Catching Up With Randy Brecker
'Every work of art is a child of its age' - Vassily Kandinsky
With modern legacies of the likes of Miles, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan (the latter two also from Philly), Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell to contend with, and it being a decidedly lead instrument, anyone picking up a trumpet in 60's Philly had serious baggage to face. Finding one's own definitive style and approach amongst the formidably indelible efforts of those then primary purveyors was daunting at best. Growing up in Philadelphia, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and brother Mike - both irrepressible prodigies - were well up to the challenge though. Originally known as half of the legendary Brecker Brother's horn section Randy started very early - 3rd grade ' both he and Mike growing up in a world of their own making, though eventually going on to punch up literally thousands of sessions together, both jazz and rock.
It was while co-fronting Horace Silver's quintet in the late 60's, with Mike that they formed 'Dreams', with Billy Cobham and John Abercrombie, a primary voice in the then emerging fusion scene and along with David Sanborn on alto, went on to become the dream team for session work of all stripes. This all brought word of their abilities to countless industry contacts and they were eventually approached to record under their own name, 'as long as we called it 'The Brecker Brothers'', Randy explains. Their album, Heavy Metal Be-Bop continues to be possibly the definitive description for what they and other progress musicians were trying to then do: organically meld the intellect and soul of jazz improvisation with the sheer power of rock into a cohesive, convincing statement. The immediate popular and critical acclaim, sales figures and the four Grammy nominations they received for their first album alone may best answer that question.
By the mid-late 70's the Brecker Brother's became so successful - on the scale of the very name rock bands for which they opened - and were often compared with other horn led groups like Average White Band, Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears (for whom he led the horn section). There's a story that's almost an urban legend among musicians, indicative of the level their fearsome prowess and success as well as its effect on other bands. If true, apparently when opening for Procol Harum in Europe, while onstage before that group, the Brecker's board levels were tampered with in an insecure effort to keep the opening act from blowing them off their own stage. Basically, all you were said to have heard was Mike's tenor.
Even if it never happened, it could've and with so many other groups in that situation. The Breckers alone or together, were and are that formidable a sonic force, as attested on sessions as disparate as those with Aerosmith, AWB, George Benson, BST, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Donald Fagen, Bob James, Elton John, Ricki Lee Jones, Chaka Khan, BB King, John Mayall, Lyle Mays, Jaco Pastorius, Parliament, Robert Palmer, Lou Reed, Diana Ross, Todd Rundgren, Dave Sanborn, John Scofield, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Sinatra, Springsteen, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Dave Weckl, Steve Winwood, Johnny Winter and Frank Zappa. And that's the short list. The only one shorter would be the list of those with whom they haven't played.
Since then the multi Grammy-winning trumpeter has released a number of notable efforts including the The Jazztimes Superband co-led with Bob Berg, Dennis Chambers and Joey Defrancesco, the acoustic In the Idiom, with Joe Henderon, Ron Carter and Al Foster, Live at Sweet Basil with Bob Berg, Joey Baron and Dave Kikowski, Hangin' in the City with Mike Brecker and Richard Bona and the Grammy-winning Into the Sun with David Sanborn and Gil Goldstein. He and Mike have continued to tour and record sporadically as the Brecker Brother's Band whenever possible, record and work with a select group of other artists as sidemen and enjoy their rightful place at the top of music's creative pyramid.
Appearing every bit the retro bopper today, beret and beard ever present, Brecker's energy belies his extensive experience as he appears on a couple of impressive new releases including his own 34th 'n Lex and Bill Evan's Big Fun (not to be confused with Miles' recording of the same name). Both are intelligent, high-energy excursions on the German ESC label.
It was a great pleasure to have the chance to speak with a literal musical icon. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Randy Brecker
AAJ: Hello, Randy. Hope this is still a good time.
RB: Yeah, I was just warming up, doing long tones before you called.
AAJ: So what's up with the Randroid persona? That's a great site; hilarious (when its up). RB - Well, that's just an alter ego, a persona; things that I used to do.
AAJ: Kind of tongue in cheek...
RB: Yeah. Very much so. (see cover of Hangin' in the City )
AAJ: Do you maintain your own sites?
RB: Not www.randybrecker.com but www.randroid.com, I do. It's been awhile though.
AAJ: I really liked Ada's (Roditti, saxophonist/Randy's wife) album with you, Mike Stern and Don Alias. Real nice. Is that her first?
RB: Thanks. Yeah, it's her first official release.
AAJ: And she's on your latest album.
AAJ: Can you talk about the making of the new ESC album: 34th N Lex ?
RB: It was meant to be a more acoustic thing. Mike's playing tenor, David Sanborn, Ronnie Cuber (baritone), Fred Wesley (t'bone), Ada, Chris Min Doky (bass), Clarence Penn (drums), Adam Rodgers (guitar) and George Whitty (keys, production) are also on it.
AAJ: I can hear all kinds of things in it, even fragments reminiscent of Brecker Brother's tunes seem to find their ways in. What's the significance of the title for you?
RB: Well, that's where I live.
