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Posthumous 'Pilgrimage' is Michael Brecker at his best

Michael Brecker ranks among the most influential and imitated saxophonists in jazz history. His tone was sinewy and sultry, full-bodied and expressive. He performed in an array of styles, from contemporary post-bop to funk to pop. He played behind an astonishing range of artists, from the jazz pianist Horace Silver to the pop singer Paul Simon. Frankly, he put more effort into supporting other artists -- and co-leading the Brecker Brothers funk outfit with his brother, the trumpeter Randy Brecker -- than furthering his own solo career. He did lead his own sessions, but they were uneven. Despite earning 13 Grammies, he never issued a masterpiece.

Not while he was alive anyway.

Brecker died in January at age 57 of leukemia and a rare bone marrow disease called myelodysplastic syndrome . While suffering the effects of his debilitating condition, Brecker went into the studio with a team of A-list musicians and recorded a passionate, energetic collection of music. Titled "Pilgrimage," it is the culmination of his career. It is the record of his life. And it might be the jazz album of the year.

This is not melodramatic praise spurred by some desire to memorialize the tenor saxophonist. On its own terms, "Pilgrimage" is a stunning achievement: 77 minutes of compelling original music that never loses its edge, solos that soar, dynamic group interplay that communicates wonderfully in the universal language.

Anyone expecting a mournful, ballad-filled enterprise is in for a surprise. This album celebrates life with its joyous themes, upbeat rhythms, and stellar performances from Brecker's quintet, which features guitarist Pat Metheny , bassist John Patitucci , drummer Jack DeJohnette , and pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau , who take turns depending on the need for their vastly differing styles.

Brecker throws his entire being into his solos, hopscotching through the melody on "The Mean Time," contrasting the harmony on the tense "Five Months From Midnight," bending notes and playing counterrhythms on the stormy "Loose Threads" (which incidentally features one of the finest solos we have ever heard from Hancock).

There is a touch of melancholy here and there -- especially on the only ballad, the sparsely decorated "When Can I Kiss You Again?," whose title was inspired by something Brecker's teenage son said to him in the hospital. But there is nothing remotely maudlin about "Pilgrimage." Brecker even seems angry at times, and on "Tumbleweed" he's completely playful, blowing against a rock groove that feels like one of Hancock's old "Fat Albert" pieces rejiggered. Even the title tune, the final track Brecker ever recorded, is filled with optimistic and high spirits.

No, there is no self-pity here. "Pilgrimage" is sheer exuberance. One gets the feeling Brecker had a lot on his chest, things he wanted to say with this final statement made in the last months of his life. The man knew he was dying. He knew this session would be his final recording. He made it count. He let it all out. He blows us away.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at