Randy Brecker: A Fusion Legacy

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.
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