Randy Brecker: Hittin' It with "RandyPOP!"

Bob Kenselaar By

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I’m anxious to get back out on the road for a while and really hit it.
In his 62 years playing music—starting trumpet at eight years old—Randy Brecker has played all kinds of music, but for many years now, he's mostly been known as a solid, top-flight, first-call jazz player, a modern post-bop soloist and bandleader who carries around his old '70s fusion-funk Brecker Brothers fame in his back pocket. So, with a new CD called RandyPOP!, you might think he's changing direction entirely to make a foray into the land of Katy Perry or Justin Bieber or whoever is doing that stuff these days. But, no, with RandyPOP!, Brecker is staying on the jazz track, and, at the same time, delving into a sampling of the pop tunes he contributed to during his days as a studio musician starting back in the '70s, often working in tandem with his late brother Michael. The tunes are a point of departure for great performances by Brecker and the six musicians gathered for this live recording at the Blue Note in New York and some adventurous arrangements by the band's pianist, Kenny Werner.

Werner's arrangements really stand out, but Brecker is the clear leader here. The repertoire all comes from him, there's a clear focus on Brecker's memories, and his great solos are in the spotlight. But the idea for RandyPOP! didn't initially come from the trumpeter himself. In fact, the impetus for it, according to Brecker, came first from his wife, Ada Rovatti, a saxophonist who performs with him from time to time, although it's David Sanchez who plays sax on RandyPOP! Not long after his wife planted the seed, producer Jeff Levenson approached Brecker with the very same thought for recording live sessions at the Blue Note. Levenson had been behind another project that Brecker was involved with that also featured arrangements by Kenny Werner—The Delirium Blues Project: Serve or Suffer (Half Note, 2008) a live recording by vocalist Roseanna Vitro, which included tunes by Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Tower of Power; Werner's arrangement of "What Is Hip" stands out in Brecker's mind in particular.

So, the idea percolated a bit, and then Brecker set out to make it happen, with Werner and Levenson's help. In addition to saxophonist Sanchez, they brought in John Patitucci on bass, Adam Rogers on guitar, and Nate Smith on drums. And considering that this was a pop music endeavor, where vocals figure prominently, he brought in his daughter, Amanda Brecker, a budding singer and songwriter who already has four commercial CDs to her name. Doing RandyPOP! as a live recording allowed him to include a little patter from the stage between songs that gives some background about each one, to share his memories and his wry sense of humor. The band played at the Blue Note for a week, and the recording on RandyPOP! is the last set of the last night at the club.

Brecker expounded further on those stories for All About Jazz and also filled us in on other recent recordings since the last article on him in our Catching Up With series.

The opener for RandyPOP! is "The New Frontier" by Donald Fagen, representing the work Randy and Michael Brecker did with Steely Dan, which Fagen co-led with Walter Becker. "We were pretty friendly with both of those guys and with Gary Katz," the producer on all of Steely Dan's recordings. "We got to the point where one of the guys from their office would call me and ask me to recommend players for the live band. So, I actually helped them put a couple bands together. I was kind of hoping they would ask me to play some live dates. But, I remember once I showed up to see a gig of theirs out on Long Island. I had recommended the whole sax section, Chris Potter among them. And Walter got on the mic and proudly said, 'we've just got saxophones—no trumpets.' I went backstage, and I said, 'OK, now I see where you're coming from.' They were great to work for, although they were so methodical the recording process was kind of tedious for us. But every one of those records is a first-class endeavor."

Brecker also made several recordings with Bette Midler, including "Let Me Just Follow Behind," which appears on RandyPOP! Some other early connections in his career led to this one. "There was this great song writer—two song writers, really. Mark 'Moogy' Klingman and Carol 'Googie' Coppola, whom I met early on, working with a band called Air. Among the other tunes Moogy wrote were 'You've Got to Have Friends.' He wrote a lot of stuff for Bette Midler. On this tune, I played on Googie's original demo. I had thought all these years that she had written the tune, because she was a wonderful songwriter in her own right and an amazing singer. I thought of this tune immediately because I love it. Bette Midler asked me to reprise the solo I played on the demo, when she eventually recorded it. I was working a lot for Atlantic at the time, and I also knew her pretty well. It's just a beautiful tune, and Kenny kind of picks it apart and does a whole different thing with it."

A particular standout is "I Can't Quit Her," a tune written by Al Kooper for the original Blood, Sweat & Tears recording, Child is Father to the Man, where Werner's arranging really shines. "That's my favorite tune on that original record," says Brecker. "Kenny really did it in a different way. For one thing, it's in 5/4, but it's really bi-rhythmic, so to speak—there's a lot of stuff going on. It's a very challenging chart."

Brecker has a strong recollection of his time as a regular member of that original Blood, Sweat & Tears band, working under Kooper's leadership. "Al is a unique musician. He has some limits with his technical ability, but he found ways to get his ideas through, and he really created a style on organ, particularly on the Bob Dylan records. And he's a great organizer, a great composer in his own right. We used to get together with that original Blood, Sweat & Tears band, several years in a row at the Bottom Line. We'd reconvene and did every tune off the record in the order we recorded it with most of the original guys." Brecker left the band the same time that Kooper did, when David Clayton Thomas came in as the vocalist, just before the band's huge, chart-topping hits. Brecker remembers the details of the transition well. "There was a band meeting one night, and I had made my mind up that I was going to leave, because as much as I liked the band—and I did love the band—I didn't get a chance to really improvise much. If I was lucky, I'd maybe get two solos a night.

"I had auditioned for Horace Silver, and he offered me a gig with other musicians like Billy Cobham and Bennie Maupin and John B. Williams, and that band was a great opportunity. I didn't want to miss that. So, at the band meeting that night, I was all set to quit, and they brought up how they didn't think Al was a strong enough lead singer. And they found another singer they wanted to add to the band. Not fire Al, but add a lead singer, a guy from Canada named David Clayton Thomas. Well, Al abruptly quit—walked out of the meeting. And I said, I hate to say it guys, but I don't think you'll ever make it without Al. I explained my situation, that I also had to quit. They begged me to stay. They were going to do a new record and cut everyone in equally. But my mind was made up, and that was it. The next day, purely by happenstance, I was sitting next to Lew Soloff at a Joe Henderson big band rehearsal, and by the end of the rehearsal I had talked Lew into taking my place. He really didn't want to do it, because he was strictly a jazz guy. He didn't want to play in a rock band, but I explained to him that they had a salary—you got paid whether you worked or not. It was $200 a week. I thought I was going to make more with Horace than I made with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Horace told me it was $250 a week, but he didn't mention that he took taxes out, and we had to pay for our hotel. Usually, by the end of the week, I ended up paying him.

"Lo and behold, Lew went in and did that record with them, Blood, Sweat & Tears, with 'Spinning Wheel' and all those other great hits on it. The record sold eleven million copies, and in several months—maybe it wasn't even that long—Lew's salary had gone up to $5,000 a week. This was in 1968. So it took a little bit to get over that, but I wouldn't have traded it for the world, playing for Horace. We were together for two years. I learned so much about improvising and just how to be a band leader, and composing music, and how to present a band. It was just a great thing. The Blood Sweat & Tears guys used to come and see us quite a bit. I remember once they were playing at the Spectum in Philly—holds 50,000 people—and we were playing at the Showboat, which holds about 200 people. And they came down in limos and heard the band."
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