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Randy Brecker: Zelig Goes Brazilian

By Published: October 27, 2008
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."

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