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Randy Brecker: Zelig Goes Brazilian

By Published: October 27, 2008

...I've always found it challenging, and I always enjoy trying to do something completely different than I've done the last time. —Randy Brecker

Randy Brecker "My father told me when I was five or six years old—he grabbed me and said, 'the trumpet is the greatest jazz instrument.' And I think he was right," says Randy Brecker, a trumpeter known the world over, it seems, regardless of the style of music he plays, inside and out of the jazz world.

"It's a love-hate relationship. Some days I want to throw it out the window. But I still love the sound of the trumpet, after all these years. It's just a thrill to hear it played well."

Brecker has been playing trumpet, quite well, thank you, for decades. He started at the age of eight and was gigging in his native Philadelphia as a teenager. He's always busy, either on his own projects or with others, by not only leading his own fine groups, but also by being part of important bands in the jazz, pop and rock worlds for decades—like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Horace Silver, the Mingus Big Band, Dreams and the Brecker Brothers with his saxophone playing brother and now jazz icon, Michael—to name only a handful. There can't be many music fans who haven't heard his strong sound.

According to Breckers's website, he has appeared on well over 900 recordings. Blues artists like Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, John Mayall, Johnny Winter and B.B. King have used his sound to embellish their music. Pop and Rock music? Try Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, Elton John, Ringo Starr, Dave Matthews, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Rickie Lee Jones, James Brown, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Luther Vandross, James Taylor, and Lou Reed.

That doesn't cover it all, but one gets the picture.

"I think of myself as multidirectional. That's the only way to describe it," he says. And after all this time, his love of the brass instrument has lost no luster. (Nor has his sound on the instrument.)

Brecker recounts a trip back to the United States earlier this year from Cologne, Germany, where, with the WDR Big Band, he played a musical tribute to a close friend, the late Hiram Bullock, with arrangements by Michael Abene, a friend going back to his days playing with Maynard Ferguson in the 1970s. "I was flying home. The whole way home I listened on my iPod to old Maynard records that featured some of Mike's old arrangements... The sound of the trumpet, the sound of Maynard, still shakes me up. I still love the sound. That keeps me going."

Brecker is also constantly writing and working up different projects that will place him in different settings and have different challenges. He likes that.

...In Brasil

The latest recording project to come to the fore is Randy in Brasil, a record done in Brazil with musicians he had come to know over the years. The project was developed about three years ago and comes to realization now on MAMA Records. It was done in Brazil and features compositions of Joao Bosco, Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil and Djavan. They're not of the Jobim generation, but have taken that example and run with it, each in their own direction, to great success in their homeland. "They're my generation or maybe a little younger. They've all been around for a long time and are household names in Brazil," says Brecker.

The CD idea a few years ago was "a fluky thing," he says. In Japan, visiting a Brazilian club, he met percussionist Marco Bosco, who was working with Sadao Watanabe, but mentioned he was moving back to Brazil and starting a record company with Ruria Duprat, a producer/composer/arranger who had his own studio. Brecker was asked if he'd like to record for them. It took a few years, but it happened.

Randy Brecker "I decided to go down there, sight unseen. It sounded, at the very least, like it would be fun. I'd always wanted to record in Brazil. I did a semi-Brazilian record (Into the Sun, Concord, 1996) about ten years ago. It won a Grammy. I've always, through Eliane [his ex-wife and pianist/composer, Eliane Elias] and Amanda [his daughter, Amanda Brecker, now also a singer/composer] had a deep connection to the country. Even before them, I went there a lot. I think 1979 was my first trip with the Mingus Big Band.

"So I went down there and helped choose the tunes... I stayed for a couple days and recorded everything. It kind of disappeared for a while, because the record company never got off the ground. I think they had one release. For several months, everybody disappeared, and I almost forgot about it. But then I started e-mailing Ruria, and slowly but surely, by e-mail, we put the thing together, mixed it, and I started looking for a deal for it here. Summit/MAMA was kind enough to be interested and put it out.

"Now it's coming out in Japan, on the JVC/Victor label... So it's going to get worldwide release. So I'm happy about that."

