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Randy Brecker: Fusion Pioneer Still Blazing The Trails

Photo credit: John Abbott

Jim Worsley By

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When we have the Brecker Brothers reunions its kind of like the Blues Brothers getting the old gang back together. —Randy Brecker
One of the greatest musicians of the past half century, Randy Brecker, continues to impress with his compositions, his playing, and his endurance. The famed trumpeter has released no less than eight records over the past couple of years! They are all unique on to themselves with only Brecker's familiar and sweet sound in common. That sound is unmistakable, yet ever evolving. He is as current as much as he is a legend. Brecker continues to move forward with the times, while still embracing his glorious past. We talked about all eight records and much more in a relaxed and fun conversation that I surely hope you enjoy reading.

All About Jazz: Always great to talk with you, Randy. Thanks for hangin' out for a while.

Randy Brecker: My pleasure Jim. Always nice to talk with you.

AAJ: In speaking with an artist that has such a long and storied career, it is always the tendency to dive back into the good old days, but you are still so much on the cutting edge of composing, playing, arranging, and recording There are an astonishing eight records that you have put out in less than the past two years. Saxophonist Ada Rovatti is certainly a factor in that equation. I'm sure many are familiar with her, but to level the playing field perhaps we could start with you telling us about Ada and her impact on your life.

RB: Well, we met about twenty-five years ago at her hometown in Italy. She was playing either alto or baritone with a very good big band, that I was a special guest performer with. Ada and I got to talking and exchanging phone numbers. She was thinking of moving to Paris at the time. She ended up living there for a couple of years. We stayed in touch and I went over there a few times with the Mingus Big Band. The wagons started to circle, and we got married in 2001.

AAJ: That's great, and you Ada have a daughter together as well.

RB: Yes, Stella will be twelve years old this month (November) and also plays alto sax. She was playing a lot at school, but of course that is not the case under current conditions. She is also a fine singer with a great sense of time and pitch. Stella loves music. We are very proud of her.

AAJ: I would think so. Music clearly runs in the family, as well with your older daughter Amanda.

RB: Amanda is also a wonderful singer and songwriter who has put several records out. A few years back she did very well in Japan and had her own tours in Japan. She was also working in the city in New York. She still is, although not as frequently, because she became a real estate agent and ended up being vice president of the company. She discovered it wasn't a bad idea to make money (with a laugh), so she is very busy with that. She also just had my first granddaughter. Little Lucy is fourteen months old now. So, we are also very proud of Amanda.

AAJ: Wow, congratulations Randy. That's exciting news. Now I believe you have Stella singing on the new release Brecker Plays Rovatti: Sacred Bond (Piloo Records, 2019).

RB: We do. The opening tune, which is "Sacred Bond," refers to this special relationship between mother and daughter. I'm included it that too, I would hope. That melody has a lot of octaves. It's a great tune and Stella was really happy to do it. She just took over. It was really something.

AAJ: Such a special moment. That is a great tune. A great record and a fun opportunity for you to be together as a family.

RB: Well, we like to say that a family that plays together, stays together. I can"t say enough about Ada, as a wife and as a mother. Being such a talented musician is just icing on the cake. She is a true renaissance woman. She designs clothes, jewelry, she works on watercolors, crafts, really anything in the art world she is very talented at.

AAJ: That's terrific. On that record, all the songs are written by Ada. Hence the Brecker plays Rovatti concept. The pulse and improvisation is evident between you two. How did that project come together?

RB: Well, in all the years we have been together, the only record we had done together was the Breckers Brothers Band Reunion(Piloo Records, 2014). I wrote most of the tunes on that, although she did write a couple. That was an extensive project that went very well. Since then we have both been busy with our own records, and until recently, our own tours and live shows. The timing just seemed right to do this project together. Ada had written a lot of great tunes over the past couple of years, so I co-produced and we went for it. We had so much fun working on the arrangements together. It is very melodic music but not easy to play, I must say. We were fortunate to have David Kikoski on piano and Rodney Holmes on drums It was recorded in a studio in Brooklyn with an excellent band that also included Jim Beard and Adam Rogers on a few tunes.

