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.

Wayne Shorter Quartet, 'Footprints Live!' (2002)

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 postmillennial Wayne Shorter Quartet — Shorter on saxophones, Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums — receives a fair amount of attention in Playing Changes. To my mind it's one of the most influential working bands of the last 20 years, for the way that it bridges the eternal verities of jazz with a heady sense of unfolding possibility in the here and now. And now. And now. And... now. 

Perhaps you recall the seismic impact of this band when it first emerged. Shorter hadn't led an acoustic combo of this sort in years, even decades. His fusionesque output in the 1990s had been divisive, both heralded and disparaged. So now here comes a new configuration, featuring the grand master backed by a younger rhythm team fresh off its success on Pérez's Motherland (which has already turned up here).


The 129 Essential Albums list is precisely that, a tally of recordings. And Footprints Live! — the first official release by this magical quartet, culled from several European concerts — fits that bill. But for many observers of the scene, this band left its impression well before releasing any product. If you saw the new Wayne Shorter Quartet on tour in 2001, you probably remember the thrill of hearing familiar material turned inside out, or outside in. Shorter wasn't playing, as some folks say. Yet he most definitely came to play.

In a sense, I could have selected one of the band's later albums — like Without a Net, from 2013 — and felt satisfied with my choice. But the importance of Footprints Live! as a historical document, a statement in and of its time, can hardly be overlooked. It was a dispatch from enigmatic coordinates, but also evidence of "the jazz tradition" in brilliant, destabilizing flux.

Because I see the album as a harbinger of the band, I'm going to break from my custom here and post footage of a live performance, rather than a track off the release. Here is a version of "Footprints" captured at the 2001 Newport Jazz Festival, a couple of weeks after the concerts chronicled on the record.

From the top of the clip, this is music full of pointed challenge: listen for how the first atonal fillip by Pérez provokes an "Uh-oh!" just a few seconds in. Listen, too, for how much elasticity and license Shorter brings to an articulation of the theme. This is one of his most iconic compositions, and he's pulling it apart like taffy. The rest of the band follows his lead, edging out onto precarious territory, without ever missing a step.

Purchase Footprints Live! at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.