"Pedro Brasil" kicks off the CD and pretty much sets the mood for the recording. Bright and lively, Brecker and saxophonist Teco Cardoso play over a light cushion of rhythms, from percussion instrument, guitar and keyboards. Brecker's tone and articulation are typical of what people have come to know and enjoy. Crisp, clear, agile. As Brecker notes, it may seem simple, but repeated listening shows that Brecker is playing through a more intricate musical maze. He makes it look easy, like some outstanding athletes can do. The tunes have places where wordless vocals float across the melodies and other items have been added in the production that lend to a velvety ambiance.

"I think this CD, due to the fact that I actually had a producer [Duprat] in charge, showing me the ropes, telling me what to do, etc., was kind of a unique experience for me. Hopefully, it will help sell the record," says the trumpeter. "I thought he did a really good job of thinking through all the tunes. He obviously put in a lot of time writing arrangements for woodwind sections, having a singer on a couple tunes, finding samples and adding little things here and there that are signs of a good producer. Plus, he did a really good job mixing the thing, though I had a hand in that."

Duprat, says Brecker, is a well-known producer and one of the foremost film writers in his country.

Brecker also penned a few tunes for the album. "Guaruja" is a ballad that shows Brecker's strong and inventive voice on his instrument. Unrushed, he executes his statements with passion. "Sambop," as the name hints, has flavors of samba and bebop expression. Its faster pace allows Brecker to display his considerable chops at times, and his romanticism at others. The songs stand up with those written by the Brazilians and are a fine fit in the Randy in Brasil mix.

Says Brecker, "The basic tunes were all written out. It was tightly arranged. Then I improvised on the themes... As accessible as some of the tunes are, they're at the same time difficult. There are a lot of chords. There are a lot of rhythms you have to hit. The melodies themselves are all pretty hard. A lot of the melodies were sung, and to translate a lot of vocal tunes into instrumental music takes some thought. They were all difficult tunes. If anything, this is one of the more difficult projects I've ever done, just to keep up with the harmony and play the right notes.

"There's some pretty complicated stuff, and there's a lot of notes on there, that's for sure. It's somewhat typical Brazilian style, but I am hoping that it is a little more accessible and will get a little more [radio] play than a lot of my projects. I think they are accessible, but they fall between radio formats and have never gotten much radio action."

The musicians are all Brazilian. Brecker selected guitarist Ricardo Silveira, a friend he's recorded with in New York on different projects. "On my very first trip to Brazil, I spent a lot of time with Ricardo in 1979. I stayed in touch. He's also one of the most famous instrumentalists in Brazil, so I was happy to get him on the recording." Others he had heard of, but never met. "All the sidemen are very famous in Brazil from having played with a lot of these composers. They're kind of the equivalent of the [popular U.S. studio musicians] Steve Gadds or the Anthony Jacksons."

Whether Brecker will tour in support of the disk remains to be seen. There's interest in behalf of the players. But that music was recorded, Brecker is always moving. There are always more things to be planned—more irons in the fire.

Randy Brecker "I've always kept my fingers in a million different things. I have two core bands. One is an electric band and one is a more acoustic band, both of whom feature my wife [Italian saxophonist] Ada Rovatti. People like Rodney Holmes on drums, Dave Kikoski on keyboards, Rich Stein on guitar. There are different bass players... We did a lot of touring last year in Germany—the usual summer stops like the North Sea Jazz Festival. I've also been playing as a special guest with other groups—people like [trombonist] Conrad Herwig. We recorded The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock. In August I did a project in Poland with a symphony. That's coming out [as a recording]. A jazz symphonic project written with the area of Poland where my family was—that was the inspiration of the piece ["Tyocin"]. It was written by a guy named Vlodek Pawlik. He's also a famous film writer in Poland. It was a wonderful piece, so I'm looking forward to hearing that when it comes out, with the Bialystok Symphony Orchestra.

"I did a project in Japan with a brass group that did a tribute to the Brecker Brothers. That's also coming out on JVC/Victor. It was a live concert at the Hanamatsu Jazz Festival.