AAJ: It's a great record and that comradery you speak of can certainly be heard in the music. The fact that your styles are different work well here in contrast. You know each other so well that you know when to compliment and improvise with each other and, conversely, when to just get out of the way and let the other one play. Another record you recently released is a co-led with Eric Marienthal entitled Double Dealin'(Shanachie, 2020)Double Dealin' review. Eric, you, and I had a fun and extensive conversation strictly about that record a couple of months ago, but it is such an upbeat record, just what this world needs right now. Let's talk a little about that one. It's one that shouldn't be missed by any fan of yours or Marienthal. Maybe you can give us just an overview of what is a joyful record it is to listen to.

RB: Well, thank you, Jim. In the past I had this connection with my brother Michael Brecker as a horn player. We didn't have to talk much. When we played it was just natural, it was instinctive. That kind of connection came to be with Ada after a few years as well. But there was a third guy that I had played with a lot over the years that I had that kind of chemistry with. That being Eric Marienthal. We played together years ago with the GRP All Star Big Band and also often time were on the same stage, where he would be playing with Chick Corea and the Brecker Brothers would be on the same bill. We also have played together quite a bit with Jeff Lorber. We have wanted to do a record together for a long time. The timing was never right, but we finally got it done. George Whitty was brought in to produce. George also produced our Brecker Brothers records in the past, so always glad to work with George.

AAJ: Never hurts to have John Patitucci and Dave Weckl on board as well. It's up-tempo and easy to listen to. But I say that with an asterisk as in your own words, "there is a lot of meat on the bones," should you choose to listen to it in that manner.

RB: Yes, I think it is kind of a perfect mix between being able to get uplifted and to appreciate some really good soloing. There was some great technology put to use, and no one sequences a record better than George Whitty.

AAJ: A record I am excited to hear about is the new Brecker Brothers Live and Unreleased (LEOPARD, 2020). What's the skinny on that one?

RB: This one was held up for a long time, but finally is being released. This was recorded in 1980 at a place in Hamburg, Germany in conjunction with NDR radio program. It was a great tour, with a great band. It was also a long tour. Long enough that I don't even remember this particular night! This was the second edition of our original band, with some fantastic players. It's a two-CD set with mostly longer live tracks, like ten minutes or more.

AAJ: As it turns out more suited for a record or CD listener than radio-friendly.

RB: Yes, I would agree with that. But interestingly, the record has been on the charts for the past few months. I didn't expect that, but happy to have the airplay. We apparently got into town and to the gig kind of late and had no time to rehearse. It was just get out there and play!

AAJ: Sometimes when it is just on the fly like that it can be more spontaneous and improvisational and really work. This was obviously one of those nights.

RB: Yeah, funny store is that Michael was playing what would now be called a looper, with a bunch of effects. It loops back to Michael's sax and he pushed the button to shut it off, but it kept going. I vaguely remember him kind of panicking!

AAJ: That's funny. I could just see that happening. Probably both panicked and none too happy. You have also in recent years done some Brecker Brother reunions and recordings since Michael's sad passing in 2007. I believe that Ada has stepped into Michaels' chair on those occasions. That has to be a real emotional roller coaster when you do that.

RB: Yes, it is. Ada is really under the gun. I love playing with her. When the curtains open, we know that people are thinking that she just got the gig because she is my wife. By the third tune she is getting more applause than any of us every night.

AAJ: Prior to that, she had filled in for him immediately when Michael first got sick, correct?

RB: Yes, we were going to Russia in 2004 and Michael called and said there was something the matter with his back and that he wasn't going to be able to come. I told him to just get on a plane and we will figure it out when we get there. But he wasn't able to. Ada was coming on the trip anyway, so I told her to bring her horn. Not that she wouldn't have anyway. We had a week-long engagement at a club in Moscow that was sold out every night. They, of course, were all expecting Mike to be there. She stepped in and played beautifully in honor of Mike. People love it when she plays. Sadly, this turned out to be the first symptom of the MDS that led to leukemia and him sadly passing away a few years later. That was Ada's entrance to the band. Imagine how she must have felt replacing Michael Brecker. She rose to the occasion. She doesn't try to sound like Mike. She plays her own style. Not that Michael didn't have some influence. I don't think there are any saxophone players out there that weren't influenced by my brother.

