, for example, is full of incredible players. So, to break in and break out and be heard by somebody, and encourage a career, is incredibly difficult.”

THE HOPE is that the MBISC can help redress that imbalance a mite. “The motivation was to get as many players as possible to think about performing and to have an opportunity to encourage their career – just give them a leg up so they can be heard on an international stage.”

Susan was partial to the world of jazz when she met her future husband but was not an avowed devotee. “I was into jazz but I can’t say I was a huge fan. I listened to a lot of jazz in high school but I was into the blues, which was something both Michael and I adored.”

 So the future Mrs. Michael Brecker was not entirely star-struck? “I didn’t who Michael was when I met him, which I think was great for him because I wasn’t a huge fan, and I wasn’t in awe of him.” Then again their paths first crossed at the right kind of place. “We met at this jazz club and Michael liked to tell people that it was love at first sight,” she laughs. “It really was. When we met we both knew we had found the person we were looking for.”

Susan not only got a loving partner, she also got to rub elbows with a whole host of jazz greats and A-listers from other realms of the music business. “I met amazing people, everyone in the jazz community of course, and people in the pop community,” she says. That was facilitated by the fact that the saxophonist dipped into various areas of musical endeavor, including the pop and rock worlds. “I was so fortunate to meet the most wonderful people – Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock, who Michael toured with and made some records with. That was the top, top echelon of jazz.”

She also ran into some of her idols from other sectors of the entertainment world. “I also got to meet Mick Jagger. I loved that, being part of all that. Michael and I traveled a lot together, and heard some amazing music.” Mind you, Susan did have to contend with some trying concomitant logistics en route. “Michael recorded with Mick Jagger on one day, and he took me along for the recording. It only took me about an hour to choose what I was going to wear for my important meeting with Mick Jagger,” she laughs. 

During a career that lasted almost 40 years, Brecker played with an impressive roster of leading jazz artists across several generations. Fellow reedman Joe Lovano was a contemporary and took his first tentative steps into the jazz cauldron of New York around the same time as Philly-born Brecker relocated there.

“Mike Brecker and I first met in the mid-’70s and really came up together on the New York scene from that time on,” Lovano explains. “We were contemporaries that influenced each other in many ways that’s hard to put into words. There is one recording in particular – Gathering of Spirits – that showed our embrace in a very spiritual way. That was with our band, The Saxophone Summit that we co-led with Dave Liebman, and had the great rhythm section of [pianist] Phil Markowitz, [bassist] Cecil McBee and [drummer] Billy Hart.” We got to enjoy that synergy too. “We played at the Red Sea Festival in Eilat in the late 1990s early 2000s,” Lovano notes.

The now 66-year-old reedman says he was always a great admirer of Brecker’s work ethic. “Mike’s love and passion about creating music and the continuous study of the saxophone will always be an inspiration for me. He was a true virtuoso but constantly worked on his approach to the utmost degree. His influence fuels my ideas every time play. He is always with me.”

Current Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director, 41-year-old saxophonist Eli Degibri, is more than happy to host the competition curtain-raiser, and also serve on the jury. “As an aspiring musician growing up, you only dreamed you could one day play as well as Michael Brecker. My goal is that this competition not only keeps the legacy of a once-in-a-generation musician alive, but also the memory of the kind and generous soul that was Michael Brecker.”

For more information about this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival: en.redseajazz.co.il.

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