"I did a lot of recording over the summer. A lot of the stuff will come out around the same time. I'm always writing tunes and figuring out what the next project is going to be. I'm not sure in what direction it's going to go. I've got some jazz tunes and some funkier stuff. We'll see. I'll probably put something out at the end of next year, or the year after."

A lot of good musicians can't list as many happenings as those mentioned by Brecker. But he continues to make good music and continues to be seen in idioms other than jazz. He doesn't view those gigs any differently. There are many facets to music, and Brecker is facile in them all.

"I've been lucky, in a lot of ways. I've always diversified. I've got my fingers in a lot of aspects of the business. I enjoy teaching and have always done a lot of clinics and workshops and concerts at colleges—working with kids, working with college big bands and small groups. That's occupied a lot of my time. In the heyday of the studio scene, I was on a lot of records. That projected my name around to a lot of different circles. At the same time, I kept my sense of identity by writing my own material and putting my own records out, either with my brother, Mike, or solo projects."

Brother Michael

His younger brother, of course, is one of the most influential saxophonists since Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and the trumpeter, as well as others in the music world, had to deal with his death in 2007 after a battle with myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disease that resulted in leukemia.

Randy Brecker "I sure miss him. He went on to create his own world, so to speak," says the trumpeter. "I like to think I sent him in the right direction, as did his idol, John Coltrane. Mike's playing was so excellent, he was in a category all his own, the way it ended up. I remember sitting behind [saxophonists] Jimmy Heath and Antonio Hart. We were doing a Dizzy Gillespie reunion tour. We were in a van on the way to a gig in L.A. three or four years ago, when Mike was alive. They were talking about tenor players, one guy or another. Antonio brought up Mike's name and he said, 'Mike is over here.' In other words, Mike was in a category all his own. You can't put him with anybody else. And it was really true. He created a style that melded R&B and jazz and created something that was unique. We really miss him.

"He spent a lot of years studying composition that inspired him to try and write. He started later. Then his writing completely surpassed mine. I'd give him stuff to play, but he was well beyond what I was writing. He was kind enough to play on my stuff, but he was really in another place that I can only hope and imagine to find my own way to. I was very proud of him. The music world misses him."

Michael Brecker's last project was his Pilgrimage CD (Heads Up, 2007) done with a roster of greats: Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny and John Patitucci. "It was done when he was very, very ill," says Brecker. "It is probably his most fully realized project. It's ironic that it took that illness to produce that record. It's an incredible record. I knew how sick he was. How he got the wherewithal and the strength to do that is incredible.

"We miss him. I think of him every day."

The trumpeter performed in bands over the years with his brother, including with drummer Billy Cobham among others. Studio projects also included the brothers on many occasions.

"When the studio world started to tank, due to a lot of electronic drum machines and sampling, etc., I also had a career established as a live artist and with a band. One thing has always led to another. If anything, I spend more time turning down work than taking it. I've been very lucky in that regard, because the business out there is kind of rough these days. It's hard to get a project out. That's the main thing. You have to just put them out yourself."

Beginnings in Philly

Brecker's beginnings in Philadelphia set the stage for his career. His father played piano, but loved the trumpet. He says it was a novelty to have a young kid around that could play the noble brass instrument, and that helped him get gigs as a kid.

"By the time I was 15 or 16, I could improvise, mostly by ear. But I could improvise on some pretty difficult tunes. I think the black community in Philly really took me under their wing and let me sit in and play with a lot of local jazz stars. Among them, people like Clarence "C" Sharpe, a wonderful alto player whose name was Tony Williams, and also a tenor player named Bootsy Barnes... I think that was the basis of it. I was given carte blanch to sit in with a lot of my heroes, and I did that whenever I could. I started to work around town a lot with people like Lew Tabackin, who I'm still very close to. I met a lot of musicians in Philly, and I worked quite regularly there with different groups.

"It was only a stone's throw to New York, and I eventually made the move after I went to school at Indiana University, which also furthered my career. Indiana had a great big band. We won a bunch of contests. During my college years, I befriended people like Clark Terry and Mel Lewis at various competitions. They also were instrumental in helping me when I moved to New York."

