Michael Brecker, 'Pilgrimage' (2007)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

Michael Brecker was one of a relatively small handful of modern jazz musicians to single-handedly change the state of the art. He did so as any jazz musician would, by building on and extending an existing language. He was a tenor saxophonist with an absolute technical command, bordering on the superhuman. And his style enacted a malleable combination of John Coltrane’s harmonic genius, Stanley Turrentine’s soul, Johnny Griffin’s ferocity and Sonny Rollins’ rhythmic aplomb (and on and on).

By and large, though, Brecker made his impact in the last third of the 20th century. He was an absolute terror during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s — initially with the jazz-rock bands Dreams and The Brecker Brothers, and then as a killer-for-hire on an imposing run of pop hits.

It’s safe to say that few living jazz musicians loomed larger for me as a teenager. I remember giving my dad very specific instructions when he went on a business trip to Japan: he had to go to a record store and find a copy of Smokin’ In the Pit, a live double album by Steps, only available as an import. (Brecker’s solo on “Tee Bag,” a Mike Mainieri tune, made it worth the effort.) I obsessed over his self-titled 1987 solo debut, and eagerly greeted subsequent efforts like Tales From the Hudson, featuring McCoy Tyner in superb form.


I could go on, but we’re here to talk about the Brecker album I included in the Essential Albums list. It’s the final album Brecker made before his untimely death, of a rare form of leukemia, at age 57. He titled this album Pilgrimage, and made it with a clear understanding of his fate. He surrounded himself with friends, some of the greatest musicians on the planet, and wrote a batch of tunes designed to put them through their paces, in the best way.

The album was released posthumously, and I wrote an admiring capsule review in an Arts & Leisure Playlist:

Pilgrimage (Heads Up) is the final statement by the tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who died in January, and it represents both a postscript and a pinnacle. Mr. Brecker had been struggling with leukemia for more than a year when he entered a studio last August with a spirit of urgent conviction and a stack of original compositions. You don’t need to know this to be astonished by the mastery and immediacy of the album, which he created with the guitarist Pat Metheny, the bassist John Patitucci, the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau. The songs are harmonically advanced yet often catchy; some, like “Five Months From Midnight,” shrug off their cobweb intricacy. Mr. Brecker plays with lucidity and passion on the churning “Tumbleweed” and the brooding “Half Moon Lane,” and his work on the title track — a spiritual anthem in the John Coltrane vein that shifts into a modern groove — feels calmly valedictory. Of course there is poignancy in the album’s circumstances, which are impossible to ignore. But the power of this music is more than sentimental. In its balance of ambition and abandon, serious-mindedness and ebullience, there’s a crystallization of what jazz, at its best, is about.

Here is a standout track from the album, featuring Mehldau on piano. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Brecker tune. Listen to the tenor solo and tell yourself this man wasn’t in fact invincible.

Purchase Pilgrimage at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Brad Mehldau Trio, 'Anything Goes' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

Brad Mehldau occupies an important place in the ecosystem ofPlaying Changes— not just as one of the most influential and accomplished pianists of his generation, but also as a bridge from one jazz era to the next. In the book I write about Mehldau’s emergence as part of an articulate young cohort that also included Joshua Redman, in whose band he made his first major impression.

“Me and Josh and a lot of players of our specific little generation were lucky,” Mehldau told me in 2005, “because we just caught the tail end of the Young Lions thing. And we had a lot of opportunities that somebody who’s 22 today just doesn’t have.” That notion of inhabiting a place in time — and making sense of the specific matrix of opportunities and challenges that come with it — forms a big part of that chapter in which Mehldau appears. 

Mehldau was at an interesting crossroads when we first spoke in 2005, for a cover story in JazzTimesHis highly praised trio, with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums, was a known entity, no longer an upstart. When talking about the evolution of the band, Mehldau employed a metaphor that more or less called Auguste Rodin to mind: 

There were some developmental changes in my piano playing style with the trio that happened pretty fast. And then it slowed down a little. The last few years in general have been smaller changes. It’s like making a statue: At first, you’re chipping away big chunks. And then you’re starting to get the shape of a body or whatever you’re making. And then it becomes about chiseling something to shape an identity that’s already there-sort of doing the fine-tuning work-which in a way is harder.

