Randy Brecker: A Fusion Legacy


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I enjoy rhythm. That's where I'm coming from. That's what I grew up with.
—Randy Brecker
On stage at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland last July, the ubiquitous trumpeter Randy Brecker lowered his horn after playing two joyous and funky numbers on the stage that is one of the festivals largest venues, serving as a hockey arena during the appropriate season. There were throngs of people, sitting and standing, gleefully taking in the music. After wiping his forehead, Brecker formally announced his group: the Brecker Brothers Reunion Band.

"We play FUSION," he said, emphasizing the last word in a lower-register, foghorn like bellow. He repeated "FUUUUUSION."

He meant it. The band, on tour supporting the new recording The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion, serves up a full menu of funky, sparkling, pat-your-food, shake-your-butt music that is gritty and full of hot solos, as well. For years, the band, with Randy's brother Michael on saxophone, had a huge fan base and claimed their own spot in the fusion landscape, even as both Breckers, individually, also made their own reputations as top-shelf, intense mainstream jazz burners.

The formation of the band was somewhat inadvertent, as was this first reunion since the death of Michael Brecker, an iconic saxophonist, in 2007 after being diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), an illness leading to leukemia. But that music, and that band, is a place Randy Brecker now regards as home; somewhere he will depart from periodically, and to which he will return.

"You have to follow your muse," Brecker says recently from his New York City home. "I love playing straight ahead. That's what I started doing, playing acoustically. I still do quite a bit of that with other people and occasionally my own bands. But quite honestly, I feel most at home in this setting. I realized when I put this back together that this band is kind of my legacy. People still want to hear it, even if the 'jazz police' don't. We did a real successful tour all summer. There are a lot of people all over the world that still get excited hearing this stuff. It's exciting to play."

On saxophone is Ada Rovatti, a native of Italy who grew up hearing the Brecker Brothers and has a similar inclination toward fusing musical styles. She also happens to be Brecker's wife, and mother to their four-year-old daughter Stella.

"I love traditional jazz too. I do play it every time I have a chance," says Rovatti. "But Randy's music is probably the closest to what I like to play and how I feel about music. I truly enjoy that setting. All my recordings have kind of a fusion hint in it. That's where my heart is. But that doesn't mean I don't love to play in a more traditional setting. I love that too. The real me comes out also as a composer [of fusion material], and you can see where I'm standing."

The new record pays tribute to the old band in its personnel, and a tune or two. But it is not looking back. Brecker had been writing original material. He continues to do so, as does Rovatti. Concert goers will hear some of the familiar, but will be exposed to new creations, new art. The heart and soul of the band is the common touchstone from a past era to this one.

The new recording package is a sweet combination of an 11-cut CD recording and a live DVD of the band playing nine compositions at the Blue Note club in New York City. Naturally, the DVD captures beautifully the live show, which features great musicians like Will Lee on bass, Dave Weckl on drums and Mike Stern on guitar. The horns are burning, Brecker's power and tone as bright as ever; Rovatti pouring out streams of ideas with great feeling. Weckl drives this kind of music impeccably; smooth as silk, everywhere on his drum kit. Powerful and deft. And Stern is his usual remarkable self.

On the studio set, everyone is on. Personnel changes a bit. Mitch Stein and Adam Rogers play some guitar, Rodney Holmes some drums. Some tunes are the same on both discs. Noteworthy in the studio, not DVD, are "The Dipshit" a delightfully funky trip that Brecker kills and where guitarist Rogers sounds buttery blue. "Elegy for Mike" is a touching nod-your-head to the great saxophonist. Oli Rockberger adds emotional vocals on ""Merry Go Town" that are captivating.

The music is blissful, catchy, and carries a worldliness where it can never be called "just fun," even though it is all of that to listen to.

It's not the first reunion of the band. After the band went on hiatus for a while, and both Breckers were involved in a myriad of projects, they played again in the '90s, again to great success. So the intent was, even after another break, to keep the entity alive, ready to resurface when the time was appropriate. Randy "had some solo projects in the can," but slowed down for a for a while and didn't write much. In 1996, he met Rovatti and they were married in 2001.

Brecker says the Brecker Brothers Band was intending to stay together and work more, "but Mike had taken ill. We didn't work together. After '98, we were going to take a little break. I did some solo records. Plus he did. [Then] we were booked as the Brecker Brothers band to go to Moscow. We had been to Japan. Mike called up two days before we were supposed to leave and said he couldn't' make it. Something was wrong with his back. I kind of pooh-poohed it. I said 'Get on the plane. We'll deal with it when we get there.' But he was really serious. It turned out that was the beginning of his illness. He had a broken vertebrae. It was the first symptom of what later was diagnosed as MDS and then, unfortunately, leukemia. We lost him two and half years later. So that was the end of that."