Brecker was heavily influenced by Clifford Brown, the trumpet great from nearby Wilmington, Delaware, who made Philly his musical home. "He played, when I was a young kid, all the time in Philly at a place called the Rendezvous. He was number one. My dad had all his records. I fell in love with his sound and conception, his musicality and the way he played ballads. Also Miles Davis. Dad had a lot of his records. One of the first records I deeply got into was Round About Midnight. I learned that tune. It was one of the first records I learned to play along with."

Chet Baker's My Funny Valentine and the trumpet and flugelhorn of Shorty Rogers also went into the head of the young Brecker. "Also, Dizzy [Gillespie]. His technique was so overwhelming, I got to him later. I went with the lyrical guys first. They were easier to emulate."

He says starting very young was a big plus to his career. "I had the same teacher. Tony Marchione was his name. He also taught Lee Morgan. Lee was also great when he was 15, 16, 17, 18. There was a lot going on. There were a lot of places off the beaten path, but if you knew where they were, you could go and play."

He studied music at Indiana University and in 1966 moved to New York City, where he started working with big bands led by Clark Terry, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and Duke Pearson. He was also finishing his studies at NYU. That led to a gig with one of the great jazz-rock groups.

Randy Brecker "I went up to Julliard [School of Music] a couple times and played with a big band there. The music was written by Kirk Nurock, who's still on the scene," says Brecker. "One of the trumpet players at Julliard was asked to join Blood, Sweat & Tears. His name was Jerry Weiss. They already had a second trumpet in mind. Whoever he was, he decided he didn't want to go on the road. He bailed on the band. Jerry, having played with me at Julliard, suggested me. I became friends with all those guys. Still, we're pretty close, many of us. I was in the band for about a year. Before they made millions of dollars, I quit to join Horace Silver. At the time, it seemed like a not-too-bright move, but it all worked out, in the long run, for the best, because I had a couple great years playing with Horace.

Brecker played on the Blood, Sweat & Tears' first album, Child Is Father to the Man (Columbia, 1968).

"That's a great classic record. It introduced the rock public to horns. I don't think most young fans of rock and roll knew the difference between a trumpet and a trombone. They learned, through groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago, and later a group we had called Dreams."

Dreams

As Brecker's time with Silver expired, the formation of the Dreams band came about as the new decade dawned.

"By then, late 1969 or early 1970, Horace decided to break up the band. In that band were myself, Billy Cobham and John B. Williams. Billy and I came back to New York and were kind of floating around. During those months, my brother moved to New York, also from Indiana University, and befriended a trombonist, Barry Rogers, who was very famous in the Latin field. Barry had played with Eddie Palmieri and set the standard on trombone and its sound with Eddie Palmieri's band," says Brecker.

"He was looking to do something else. He had met a couple singer/songwriters from L.A., Doug Lubhan and Jeff Kent. They wanted to start a band with horns, called Dreams. Lo and behold, myself and Billy were out of a job. Mike called me and told me about this scenario. We all got together, six of us, and we listened to tunes and jammed up some arrangements and it just jelled very fast. We decided to add a guitar and chose the then-young jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, who brought along a wah-wah pedal to the audition because he thought it made him sound more rock and roll. We loved the way he played, so he ended up joining the band and playing on the first record, which was called Dreams (Columbia, 1970). The group also did a follow-up album, Imagine My Surprise (Columbia, 1971).

Randy Brecker "That kind of launched all of our studio careers, because we had a steady job on weekends at the Village Gate opening for any number of famous groups or comedians. A lot of people came down and heard myself and my brother and Barry play together. We became known as the horn section. One thing led to another. That's what really started our studio careers."

After Dreams, Brecker did some more work with Silver, as well as Larry Coryell and The 11th House. The brothers Brecker played with Cobham's groups for a couple years, after the drummer left one of the seminal fusion groups, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. Cobham's band recorded frequently in a short time. "Every four or five months, he would go in and record stuff he was writing. Shabazz (Atlantic, 1974) was one of them, A Funky Thide of Sings (Atlantic, 1975) was another. We did two or three records with him."

