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.

Pat Metheny Group, 'The Way Up' (2005)

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.)

As I write this, guitarist and composer Pat Metheny is in his mid-60s. Earlier this year he was honored as an NEA Jazz Master, racking up another accolade to put on the shelf next to his 20 Grammy Awards. It doesn’t feel strange to cite Metheny as one of our emergent jazz elders, though it might have seemed a little less obvious an outcome, to some, at an earlier point in his career. 

Metheny plays a subtle but important role in Playing Changes. He’s a prominent figure in a chapter devoted to jazz education, because he was present at a crucial moment in the development of our modern pedagogical apparatus. He’s also a testimonial witness at times, notably in a chapter about Brad Mehldau, with whom he toured just over a decade ago. More implicit is the idea that Metheny’s aesthetic signature, which encompasses everything from post-bop to rock to Brazilian pop to minimalism, has resonated with generations of composer-improvisers under the broad and ever-shifting canopy of jazz.

For an impressively long time, that influence flowed through the prism of the Pat Metheny Group, his spectacular flagship with Lyle Mays on keyboards and Steve Rodby on bass, along with assorted other collaborators. The sound and sweep of this band has been a powerful force on the scene over the last 40 years; it’s impossible to imagine the Brian Blade Fellowship without it, to name one of many examples.


Because the 129 Essential Albums list begins with the year 2000, there are only two Pat Metheny Group releases that make the eligibility cutoff: Speaking of Now (2002) and The Way Up (2005). A whole bunch of other albums could have appeared instead. I love Metheny's trio work with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart, and harbor great affection for both his Orchestrion project and the various iterations of his Unity Band.

But it felt clear to me that The Way Up would be my choice, partly as a specific acknowledgment of the Pat Metheny Group and partly because the album, a nearly 70-minute suite, is so monumental an achievement. Reviewing it in JazzTimesThomas Conrad observed the album’s radical scaling-up of formal ambition; the PMG, he wrote, “has moved to a new level, rather like a short story writer who suddenly publishes a major epic novel.” 

I’m in agreement with this assessment, and will add that the personnel on the album bring a fantastic intensity of focus to the effort. Along with Metheny, Mays and Rodby, the ensemble here features Antonio Sánchez on drums, Cuong Vu on trumpet and Grégoire Maret on harmonica. 

To a man, every one of these musicians works heroically to disappear into the matrix of Metheny’s writing, especially on the suite’s half-hour-long overture, “Part One.” Melodic motifs emerge, flutter seductively for a moment and then whoosh away, only to recur much later in the going. Almost any one of these motifs could be the heart of a discrete, standalone song, but that isn’t Metheny’s intention here. He’s specifically thinking in sprawling terms, and you could no more extract one strand of the composition than you could isolate a single thread in a tapestry.

Conrad put it well in his review, so I’ll give him the last word here: 

This long work is also remarkably successful in sustaining narrative interest, through multiplicities of subplots and myriad shifts of mood and tempo and texture. Passages of reflective lyricism escalate to keening crescendos, then the music falls away, to reconfigure itself and build again. This is music that demands many listenings.

I’ve given this music many listenings since its release 13 years ago. Revisiting it over the last week for the first time in a while, I’d say it holds up, and then some. 

Purchase The Way Up digitally at Nonesuch Records, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.