Rovatti went with her husband to Moscow in the winter of 2004-2005. It was her first time on the hot seat that was the great Michael Brecker's saxophone chair. "She took Mike's place in the regular band and we went anyway," says the trumpeter. "A good friend of mine, Igor Butman, sponsored it. He was crushed that Mike couldn't make it. He'd been working on it for years. Mike felt terrible. But she really rose to the occasion. We played five nights in Igor's club. Did a couple concerts. The band sounded great. She sounded great. We were all sad that Mike couldn't be there, but it still turned out to be a great gig. The club was packed. Igor was happy."

Rovatti, trained on classical piano, switched to saxophone in high school. "My brother had a blues band. He was trying to put some gigs together. He was looking for a saxophonist. He told me if I was playing saxophone I would be very popular with guys," she says, chuckling. "It was a good way to get me into the music business. That's kind of a joke." But she was good enough to earn a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. After a year in Paris she returned to the U.S. "to try to play with the right people and learn the music and try to play as much as I could."

One of the earliest jazz recordings she heard in Italy was Return of the Brecker Brothers, and that music, as well as Michael Brecker's saxophone, became a big influence.

Q: Your solo albums also seem to have that fusion influence. "I grew up listening to English rock and a lot of different styles of music, so for me the real meaning of fusion is combining different styles and rhythm and flavors from all over the world," she said. "My last album (Green Factor, Piloo, 2009) is kind of Irish, has a Celt vibe." So she passed the baptism of Fire in Russia. But for the Brecker Brothers band, that was it for a time.

"We just put it away for a while. We found out how sick he was. I just shelved it. I did projects with orchestra. The Danish Radio Big band. One of the last times we played together was the WDR big band. Then I did a thing in Brazil. That project came out, Randy in Brasil (Mama Records, 2008. Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Jazz Album). I had stuff coming out, but I wasn't proactively doing anything. Until (producer) Jeff Levenson called."

Brecker had gone back to writing more and Levenson wanted to get the trumpeter booked at the Blue Note in New York City. Brecker wasn't thinking Brecker Brothers. But maybe it was inevitable. Perhaps his legacy was calling.

Levenson "wanted to feature me with whatever I wanted to do, which was a once-of-year project. The Blue Note kind of has a list that they want you to call [as sidemen]. I wasn't completely free to call anyone I wanted. They started talking about this person and that person. I started making some calls. Some guys could do it, some guys couldn't. It turned out the rhythm section, in particular, were all ex-Brecker Brothers Band members. I looked at the personnel and said, 'Jeff, maybe you could, as a subtext, [in the promotion] mention that everybody used to play in the band at one time or another. I had Will Lee on bass, Dave Weckl on drums. George Whitty, who produced the records in the '90s, on keyboards. Mike Stern on guitar. The next thing I know, on the marquee it says 'Brecker Brothers Band Reunion.'"

They may well have played selections from the Verdi opera, "La Forza Del Destino," "the power of fate."

"It was like deja vu happening all over again. At first I kind of resisted. I said, 'Man, I don't know if this is a good idea,' But I got talked into it," recalls Brecker. "In retrospect, it was a great week. The place was beyond packed. People responded to it. I did a tribute to Mike and did a couple of his tunes. But I also premiered some of the stuff I had been writing. Ada, once again, really rose to the occasion and played her butt off. She was really the secret weapon, the star of the band. If she wasn't there, a member of the family now, if she and I didn't have a special relationship" the band might not have taken shape after that gig. But, "It seemed like the right thing to do. So we went ahead and recorded all the music the next week. Jeff had the idea to video it. That's how it all came about."

It grew into a successful through the summer and one that has geared up again. The band is strong, rocking and improvisational.

Rovatti, in preparation for the tour this time, did transcriptions of Michael Brecker''s solos. "I was trying to see how he was approaching a solo. And also his own compositions we were playing. It's amazing to see how he was developing his solo. He's going to be forever an inspiration." She says the gig " Is hard, because of the comparison. Everybody remembers how great Mike was. It's a quite uncomfortable pair of shoes to wear. But it's a great experience because I have a chance to play music and play with musicians who are the best out there. I try to grab every single moment and try to improve my playing and my ideas. The best thing I can do is be true to myself and be myself on the stage. Disregard what people expect and everything that comes with the comparisons and everything that comes with that spot... It's a great learning experience."

Adds, Brecker, "An aspect of Ada I enjoy is that she has her own harmonic and melodic conception. I didn't want someone that sounded like Mike, per se. She's coming from her own place. It wouldn't have felt right to have somebody that sounds like Mike. She brings her a lot to the table, in her own way."