Brecker Brothers

The formation of the Brecker Brothers, which still has a strong legion of fans, "came about during the years we were playing with Billy Cobham," says Brecker. It was his idea that stemmed from a desire to start following his own muse.

"During the early '70s when I was doing a lot of studio work, playing with Billy Cobham and bands on the road... When I got home from a long day at the studio, I felt the need to express myself creatively, so I started to write. The main thought behind a lot of the tunes was the fact that I had a friend, who was then unknown, whose name was David Sanborn. We went to camp together at Indiana University when we were 15. He had moved to Woodstock. I thought it would be a great idea to bring him and my brother together in a horn section," says Brecker.

"I started writing with that in mind, and also people that started playing in Dreams: Don Grolnick on keyboards and Will Lee on bass, who replaced the original singer/songwriters on the second Dreams record. We would get together on a weekly basis, because Don was writing a lot of tunes too. [Guitarist] Steve Khan was in the apartment building where they all lived, and Chris Parker, a great drummer. That became the nucleus of what became known as the Brecker Brothers Band."

The origin of the band name took a different turn. "A guy named Steve Becker thought of the name. He approached me at the point where I'd written enough material to conceptualize a project. I was going to record everything and then try to sell it. Word had filtered around that we were getting together and playing these tunes." Becker had signed a production deal with Clive Davis, who had left Columbia and was joining the new Arista Records label.

Randy Brecker "I met with Steve, and he said, 'If you call this group the Brecker Brothers, I'll sign you to my production deal and you'll be with Arista Records.' Believe it or not, all those years we played together, nobody had coined the phrase. I was conceptualizing a Randy Brecker solo record. At first, I said I wanted it to be called Randy Brecker, featuring Mike Brecker and David Sanborn. The Brecker Brothers doesn't make that much sense, because there were three horns, equally featured, so where does that leave Sanborn? After thinking about it for about a week, Mike was playing so great, as was Dave, I then said it was a good opportunity. I don't have to record a demo and take it around and hope to sell it. So I called up Steve and said, 'Go ahead. Call it Brecker Brothers.'"

"That's how the band was born. We signed and we did that first record (The Brecker Brothers, Arista, 1975), which sold far beyond my wildest dreams, partially due to the fact that Clive Davis insisted we go back into the studio... He coerced us to go back into the studio and record a single. These were the years when a single helped sell a CD. So we went back to Don's apartment and jammed up a tune in about three hours, called 'Sneakin' Up Behind You,' which became a hit on the R&B charts. That's what really sold the thing. It got up to number five, I think, of the top 50 R&B tunes.

"We stayed together for six years, did six albums. They all did quite well."

The Brecker Brothers had critical and popular acclaim and earned seven Grammy nominations between 1975 and 1981.

Brecker's career stayed in constant motion. He performed on Mingus' last album, Me, Myself An Eye (Atlantic, 1978), which led to performances with the various Mingus itinerary bands operated by his widow, Sue Mingus. He also recorded with the likes of Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Stanley Turrentine, Clapton and countless others over the years.

In 1992 the Brecker Brothers returned. Their popularity strongly forged, the band did a world tour behind the triple-Grammy nominated GRP recording, The Return of the Brecker Brothers. The band finally won two Grammys with Out of the Loop (GRP, 1994). The '90s also saw the trumpeter earn a Grammy for his solo effort that also touched on Brazilian music, Into the Sun.

Zelig

His diversified career has rolled on.

"I guess I think of myself as the Zelig of the trumpet," he says, referencing the Woody Allen film of the same name in which the main character is literally a chameleon. Brecker has no problem with that at all.

"I think it's a problem for people who try to pin me down. It's been a problem, as far as the trajectory of my career. That I admit. But I've never been one to repeat myself as far as conceptualizing CD's. Some musicians kind of do the same CD over and over. There's nothing wrong with that. But I've always found it challenging, and I always enjoy trying to do something completely different than I've done the last time.