AAJ: True that. When you assemble the artists for the Brecker Brothers reunions, all the musicians are former members that played with the band at one time or another, right?

RB: Yes, it's kind of like the Blues Brothers getting the old gang back together.

AAJ: (laughing) That's a great reference.

RB: Yeah, we will have Dave Kikoski or George Whitty on keys, Will Lee or Neil Jason on bass, Rodney Holmes or Dennis Chambers on drums. We have also had Lenny White and Dave Weckl play drums. Marcus Miller on bass. It's always a lot of fun because none of us get to see each other all that much. We try to keep it for special occasions and to be able to preserve that family legacy.

AAJ: You mentioned Marcus Miller and that makes me think of his jazz cruises. I talked with Marcus, oh some time ago now and we talked about a similar vibe. That being instead of catching someone for a minute at an airport, the cruises put you together for an extended time to hang out, catch up, have some fun, and to play.

RB: Yes, I have done the cruises and it is very much like that. In fact, Marcus interviewed me a couple of years ago and we reminisced about some old times in Japan and a lot of other good memories.

AAJ: Marcus, too, was excited about some of the music that can come out of the cruises. In the sense that you maybe have an artist that has never played with a different artist and when they do something magical can happen. If not for the cruise, the moment would likely never happen.

RB: That's very true. Usually they put together some sort of an all-star band of some guys that have played together. But there are always a few that haven't and yes, sometimes sparks can fly. You can have an unexpected special moment.

AAJ: We have been talking about your many records that have been released in a tight window, another of which is Brecker Rocks (Piloo Records, 2019). That just kicks. The NDR Big Band with David Sanborn and Ada and Wolfgang Haffner. You all must have had a blast recording that one.

RB: We did. I did two previous tours with them in Germany and surrounding countries without really thinking of recording. It was drummer and arranger Jorg Achim Keller that wrote some brilliant charts and made it happen. There were a lot of expanded woodwind instruments, reeds and oboes, bassoons, etc. But the concept was to have the original Brecker Brothers front line. So, David Sanborn and I were up front, along with Ada replacing Michael. The record is dynamite, full of color. I am proud to say I won a Grammy this year for one of my solos on this record.

AAJ: Congratulations on the Grammy, Randy. Well deserved. A great record all the way around. So far, we have talked about four new records, all of which are great and all of which are quite different. It's that diversity that sets them apart. Another direction is traveled with drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Scott Colley live in Copenhagen. What can you tell us about the The Ultimate Soul and Jazz Review(Unit Records, 2020)?

RB: This is led by saxophonist Benjamin Koppel. His whole family is like the first family of music in Denmark. His father and his grandfather were composers. His sister is a singer. We also had several great Danish musicians on guitar, a couple of keyboards, and percussion. I flew in the day of this one-time show. I had just finished playing a week with Billy Cobham and was a little whipped. But we had a light rehearsal and then just went for it in a live concert in a very nice concert hall. A little bit of history there. Bernard Purdie is an old friend. He played on my very first record called Score (Solid State, 1969). We played together many times subsequently back in the day in countless sessions. This goes back to when Bernard would put up a sign on his kit with his phone number that said, "Call Pretty Purdie.' That was the technology of the day, so to speak. (laughing)

AAJ: (laughing} Oh my, a sign of the times. Too funny!

RB: Yeah, as much as Bernard and I played together back in the day, we hadn't played together in a long time. Playing with him was part of the draw to go to Copenhagen. Colley has a way of really nailing down the time but at the same time being very open. As for Koppel, he is a wonderful alto saxophonist and did all the arranging.