AAJ: I knew it had to be something like that (laughs).
RB: It's an apartment, a rental with single pane windows, so it's noisy with the cars and sirens; you'll probably hear one here pretty soon. It's a pretty active corner.
AAJ: I take it you don't have any trouble sleeping.
RB: Well, it took me awhile to get used to it.
AAJ: Yeah, I'm sure. So who's in your working band now?
RB: George Whitty on piano and keyboards, Chris Min Doky on bass, Clarence Penn on drums and Adam Rodgers plays guitar.
AAJ: "The Fisherman" was dedicated to Bob Berg (great tenor saxophonist and Miles alumni) and sounds very much like something he'd have done on his own albums.
RB: Yeah. He loved fishing. His funeral was about half fishermen. Some who knew he played something but not much more than that.
AAJ: That's a trip. Did you have projects lined up that you were doing?
RB: Yeah, he was going to do the tour this summer (of Europe) and he was also going to be on the album ( 34th n Lex ).
AAJ: It's tragic. He was an incredible musician and person and it was really good to see some-thing done in his honor. We were recording tracks that very day (12/5/02) for him to be on; our next CD is dedicated to him. How is everyone doing?
RB: They're getting though it. We were pretty close. I have a place out in Eastern Long Island, too (as did Berg, and where his family still lives). It's been hard for them. I'm close to his family and they're getting through it.
AAJ: That's good to know. Just talked with Bill Evans; he says you write and record on the road and seemed pretty impressed with that.
RB: Yeah, well, there's not much else to do on the road. I write with a small keyboard I carry with me. I use an M-box by Digidesign which lets you plug your horn or instrument right into a laptop. A lot of guys are using them now. I have a studio at home and work with my co-producer, George Whitty (also pianist, arranger, composer).
AAJ: Good system, the M box. That must really free you up. Interesting that Bill's also a fisherman (and both were with Miles and Brecker adjacently).
RB: That's right.
AAJ: What were your original influences?
RB: Well, originally they were all trumpet players. My dad was a pianist and played sometimes and had Miles, Clifford Brown and Chet Baker in his collection, so I was always listening to those. Later when I had a stereo of my own in my room I'd take them in there. We had a family band, but he knew what a hard life it could so he wanted us to have something to fall back on.
AAJ: Right. So when did you know you were going to be a musician?
RB: Pretty early on, probably about third grade. I wasn't interested in anything else. Music is my life. I love music more than my wife. Mike and I both started playing in third grade, though he's a few years younger than me. At school there was trumpet and clarinet available. I chose trumpet and Mike didn't want to play the same thing as me, so he chose clarinet. Our sister Emily was a serious classical pianist but played bass in the family band. My dad would take us to hear music around Philly, like Clifford Brown.
AAJ: You got to hear Clifford?
RB: No. My dad did though.
AAJ: That's amazing. I don't think I've ever known anyone who'd gotten to see him live. The tune 'Shanghigh' ( 34th 'n Lex ) has a real 'Red Clay' vibe in the horn line. What's your process for writing tunes or do you have one?
RB: I don't really have one. Sometimes I start with a melody or changes or a rhythm part working with a keyboard. I work with a keyboard at least a few hours a day. Sometimes you don't know if something will be an A section or B section.
AAJ: Yeah, that's true. As you collect fragments you never know if they'll be a segue, intro, coda or an A or B section 'til you have a context. You worked with Jaco quite a bit. What was that like?
RB: Well, he was an amazing musician. He played everything: drums, piano and a lot of other instruments. Jaco had played a lot of soul: James Brown etc.
AAJ: Yeah, and it showed. You and Mike owned the club 7th Avenue South (midtown Manhattan club owned by Mike and Randy in the 70's and creative hub) at the time, where both your groups and Jaco's played sometimes. Was it true that his 'Word of Mouth' band started there?
RB: Good question'could be. Steps Ahead was also forming and Jaco wanted Mike and a second saxophonist. I think Mike wanted the chance to be featured and to play acoustic and Steps was an acoustic band featuring one saxophonist.
AAJ: What's the status of Brecker Brother's band?
RB: We still do some things every once in awhile.
AAJ: Do you still do studio work?
RB: I do a few sessions. Not like before though.
AAJ: Saw you a few months ago when you came down to San Antonio. Great to see you in a small club setting. Is it different at all to play for sixty or 6000? Are you affected that way?
RB: Not really. It's nice to play small clubs though.
AAJ: What are your current and future projects?
RB: Well, besides the 34th n' Lex album, recently played on the new Caribbean Jazz Project CD (Concord), Chuck Loebs new CD (Shanachie) and Cadence trio's Brazilian CD Clavebop and Ada's CD Under the Hat (Apria). We just got back from playing Scullers, in Boston, a small club there, then a Jazz festival in Equador and we were just in Europe this Summer. There's also a band called the WDR big band that I'll be performing my music with in Cologne next month.
AAJ: Very cool. Looking forward. Thanks very much for your time, Randy. All the best.
Randy's Rider (See Mr. X's comments)