Brecker acknowledges the never-ending inspiration of his brother, as a music-maker and a person.

"It's hard to put into words. I was there and watched all his progress from year to year. He was truly not only an innovator, but I think he's one of the few guys you can really compare to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, as far as his work ethic," he says. "He was always striving to improve himself. Broaden his jazz and musical vocabulary. Always studying. He studied composition. Even when he was taken ill, he had been working on something really unusual. Maybe some day some of this will see the light of day. He'd been heavily influenced by Bulgarian folk music. Particularly the way the reed players in Bulgaria—saxophonists and clarinetists—approached their instrument. He had been studying that, of all things. He had a bunch of stuff on his computer that was fascinating and unlike any other stuff he had done before. He was a constantly searching and constantly evolving player. He was a big source of my inspiration, just watching him grow."

The brothers played in some bands together before the formation of the unit bearing their name. They played with Billy Cobham's band together, and had their own band, Dreams, that included Cobham and some stellar players whom they would later keep for the Brecker Brothers. Already, Randy Brecker was influenced by fusion bands and players. He was an original member of Blood Sweat & Tears, the very jazz-rock group formed by Al Kooper. Becker was there in the Kooper days and before singer David Clayton-Thomas.

"That was very influential. Not so much musically, but I really saw first hand how many thousands of people wanted to hear music. It opened my eyes," Brecker says. "That year I spent with Blood, Sweat & Tears, we toured the U.S. We played the Fillmore and Winterland. Opened the show for Cream and Stevie Winwood, Elton John and others. I caught a glimpse of what it could be like outside the strict little jazz community, which back then was pretty much the same as it is now: small. It was a learning experience. Musically, Blood, Sweat & Tears was fine, but I didn't get to play very much, other than the arrangements. That was the reason I originally left, to join Horace Silver. I wanted to get into a playing situation."

Silver was "invaluable as a learning experience, not only as a player, but as a composer. Horace was one of the original—though people don't call him that—fusioneers. He was coming from bebop and funk and soul music and the music from the church. He combined a lot of the things in his own way," says Brecker.

But all the fusion groups of the 1970s, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, were being absorbed by both Breckers. Guitarist John McLaughlin had a particularly strong pull on the young trumpet player.

"We had a band in the '70s called Dreams," recalls Brecker. "We did two records. Me, Mike, Billy Cobham. John Abercrombie later. Guys that ended up playing in Brecker Brothers. Will Lee, Don Grolnick. At one point, John McLaughlin stole our drummer, Billy. To be around that music was a huge influence. Hearing McLaughlin's writing. Something appealed to me in his writing. I remember hearing the first [Mahavishnu] record and saying, 'I'm going to apply myself and write my own music.' So that band was a big influence. James Brown. of course, Miles. Miles would come and hear us a bunch of times when we had Dreams. He was a fan of the band. I never talked to him, but he'd always be in the audience. We played at the Village Gate on weekends. So I'd like to think we had a little influence on him too. But that whole period, everybody was kind of together. We were playing jam sessions a lot with all these guys. It was a really exciting period. Everybody was influencing the next guy."

The Breckers were forging ahead in that musical vein. But hadn't exactly planned what came next.

"I had been writing some music with the intent of doing a solo record with guys I'd been playing with. Other guys were writing for their own projects too. Don Grolnick was doing a project. We'd get together once a week," says Brecker. "We were were just trying our stuff. I had the idea to add Mike [Brecker] and David Sanborn as the horn section ... The name was inadvertent. It wasn't our idea, which was the strangest thing of all. The name was coined by Steve Backer, who was the executive producer on our first few records. We signed to his production company. Becker called up just about when I was going to start recording stuff and doing demos. He said, 'I heard about this music and if you call your band The Brecker Brothers, I'll sign you to this new deal I have with Clive Davis.' Davis was the renowned longtime head of Columbia Records, who had departed and was starting Arista Records.

"It took me about a week to come around," Brecker admits. "Because at first I really wanted it to be a solo record. I thought it was a little weird that Sanborn would be standing there out front as part of the Brecker Brothers band. But it was a good opportunity and I think I made the right decision. I said, 'OK, Call it the Brecker Brothers.' It's kinda funny, because we were playing together for years before that. Nobody ever thought of it. In print once, when we were playing with Billy Cobham, somebody mentioned 'the brothers Brecker.' But still, it's kind of an obvious name. It rolls right off the tongue. The alliteration. It's a good idea at this point. I wish I could take credit for that one."

