Saturday, April 23, 2011

Michael Brecker • “Invitation” transcription

From the Chiaroscuro recording You Can’t Live Without It, recorded October 31, 1977.

Michael Brecker
Invitation transcription
This is Michael Brecker’s solo on Invitation, from guitarist Jack Wilkins’ album “You Can’t Live Without It” (later released on CD as “Merge”), and in my opinion it’s one of the most astonishing jazz performances ever recorded.

♫ MP3 ♫
Brecker’s solo on
When I say that, I don’t mean “I think this is a really great solo!” I mean: “This is one of the most astonishing jazz performances ever recorded.” I’ve never heard Brecker sound better than this, and I’ve heard (and loved) lots of Brecker.

Almost 30 years ago (!!), when I first transcribed this solo — a process that involved slowly and methodically destroying the LP and my phonograph needle by playing passages over and over again at 16 RPM, dropping the speed sorta almost in half and lowering the pitch sorta almost an octave (making Brecker sound like a demonically-possessed bari player) — I’d already had a few transcriptions under my belt: Dexter, Newk, Trane, even Don Byas.

I used the same trick to slow down their solos. Half-speed helps to isolate otherwise impenetrably fast phrases. It also reveals the “more human,” “more fallible” side of these folks who were (are!) giants for me: slowed down, you can hear the imperfections and miscues in their execution and articulation, the slightly flubbed notes, the tiny faults in timing and fingering. These are normal, and inaudible at regular speed.

Brecker slowed down, on the other hand, sounded ... clean, perfect! To put it another way: Abnormal. Inhuman. This technical virtuosity, though certainly a contributing factor, is NOT what makes this an astonishing performance, however.

The technical mastery on display here — Brecker’s amazing time feel, his clean execution and varied articulation, his stunning facility in the altissimo, his hair-raising double-timed passages — is in the service of his varied and interesting harmonic language, and in the way he “manages” the overall arc of tension and release in the solo, building successive climaxes leading into his final chorus, where at the very end he finally lets the air out of the balloon and trails off. When it’s over, you don’t feel like you’ve been merely listening to a jazz solo: you feel like you’ve been on a dangerous ride, then safely delivered home.

That feeling of “being taken somewhere” happens in great jazz solos. Like this one.

There are a couple of specific things worth mentioning for a student of jazz: Brecker’s minor ii-V7-i lines, and in particular his fluent use of the altered scale, merit study and emulation, and his use of false fingerings, a common saxophonistic ploy, go beyond the more typical exploits of other players — the alternating between the standard C fingering and A with the side C at mm. 122-125 is interesting and less often heard, calling to mind a blues guitarist’s riff.

I really have nothing to say about the double-time passages at mm. 47-53, 71-75, 89-100, and 131-140: they are, to me, stunning, in both senses of the word!

I’ve never understood why the album, which (in addition to Invitation) features Brecker’s inspired blowing on What Is This Thing Called Love, What’s New, and Freight Trane, along with stellar contributions by Randy Brecker and leader Jack Wilkins, isn’t better known — especially among Brecker enthusiasts. Part of the reason is that it was a small label with limited distribution. Although the CD is now out of print and only available at extortionary prices from some online sellers (as I’m writing this, 3 copies are available from Amazon Sellers: 2 at just under $50, and one for $90!), you can download the whole inspired thing right now for 9 bucks:

Instant MP3 Download of the album Merge

Your purchase from Amazon helps to support this blog!


  1. Nice (great) solo, I'd never heard that one before.

    I'd add that other things that always hit me when I first heard Brecker were :

    1) His great control and use of the altissimo range, nowadays quite normal, but back in the 70s or 80s it was more of a gimmicky 'funk' thing - Tom Scott, Sandborn, Lenny Pickett etc.

    2) His amazing control of a shape/pattern. These he seemed to move and manipulate at will, cutting across harmonic logic in a graceful way that always made the line work. Almost a modern Warne Marsh one could say!

    I look forward to the next transcription.

  2. Kelly - just stumbled on this site! I have to agree with you that this is probably my favorite Brecker solo, and certainly is one for the ages. I first heard it around 1983 or 1984 while hanging out before jazz ensemble rehearsal in college, and I immediately asked the director who is was. I searched for the CD for years and finally found it maybe 10 years later. I agree that the CD as a whole is great as well.

    Anyway - good job on the transcription!

    Also - glad to hear from a fellow "upstate burner"! I'm also a sax player (in Atlanta), but grew up outside of Syracuse and went to college in Binghamton. Very cool!

    Take care - Tony

  3. By the way - when I said I asked the director "who it was", I meant to say I asked "who is the album by"? (so I could look for it) Believe me - I KNEW it was Brecker immediately!

  4. Gents: thanks for your comments!

    joesh: great points -- I'll also note that you can really hear Joe Henderson's influence in a lot of what Brecker does here -- I intended to discuss that at length in the post, but got side-tracked in a busy semester!

    Tony: I picked up this recording back when it first came out knowing nothing about it, except that it had horrible cover art and a horrible name -- "You Can't Live Without It" -- which made me fear it was going to be disco or otherwise lightweight. However, it had the Brecker Bros. on it, which was promising, and all the tunes were standards and "good stuff." And, yeah, once I heard it, I was blown away -- and this is one that I waited a long time for on CD, 'cuz I played the LP to death -- in part thanks to transcribing this thing!

    Anyways, thanks gents!

  5. I'm a senior in high school and a jazz student, and I'm a fan of Michael Brecker. Thanks for this transcription! I've been studying some Brecker (really whatever I can find on the internet; my transcription skills are not good enough for Brecker) and this is going to be the next piece I look at.

  6. Andrew: there's a ton of worthy stuff here, especially in term of minor ii-V7-i approaches and the alt scale (as noted in the post) and on and on... Good luck!

  7. Hey Kelly! This is a great post. I love your blog, and will plan to keep visiting. We named our dog Brecker after Michael, who is probably my favorite tenor player of all time. See you soon!

  8. Thanks for this transcription ,Kelly...i learnd much with this...

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    1. Thank you so much for your warm and friendly transcription, extremely it's nice to discover what you never knew (Mike in Jack Wilkins band 77), when I'm older too, i will put a lot of transcriptions for the common heritage of the world heritage of jazz.

  12. I went to download the transcription, but it says "file not found." Hope you can get this fixed!

    1. Hi aj: Dropbox has destroyed their public folder, and therefore destroyed a lot of my links on this blog! Once summer hits and I hopefully have more time I'm going to try to find a Dropbox replacement and get these links back up.

    2. Hey aj, since you asked -- do me a favor and tell me if this link works!