In the JazzTimes piece, I noted that Anything Goes, the trio’s seventh or eighth album for Warner Bros. (depending on your math), “is proof that the chiseling has been effective; it may be the group’s finest work yet.” What distinguishes the album is a feeling of full bloom, a maturity of expression across the board. “The music is not so in-your-face anymore,” Grenadier said at the time. “It doesn’t have to prove its point or whatever. It’s kind of mellowed, in the best sense of that word. We can interpret any song in its own way, and it’s what it is, and it’s unique to us. It’s not trying to get to a place; it just is.”

“Get Happy,” which opens the album, walks an almost proprietary line between effervescence and sublimated sadness. Mehldau voices the chords in the melody with a trace of melancholy, even as the 7/8-meter vamp in his arrangement insists on a sunny clime. This is all characteristic of the first Mehldau trio; so too is the drumming on this track, which floats in one moment and almost rumbles the next. There’s also something distinctive that Mehldau does just before the three-minute mark, taking a set of elaborative solo piano choruses that expand on the theme without in any way abandoning its form. 

During my reporting for that JazzTimes story, I saw a fascinating one-off gig with Mehldau, Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Appearing for a week at the Village Vanguard, this ensemble had the feeling of a focused experiment, which turned out to be the case. Turner, Ballard and Grenadier had their own fully formed identity as the collective trio Fly. And Mehldau had become a fan. Not long after this, he decided to change up his own trio, rotating Ballard in for Rossy. So Anything Goes was, in effect, the last album released by the first Brad Mehldau Trio during its time. (A pair of fine “posthumous” studio albums, House on Hill and Day is Done, appeared in 2005.) 

Mehldau has only continued refining, and reframing, over the last dozen years. I could easily have selected a later album of his for the 129 Essential Albums list; the trio effort he released this year, Seymour Reads the Constitution, is a pretty serious contender. But I wanted to acknowledge the significance of Mehldau’s first trio, with which he made so many personal advances, and left so undeniable an influence. The album’s title, Anything Goes, also carries some meaning, as one of a few lessons that Mehldau worked out in public, with many of us watching and listening closely.

Buy Anything Goes at Brad Mehldau's website, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

John Scofield, 'Works For Me' (2001)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

The turn of the century was a distinctly groovy time for the guitarist John Scofield. Having led one of the great elastic post-bop bands of the 1990s, a swinging quartet featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, he'd diversified his profile in with the release of A Go Go, a collaboration with Medeski Martin & Wood. Then came Bump, in 2000 — a full-on plunge into fusion, with a state-of-the-art funk rhythm section.


Works For Me, released in 2001, was more than Sco's acquiescent return to swinging jazz. It wasn't really that at all, in fact; one fundamental truth about John Scofield is that he draws no value distinction between music that bops and music that grooves. What made this album special was its all-star personnel: Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass, Billy Higgins on drums. That's three generations of excellence, with Higgins embodying the role of elder and sage.

The genius of Billy Higgins on this album goes beyond a wisdom of experience, though that's clearly a part of it. Higgins was, famously, the proprietor of a unique and special pulse that fell somewhere on the spectrum between straight and swinging; consult Lee Morgan's iconic "The Sidewinder" for a textbook example. Or listen to Scofield's "Loose Canon" below, which occupies a limber, bobbing groove, reminiscent of a boxer warming up in the ring.

There are some rock-solid solos on the track, along with some sterling comping. (Listen to what Mehldau does behind Scofield, punctuating pauses and answering questions.) Garrett brings a good Sriracha blast of tartness and heat, before Master Higgins does a bit of amicable thrashing over the vamp, sounding relaxed and in command. He was 64 at the time of this album's release. A few months later, he was gone.

Purchase Works For Me on Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.