Even while it was still in the trumpeter's head as a solo recording, it wasn't to be mainstream jazz. "I was writing this stuff in the early 70s, up to 1974-75 when we recorded this stuff. It was the great era of Blue Note Records. It was a golden era of straight ahead jazz. I didn't think I could do anything to surpass all those great records. I wanted to combine all my influences from growing up in Philadelphia and playing in R&B bands and doing all this studio work. I was exposed to a lot of different styles of music. I knew there was a world outside the so-called jazz community that wanted to listen to music that was sophisticated, but funky and easy to listen to at the same time. That was a goal of the whole thing. Plus trying to put Mike and Sanborn together. I'd gone to jazz camp with Sanborn when I was 15. I met him. He had moved to town [New York] and I thought that would be a great pairing. It proved to be true."

After a successful stint of tours and records from the mid-70s to early 80s, the band geared won. "We never really broke up, but the record deal expired," says Brecker. "We did six records for Arista. We'd been playing together for over 10 years in various groups. We both, especially Mike, had expressed desire to do a solo record. I'd gotten called by Jaco Pastorius to join his band and Mike joined Steps Ahead. He wanted to experiment more in acoustic music. That's how Steps started out, as sort of an acoustic fusion band. I jumped at the opportunity to play with Jaco and the classic Word of Mouth [band] and big band. I stayed with Jaco for a couple years."

The Brecker Brothers "intended to take a short break and do a couple other things. We both just got busy. We'd say, year after year, 'Let's do it next year.' But it was 10 years later. It went by in a flash. But all the stars were aligned the right way. We both had time. GRP Records had come to fruition and they were after us to record. We formed a completely new band. No one in the band in the 90s had played with us previously. We got the best guys and did two records for GRP. Return of the Brecker Brothers and Out of the Loop.

Again very successful, the band had made its mark. It will continue to do so. The Reunion Band, "We're continuing to do it whenever we can," Brecker says. "My idea is to have revolving personnel. Enough guys that played in the band throughout its history."

Brecker divulged that next summer, he plans to revive the Heavy Metal Bebop Band "with Terry Bozzio, the great drummer who's best known for his work with Frank Zappa and Missing Persons, his own band. And Neil Jason on bass and Barry Finnerty on guitar. That was our all-in-all best selling record ( Heavy Metal Be-Bop, Arista, 1978). There was a poll in Japan where it won the best horn record of all time. It beat out Kind of Blue, which came in second, about a year ago ... I've been wanting to do this for years. Also, when Mike was alive we talked about this. The guys seem really excited to do it. So I think we're going to do that next summer."

The current Reunion Band has a revolving cast, depending on who is available. "Everybody else also floats around doing their own thing, so it's an off and on again proposition. Weckl has his own thing going. Plus he plays with Mike Stern. Sometimes I play with Mike Stern. Sometimes Stern will play with me. Chris Minh Doky, who's also on the record, has a band with a lot of the same guys. So it's kind of like revolving chairs. I want to keep the thing going. Not as a steady thing, but off and on throughout the years," says Brecker. "We have a lot of fun doing it and we feed off the audience."

He says of a lot of today's jazz music, "Intellectually enjoy it, but it's hard to listen to for long stretches. That's how I've always been. I enjoy rhythm. That's where I'm coming from. That's what I grew up with. Particularly now, with YouTube, you go all the way back and see how strong those jazz guys were with their time and the beat, and how infectious jazz was. I like to keep that tradition, that aspect of it, going ... It worked out really great all summer. We played some old tunes. One section of the program was dedicated to Mike. We play two or three off his tunes, plus play all the new stuff. That's what we'll do. Hopefully, there will be another record at some time and I'll write some other new stuff. Ada is writing. It's a nice cross section of stuff to keep it going."

Meanwhile, Brecker still plays hot jazz with other groups and seems to be constantly in motion, typical for being one of the greats on his instrument. His latest was a quick jaunt to German, where he played with a Hammond B3 trio called Hammond Eggs. "They are fantastic, really swinging," he say. Rovatti will soon go to work on a solo album of all original tunes.

"These days, you need a lot of different things in the frying pan" to make a living, says Brecker. "You can't just do one thing. In a way, I'm sorry about that. It's great if you can have one band together and play—like in the old days—five years with guys. Like Miles was able to do. But that's not the way it works now. You have to constantly change and reinvent yourself."

Selected Discography

Randy Brecker, The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion (Piloo, 2013)
Randy Brecker, Night in Calisia (Summit, 2013)
Brecker Brothers, The Complete Arista Albums Collection (Arista Records, 2012)
Ada Rovatti, Green Factor (Piloo, 2009)
Brecker Brothers, Return of the Brecker Brothers, (GRP Records, 1992)
Brecker Brothers, Heavy Metal Be-Bop, (Arista, 1978) Brecker Brothers, Back to Back, (Arista, 1976)
Brecker Brothers, The Brecker Brothers, (Arista, 1975)

Photo Credit
Page 1: Bruce Lindsay

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