Tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker assembled some of his friends and favorite players on “Pilgrimage,” his last album recorded shortly before dying of leukemia in January this year. Though in ailing health during recording, the compositions (in a first for one of his albums, all are Brecker originals) are mostly energetic, vibrant and unsentimental. The collage of sounds also holds surprises for the listener. Even “When Can I Kiss You Again?” — whose intensity builds from a quiet, minor key love song to a joyful and passionate solo from Brecker — is tempered by a beat of silence and a coda of resigned longing.
Pat Metheny’s guitar plays off Brecker’s tenor in a tantalizing harmony usually reserved for trumpeters, best heard on “The Mean Time.” Brecker and pianist Brad Mehldau trade short phrases with verve in “Cardinal Rule,” while Herbie Hancock’s dissonant chords add to the liveliness.
The album ends with the 10-minute title track, Brecker’s sure phrasing enveloped by a layer of Hancock’s xylophone-tone keyboard in an ethereal intro that slowly fades. Then Brecker’s tenor alone is heard on the theme’s first four bars before the band comes in to a serenade that plays with harmonies and electronic music. The piece exemplifies Brecker’s musicality, creativity, and compositional flair; the album represents a dignified monument to a musician who willed himself to one, final peak.