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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."

"Hello It's Me," the Todd Rundgren song, brings Brecker back to some early memories growing up and meeting Rundgren as a kid. "We're both from Philly. My dad was a pianist, a good piano player, and he also had accumulated several instruments. We had a family band, Mike and I played a little drums—in fact, Mike was really quite good. And our sister played a little bass. At one point my dad bought a Hammond B-3 organ, but nobody played it that much, and it took up a little too much room, so he decided to sell it. Mike and I were in the driveway playing basketball, and we saw these three or four gangly, tall guys coming up the driveway with real long hair. We'd just never seen people like that in person. Those were the Beatles years. And they went and carted the organ away. Years later, after I moved to New York, we were doing the first Brecker Brothers record, working with Moogy Klingman, who managed the studio, which coincidentally belonged to Todd Rundgren, Secret Sound Studios. Moogy kind of lived in the back there. So, we met Todd and somehow we got to talking, and it turned out he was the one who bought the organ. We also started playing on his records and did a few live gigs with Moogy and Todd. Moogy was in the band. 'Hello It's Me' was done completely live in the studio at the Record Plant with everyone there at the same time—the rhythm section, the singers, Todd, engineers, everything live, in one or two takes. My recollection was it was actually the first take. They had been rehearsing things. We jammed up some horn parts. No music written out. You can hear him counting off the tune. That was it. We split. And the tune sold a couple million records. It just goes to show you how many approaches there are to making records."

Randy and Michael Brecker also recorded in the '70s with Garland Jeffreys, the singer and songwriter whose work incorporates elements of rock, soul, and reggae. The brothers appear on Jeffreys' 1977 Ghost Writer album, which includes his most well-known song, "Wild in the Streets." The title track of the album appears on RandyPOP! "He's just a real treasure. His tunes are really about New York and about his growing up, and very streetwise. Mike and I played on two or three of his albums. We actually didn't play on 'Ghost Writer' with him. There were no horns on that one. But we played on the rest of the record. That tune just touched Kenny, and it was a great choice. We got a great groove going. And it's a great tune. One of his best."

RandyPOP! features two James Brown tunes, "Think" and "I Got a Bag of My Own." Brecker's connection with Brown came through his association with Brown's early '70s arranger and bandleader, David Matthews, who now leads the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra and Manhattan Jazz Quintet. "As Dave explained to me, he got the job just by luck. He lived in Cincinnati and was playing in a studio with his jazz quintet. Mr. Brown had been in the studio the night before. When he was on the road, if he had an idea, he'd find a studio, go in, and record it. He called up when they were playing. He needed an arranger for one tune or another, and he liked what he heard. And he said, well, whoever that is, I like that, so tell him to get in touch with me. So Dave did, and he moved to New York and started writing for him. So he was the arranger on these two tunes that we recorded with James Brown. Fred Wesley was there, and Steve Gadd was the drummer. Steve had just moved to New York, and he was still a jazz drummer. So, he was somewhat unfamiliar with that style of playing. At one point on the session, James Brown kicked him off the drums. 'I'll show you how to play it. I'll show you what I want.' And he showed him a beat. And he could, of course, play anything. And Steve used that as the impetus to invent a whole new style of jazz fusion drumming. It was great to be there when that happened.

"Kenny's arrangement of 'Think' is kind of spoken word, with our tribute to free jazz in the '60s—a beatnik poet, me, in the forefront, reciting James Brown lyrics. And 'I Got a Bag of My Own' is one of my favorite JB tunes. Kenny wrote the melody, which James sings, in minor seconds, which sounds pretty weird at first. The trumpet and the tenor are only a minor second apart the whole time. At first it takes a second to get used to that, but the groove is real infectious, and the rhythm section just played great on that one. I asked Kenny about that, and he said, 'well, when I do things, there are only three elements that I can mess around with—the rhythm, the melody, and the harmony. On this tune there was no way to mess around with the harmony, because, basically it's only one chord, and you can't mess around with the rhythm because that would destroy the whole idea of the tune.' So he only had the melody to fool around with."

