NEW YORK - The jazz world came together at Town Hall last night to remember saxophone player Michael Brecker.
And it came to play.
Brecker, the 13-time Grammy winner from Cheltenham who is widely regarded as the most influential sax man of the last 35 years, died from leukemia at age 57 in January.
Last night, a lineup of luminaries including Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Paul Simon went onstage just a stone's throw from the bright lights of Times Square to pay tribute to a musician who played on more than 900 albums.
This month, Brecker won two posthumous Grammys for a recording with his older brother, Randy, a trumpeter. Last night, Randy Brecker said: "I remember when 'Trane died, thinking, 'What are we going to do?' " speaking of his brother's saxophone hero, John Coltrane. "That feeling is once again upon us."
Michael Brecker also recorded as a leader and with his much-lauded early 1980s group Steps Ahead, as well as making pop records with Joni Mitchell, Parliament Funkadelic and Bruce Springsteen. In a video tribute, James Taylor credited Brecker, his sponsor when he was trying to kick a drug habit in the 1970s, with saving his life.
Hancock was among the many who praised Brecker both as a musician and as a friend. "I had so many opportunities to play with Michael, and I never could believe what was coming out of his horn," he said, before sitting at the piano for "Chan's Song," one of his own compositions that Brecker recorded. Later, he accompanied Simon on a Fender Rhodes on "Still Crazy After All These Years," whose sax solo, Simon remembered, Brecker nailed in two takes.
Last August, more than two years after he was diagnosed with the bone-marrow disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, which progressed into leukemia, Brecker recorded a final album, with Hancock and Metheny. It will be released in May.
A sample was played at the end of the packed ceremony last night, after Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and Brecker's 13-year-old son, Sam, led the crowd in an interlude of Buddhist chanting in honor of Brecker, who Hancock said began practicing the faith before his death.
The mournful, elegiac sound of Brecker's sax might have been the most beautiful music heard in the two-hour evening. But it had serious competition. (It was also the only saxophone heard: Sax player Dave Liebman joked that Brecker's wife, Susan, had instituted a "no saxophones" edict. Liebman played a "two-dollar flute" instead.)
Brecker is also survived by his daughter, Jessica, 17, and sister, Emily Brecker Greenberg of Cheltenham.
Metheny played a gorgeously melodic piece called "Every Day I Thank You." He said Brecker's great gift was "to manifest the sound of what it's like to be alive on earth that everyone - whether a musician or not - could immediately recognize. That's the rarest thing."
A bone-marrow donor was sought for Brecker, but the needed match was never found. Still, Brecker attempted to raise awareness for blood testing to help treat diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma, through a foundation called Time Is of the Essence. For more information, go to www.marrow.org.
"Mike saw his condition as something he could use to help others," Hancock said. "If that's not compassion, I don't know what compassion is."