Chuck Sher: Publisher of ‘The Practice Notebooks of Michael Brecker’

Since it was published in 1988, The New Real Book has sold over 100,000 copies, making it the best selling legal fake book of all time. The man behind that venture, publisher and founder of Sher Music Co. Chuck Sher, has since gone on to release a library’s worth of jazz education literature, from transcriptions to method books and several further real book volumes, with his latest release, The Practice Notebooks of Michael Brecker.

Brecker, a notoriously methodical practiser and perhaps the most revered saxophonist in the post-Coltrane era, documented his years of behind-the-scenes work in a series of notebooks that have been housed at William Paterson University since his passing in 2007. These notebooks are now available to the general public in Sher’s new book for the first time. Interview by Charles Rees

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LondonJazz News: Whose idea was it to publish Michael Brecker’s practice notebooks? 

Chuck Sher: I’ve often felt that Sher Music Co. has been called on by the Universe to help make jazz music grow and thrive because serendipitous things keep happening. For example, in this case, I was reading some random jazz article and it stated that Michael Brecker’s practice notebooks were in an archive at William Paterson University. A light bulb went off and the rest is history, as they say. I then wrote to Susan Brecker (Michael Brecker’s widow) for permission to publish Mike’s notebooks and, after some back and forth, that permission was granted. Evidently, a couple of other publishers were interested but when they were told it was 800 pages of material they never went any further. It’s a labor of love for me, so I jumped right in!

LJN: Many jazz musicians keep practice notes. Why was it important to publish Michael Brecker’s in particular?

CS: Several reasons: First, Mike was, along with John Coltrane, the most technically accomplished saxophonist in jazz history, to my ear. So the question of what he practiced to reach that level of mastery assumes greater importance than for other players. Besides his technical prowess, Mike had a real emotional impact on many musicians and so the question of what he practiced is of more than passing interest. “How did he come up with that amazing phrase?” is a frequent reaction to listening to Mike’s solos, and this book provides many answers to that question.

LJN: Did the notes require substantial editing, or did you find them well enough organised to publish in a similar style to how he kept them? 

CS: As stated, the original notebooks were about 800 pages worth of material. We couldn’t publish some of it because they were transcriptions of other musicians’ solos or songs, or irrelevant things like people’s phone numbers, etc. But we combed through all of the original material and extracted everything of musical value that we could. We’ve added no extraneous material, just some introductory pages. So the entries in the notebooks themselves are exactly as Michael wrote them. Many thanks, by the way, goes to David Dempsey, the curator of the Michael Brecker Archives at William Paterson University, for preserving all this material in the first place and for being a real help to us in creating the final product.

LJN: Plenty of Michael Brecker transcriptions and other resources have been available for years. What new insights into him does the book bring?

CS: Mike’s recorded solos are the endpoint of a long process of practicing and refining his ideas. We wanted to go behind the finished product to see the building blocks of his musical mind – the source material out of which his solos were created. 

LJN: Why was it important for you to include first-hand accounts from some of Brecker’s bandmates, and did you learn anything new from those interviews?

CS: Now that we have access to these building blocks the question remains, “How did Michael practice this material himself?” The obvious solution was to ask his bandmates and practicing partners that question. Our introduction “How to Use This Book” was the result. I learned a bunch from all of them (especially Richie Beirach‘s recollections), both as to the ways he would take a phrase and turn it every which way until it was ingrained in his musical memory, and also about the intensity of his desire to be as complete and developed a musician as possible. Furthermore, everyone who knew Mike said the same thing: that he was one of the nicest people they’d ever known and totally open to being with each of them when they were together. I believe this is not irrelevant to his being one of the giants of jazz – it seems that greatness will manifest itself, regardless of the form it takes. 

LJN: You’re only publishing the book in concert pitch. Talk a bit about the reason behind that…

CS: Mike often wrote (to himself) “Practice in all keys.” That was a big part of the practice routine that he learned from Gary Campbell. Gary, by the way, will contribute an appendix to the next printing (and on the book’s webpage) spelling that out. Since these phrases are meant to be played in all keys, it makes no difference where you start, right?

LJN: If the impact of Michael Brecker on the saxophone world is any indication, this book could end up being one of the most important jazz books to be published in decades. Reflect on that…

CS: That’s certainly my opinion, but time will tell. One thing I would like to mention is that these building blocks of Mike’s musicianship can be used in many ways – not only to incorporate some of Mike’s playing into your own vocabulary. I can envision people taking these phrases and having them end up as part of a “Kind of Blue” Miles approach, know what I mean? A beautiful melody is beautiful at any tempo!

[SYNOPSIS: Saxophonist Rick Margitza, curator of the Michael Brecker Collection at William Paterson University David Demsey, mouthpiece craftsman Adam Niewood, Brecker-scholar Luis Palacios, and publisher Chuck Sher discuss Michael Brecker’s practice notebooks.]

LINK: Purchase The Practice Notebooks of Michael Brecker from Sher Music Co.
Contents of the Michael Brecker Archive at William Paterson University

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