The tune by Bruce Springsteen on RandyPOP!, "Meeting Across the River," is from his breakthrough album, Born to Run, which marks its 40th anniversary in 2015. "I had met Bruce a bit prior to the session, through his management company. I might have recorded his demos, or something; I forget exactly. We hung out a couple nights. Sweet guy. I remember he was skinny as a rail back then. We showed up at the studio, and it was me, Mike, and David Sanborn. We were hired just to play on the session. And there's blank music paper in front of us. The tune was 'Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.' We weren't hired to do an arrangement, but there was no arrangement. So, we took it upon ourselves to try to jam something up, and it wasn't really our genre. It was a little more rock-n-rolly than we were used to doing. We were more funk guys. So we had it a little difficulty with it. Midway through the session—we'd gotten about halfway through the tune—this guy comes bursting out of the control room. I think this was the Record Plant. Guy comes bursting in and says, 'no, no, that sounds terrible. That's not it.' And it turned out this was Miami Steve Van Zandt. He led us through what he wanted. He had really specific ideas for us, as far as lines. He kind of hummed stuff to us, and we figured out the tune, and recorded it. Later he got all embarrassed because he didn't know much about the local musicians and the studio scene. He said, 'boy, I didn't know, the best guys you could get, the Brecker Brothers and Dave Sanborn. I was really impolite.'

"The other tune at the session was a beautiful tune, and that was easy to do, 'Meeting Across the River,' because, quite honestly they had it recorded already, so I could just overdub. And they gave me complete freedom to play whatever I wanted. Sometimes the artist says, 'oh, play here, play there,' and they might sing a line. But Bruce was 'play whatever you feel,' and they liked what I did, so I think it was just one take. We had kind of abruptly forgotten about the whole thing, but when the record came out, boy, it just hit like gangbusters. It was good timing for us because we were just getting started as the Brecker Brothers band, so we got a lot of credit for that, because the record sold so much. And it's a great tune. Kenny didn't change the tune; it was just a different way of approaching it. Amanda sings it and sounds great. And I kind of did a different version, I played it with a Harmon mute. It was just a lot of fun to back her up, just improvising behind her, because she has a beautiful voice and does a beautiful interpretation."

The closer on RandyPOP! is by Paul Simon, "Late in the Evening." "I love Kenny's arrangement, what he did to morph Paul's classic tune. Kenny said, 'I wanted this one to be like an acid trip where one bar just unfolds into another constantly.' So he re-harmonized the tune not so much in the beginning but on the shout choruses, where it just goes into a different key every other bar. It's really difficult to play and hear. But it's a really fascinating arrangement. I could have never thought of that. That's a real Kenny Werner achievement, this chart. It was difficult to learn and hard changes to play on, but it came out great. That was the last tune in the set and I was certainly glad there wasn't another one, because we were pretty whipped by then, I'll tell you."

While RandyPOP! has a distinct focus on tunes from Brecker's early years, other recent recordings featuring him represent several other aspects of his wide-ranging career. On Trumpet Summit Prague (Summit, 2015), Brecker performs with the Czech National Symphony, joined by fellow trumpeters Bobby Shew and Jan Hasenoehrl, conducted by Vince Mendoza, the multi-GRAMMY-winning arranger and composer. The recording features Mendoza's arrangements, including two Brecker compositions set by him. "That was a lot of fun to do," says Brecker. "Jan is an amazing guy. He was the one who actually started the Czech National Symphony in 1992. They've recorded a lot of soundtracks for American movies, and they're just a great orchestra. Jan put it together. We went there, had some rehearsals, and just went in and recorded it live. When you're standing in front of an orchestra like that, it's pretty jolting. It's quite a nice document of that night."

Brecker is also spotlighted on a recording with the Bill Warfield Big Band, Trumpet Story (Planet Arts, 2014). "Bill asked me to special guest on this record and wrote some great material featuring me, or around me. He's also a trumpet player, and a great arranger. That was done live, of course, in a studio in New Jersey. He has a great band. Some guys in the band and I go back to the '60s." Brecker followed up the recording with some live performances at Lehigh University, where Warfield teaches, and at the Iridium in New York.

Another recent recording is set in a college context, Dearborn Station, with the Depaul University Jazz Ensemble (Jazzed Media, 2014). "That's another great one," says Brecker. "It's far out how all these things all kind of happened in the last couple years. Also live. This one is at Joel Siegel's Jazz Showcase. And what's amazing about this record is it really is a college band, and there are no ringers in the band, and it's mostly undergraduates. Maybe a couple graduate students. But this was really a strong band. They had great soloists. A lot of the charts are written by guys in the band. It was just one night, and I was feeling good. And when I heard the record, I said, darn, that's only one night, very little or no editing, and probably very little mixing—and it sounds really good. So, I'm proud of that one, too."