AAJ: Yes, I have heard Koppel play. Very improvisational. He has done some work with Peter Erskine.

RB: Yeah, that's right. Well you know it actually started out that I was going to play with Kenny Werner, who I have played with many times over the years. Then it was going to be an Art Blakey tribute and eventually morphed into this show. I always know that anything that Benjamin is putting together is going to be first rate.

AAJ: That record was released on nine eleven this year, as was Liebman Brecker Copland Quintet (Inner Voice Jazz, 2020). Different record companies obviously to end up with a same day release. I know you have played a lot with Dave Liebman in the past. Who rounds out the quintet on this one?

RB: Joey Baron on drums and Drew Gress on bass. This one was recorded in a studio in Brooklyn called Samurai Hotel. It's funny because I was trying to find the hotel and there is no hotel. I was peaking around trying to find the front door. We just plugged in and recorded the entire album in about three hours. I remember frantically getting in a cab to catch a flight to Europe for another gig there. We all contributed some tunes to the record, and we all go pretty far back. Marc Copland and I go back to high school.

AAJ: Really? I didn't realize that.

RB: Yeah, he was in my brother's class. so we grew up together. His brother, who sadly passed away last year, was in my grade. We go all the way back to grade school. I've known Marc since he was a little kid. He was primarily an alto saxophonist back then and used to practice with my brother in suburban Philadelphia. When he was about twenty years old, he had been playing with Chico Hamilton and decided he wanted to be a pianist. He put the alto sax away and concentrated on the piano. He already knew how to play the piano, but he now was putting all his efforts into it. It was his idea to do this record and put us old friends together. So yeah, there were three records released at about the same time. Obviously not the plan. Different record companies, but you know all three are very different. This record is more free bop and very improvisational. It was a lot of fun.

AAJ: Indeed they are all very different and perhaps will appeal to different people. Then, of course, there are some of us that dig it all. Despite the tight window, these are some excellent records to talk about. Yet another one took some thirty-three years to release; the DVD. Live at Sweet Basil (Sonet, 1988) featuring the Randy Brecker Quintet in a live performance in New York City was released long ago, but not the DVD. What happened with that?

RB: (laughing) Yeah, well I'll tell you the story on that one. Dag Haeggqvist, who was running Sonet Records at the time, had the idea to record at Sweet Basil because of its great ambiance. This was a quintet with Bob Berg. We played the club for a week, had a ball, and recorded the last night. The audio was released and did okay. I went to Stockholm to edit the video and kind of remix it a little for a couple of days. Dag ended up deciding to just to leave it as it was with no edits. The record company changed hands and it just got stalled and stalled and stalled, even though the video was quite nice to look at. Thirty-three years later I get a call saying that there was a deal in place with a company based in Philadelphia called MPD Visual to release it. Berg passed away in 2005 in a car crash that wasn't his fault. A horrible thing involving a cement truck that lost its footing. So, we lost Bob fifteen years ago. I gave a copy of the CD/DVD package to his wife and kids, who still live about five minutes away from me.

AAJ: Yes, I remember that happening. Sweet that you were able to give his family that keepsake. Who else is on that recording?

RB: Dave Kikoski was our pianist. I was just starting to play with him at that time. I heard him play with Roy Haynes and just knew I wanted to play with him. Dieter Ilg, who is a wonderful German bassist, did all the European tours with us. He flew to New York to be part of it. And the great Joey Baron on drums. Berg introduced me to him and said 'you just got to get this guy.' He was right of course. I have now been playing with Joey Baron and Kikoski for many years. Joey can play anything, any style, a true original. The first time I played with Kikoski was just before that when I brought him in to play on In the Idiom(Denon, 1987).

AAJ: Over the past couple of years that we are talking about, with all of this great music coming out, I have had the pleasure of seeing you play a few times before the pandemic. Mostly, it would seem, with some of your other longtime collaborators like Mike Stern, Dave Weckl, and Tom Kennedy. For sure at the Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. It always astounds me how an artist, such as yourself, just keeps getting better and better with age. Certainly, there is more experience, but how much of it is maturity and making better note selections?