"It makes me hard to pin down. I think it confuses a lot of people, but this is the way I've worked. I'm constantly writing. I write in a lot of different styles. Sometimes I can't channel the way things come out. After several months, I might say I've got a lot of tunes that fit in a bebop context, and I'll do a jazz record, which is what I did when I did a record called In the Idiom (Denon, 1986) in the late '80s. Several years later, there were a lot of tunes that were Brazilian-influenced. So I put together a Brazilian record.

"I've done a lot of different things. I've played with a lot of pop bands, so that's a big influence in my writing and conceptualizing CD's. I also like to utilize electronics and the studio as an instrument. That goes all the way back to watching the way Blood, Sweat & Tears albums were done. I've never just been a jazz musician, per se, although jazz is the music closest to my heart since that's what I grew up with. But I've learned a lot since then and have tried to pass it on back out. As I learn something, I try to utilize it and record it."

With all that, he manages to stay excited by music and all the possibilities he explores.

Among the things to expect from Brecker next year is a gig he did with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Al Foster at Birdland that may be released on CD. "I also play with the Kenny Werner quintet quite a bit. There's talk about recording that. I'm playing with him in December at the Jazz Standard. We've been playing quite a bit with David Sanchez on saxophone, Antonio Sanchez on drums, and Scott Colley on bass. I always look forward to those gigs," says Brecker. "I'm doing more with Conrad Herwig, featuring myself and [pianist] Eddie Palmieri. We recorded that, so that's going to be coming out sometime soon. There's talk about going to Japan with that group."

Also new for Brecker, and his wife Ada, is a daughter, due in December.

"So I'm going to try to stay home more. My idea this coming year is to write a new record. I don't know which direction it's going to go or what it's going to come out like. I'm trying to stay home and stay off the road a little, because I've been traveling a good eight or nine months a year over the last three or four years—quite often with [Ada] in the band. She's going to be home taking care of our little girl, and I'm going to try and stay home more and just write. Come up with a new project."

In his aforementioned love-hate relationship with the trumpet, it's good for music fans that love conquers all.

"I'm enjoying writing and playing as much as ever. I'll be 63 in November. The horn's feeling real good. I sound like a [baseball] pitcher, but the horn's feeling really good. I'm playing it a lot and practicing more than ever. It's a hard instrument and always a challenge. You've got to put the time in, especially when you get up in years. It keeps me busy."

Selected Discography
Randy Brecker, Randy in Brasil (MAMA Records, 2008)
Bill Evans/Randy Brecker, Soul Bop Band Live (BHM Productions, 2006)
Randy Brecker with Michael Brecker, Some Skunk Funk (Telarc, 2005)
Randy Brecker, 34th N Lex (ESC, 2003)
Eliane Elias, Kissed by Nature (RCA Victor, 2002)
Randy Brecker, Hangin' in the City (ESC, 2001)
Mingus Big Band, Essential Mingus Big Band (Dreyfus Records, 2001)
Randy Brecker, Into the Sun (Concord, 1997)
Brecker Brothers, Out of the Loop (GRP, 1994)
Brecker Brothers, Return Of The Brecker Brothers (GRP, 1992)
Brecker Brothers, Straphangin' (Arista 1981)
Brecker Brothers, Detente (Arista, 1980)
Jaco Pastorius, Invitation (Warner Brothers,1979)
The Average White Band, Feel No Fret (RCA, 1979)
John Mayall, Bottom Line (DJM Records, 1979)
Brecker Brothers, Don't Stop The Music (Arista, 1977)
Brecker Brothers, Back To Back (Arista, 1976)
Heavy Metal Bebop, The Brecker Brothers (Arista, 1978)
Brecker Brothers, The Brecker Brothers (Arista, 1975)
Horace Silver, In Pursuit Of The 27th Man (Blue Note, 1972)
Dreams, Imagine My Surprise (Columbia, 1971)
Dreams, Dreams (Columbia, 1970)
Blood Sweat & Tears, Child Is Father To The Man (Columbia, 1968)

Photo Credit
Top/Bottom photos: Courtesy of Randy Brecker


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