RB: That's a good question. I suppose some of it is maturity. Some of it is fear{laughing}.

AAJ: (laughing out loud)

RB: I can speak not only for myself but for any musician that wants to keep performing that you really have to keep working at it. It's a daily behind the scenes thing. You have to just have that horn up in your face. It's like a sport where you have to train your muscles. Also, less rambunctious, so as you said, thinking more about what I am going to play. I try to stay current by listening to younger players and find out where I fit in with the whole scheme of things.

AAJ: Well you have certainly stayed current and relative to the modern jazz scene. Up until the pandemic you were very busy with touring. This is a tough time for musicians. Well, it's a tough time for everyone. Seems like it will be awhile for that to turn around.

RB: Yeah, we will be the last thing on the list. It's heartbreaking to look at Broadway being completely shut down. I can't imagine not only how many actors, but people behind the scenes, are out of work. I have had things canceled up through May of 2021. I think we are looking at another six months to a year. So, we keep putting the time in to keep our chops up and hope for the best.

AAJ: In the interim it is great that you have recordings to keep you busy, but there is nothing like live music is there?

RB: No, there really isn't, Jim. That energy can't be replaced. The co-mingling and just being part of a band where there is a conversation and sparks fly. The bulk of my practicing is with a video or some kind of play along. It's a good way to keep my endurance up since there is no interaction. That part of it, as players, we really miss.

AAJ: Absolutely. As listeners we sure miss it too. What is on your plate currently that is keeping you busy?

RB: I was just working on a piece with a wonderful composer and saxophonist named Ben Wendel. I have some things to do for a film editor I know and really so many things just up in the air that are on hold. There is a lot on the books. Gigs with David Sanborn and gigs with Mike Stern, both of whom are original members of the first Brecker Brothers' band. We just have to wait and see what pans out. Last year was probably my busiest year ever. I did three months with Billy Cobham, traveling on a bus, believe it or not. I spent some time playing with David (Sanborn). I won a Grammy, things were going strong. Then it shut down. One day it was here, the next day it wasn't.

AAJ: Last, but not least, on the eight-record extravaganza is Together (Summit, 2018) with Mats Holmquist and the UMO Orchestra in Helsinki. I will admit that I am kind of in the dark on this one, so what can you tell us about it?

RB: The UMO Jazz Orchestra has been around for many, many years. I have done several projects with them. My brother did a really fine record, Michael Brecker with the UMO Orchestra, Live in Helsinki 1995(Pony Canyon, 2015), playing a lot of his compositions and other things. This particular one, I had met a wonderful producer and composer named Mats Holmquist while I was in Copenhagen two summers ago playing with Mike Stern and Lenny White. He had written ten or eleven charts and proposed doing this record with the UMO Orchestra. I agreed to do it because I know that they are a wonderful, first-rate orchestra. It was very difficult music to play, so we recorded some of it when I went over there but we didn't finish it. We didn't have enough rehearsal time. Funny story, really. We did a live performance, and I didn't really know the tunes. We hadn't had time. So, I was sight reading on the spot on the first couple of tunes. I was hoping to rely on the pianist for some chord changes after that, but he was kind of a minimalist. They ended up doing some remixing and editing and it actually came out real well. They are great charts, some excellent stuff. Some great soloists in that band. But it was a concert I will never forget. Walking out on stage to play with all these musicians and not even knowing most of the songs. Probably the most nervous I have ever been.

AAJ: That's a tough spot to be in. Improvising is one thing, but you got to know the tunes.

RB: That's for sure. But through the miracles of science and technology it ended up coming out real well.

AAJ: Randy, it's been a lot of fun talking with you today about all this new music to check out and some nuggets from the past. Thank you very much for hanging out for a while.

RB: Absolutely. I appreciate being asked and it was great talking to you again. It was fun reliving all these memories. I very much appreciate your interest in all of my recent music, Jim, and the opportunity to talk about it.

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