One other recent new release puts Brecker in an entirely different context, Groove Is King, by Rock Candy Funk Party (J&R Adventures, 2015). Brecker is friends with the band's drummer, Tal Bergman, who moved from New York to Los Angeles, where the band is based. "I knew him when he was living in New York. Great fusion drummer—just great all around drummer. He's the co-leader of the band with Joe Bonamassa, who is today's rock guitar god." Bergman contacted Brecker to put together some horn parts for Groove Is King, bringing in some Brecker Brothers flavor to the band's neo-'70s funk vibe. "At first I started to say, 'Oh, man, I haven't done that in a long time. I'm just out there playing now.' But, my wife said, 'Come on, you can do it. I'll help.' We actually co-wrote some of the stuff. She did great. We called up our neighbor Jim Capagnola, who lives up the street, a wonderful baritone player. We spent a few days writing the charts—really writing them this time, we didn't jam them up. The charts came out really good, and we got a little solo space in there, too. The band is cooking, and it's really moving up the charts, especially because Joe Bonamassa is on it."

Brecker is also featured on two first-time releases of recordings that date back to the '70s. The Brecker Brothers: The Bottom Line Archive (Bottom Line, 2015) is a performance captured live in New York in 1976 and is the only live recording issued of the original Brecker Brothers band. Despite its popularity, the band didn't perform many live dates. "We had some gigs and some tours around, but never for a long period of time, because we were all so busy in the recording studios." The recording is being released by one of the Bottom Line's owners, Allan Pepper, who ran the club with the late Stanley Snadowsky. Unbeknownst to the artists that appeared at the club, the pair regularly recorded performances there. "Allan admitted he recorded everything. He told me he was releasing some things, and asked if I'd like to be involved. I heard the recording and, as much as I wasn't thrilled that he recorded it surreptitiously, the band was just burning that night. When I heard how good we sounded, I said, 'OK, let's put it out.' It's just a really cooking record. It's really a great representation of that early band, and it's the only one out there."

The other recent first-time release takes us back full-circle to Brecker's first major jazz gig with Horace Silver, The 1973 Concerts by the Horace Silver Quintet (Further, 2015), recorded live in Finland, Boston, and New York. "That band never really recorded under Horace's name," says Brecker. "Later on, we recorded on In Pursuit of the 27th Man (Blue Note, 1973), but just on two or three tunes. Horace was stretching the parameters of his quintet there, with some vocals on that record and David Friedman on vibes. But these three concerts are really great—a good representation and document of Mike and me and Alvin Queen on drums and Will Lee, who's a swinging electric bassist, probably the most swinging. And that was a cooking little band. As much as I don't like the fact that none of the musicians are being paid for this one, including Horace's estate, which is as per usual these days, it's a nice document of the band. So, if you like Horace, check it out. A lot of great tunes on it, too."

Brecker wanted to mention one other recorded that features not him, but his brother, Michael Brecker with the UMO Jazz Orchestra, Live in Helsinki (Random Act, 2015). "It's a great European orchestra; I played with them many times. Scott Elias from Random Act Records found this tape, and it's just incredible—live at a concert, Mike at his best, the UMO Jazz Orchestra at their best. There's a wonderful saxophonist named Manuel Dunkel; he sounds a lot like Mike. At one point they trade fours, and you can barely tell who is who. All complete coincidence—the release date was the same day as RandyPOP! So, after all these years—he's unfortunately been gone for about eight years—we're still joined at the hip."

Asking about reaching his 70th birthday in November 2015, Brecker is a little reflective, although he's so busy, this doesn't seem to come all that naturally to him. "I came to New York in 1966 and I've really been a professional musician since I was 15. I started playing in Philly at that age, playing gigs around town with some great musicians. Philly was a great place to be from. I pretty much came up with Lew Tabackin; he was a hot saxophonist, a little older than me, but we played together a lot back then. So, I've really been a professional for 55 years, now, and playing over 60 years. And it's just great. What's great about it is I still love to play. The trumpet is a challenging instrument. I have to get downstairs every night and hit it for two or three hours, and play it a little during the day, too. But the main thing I do is just put on a bunch of Jamey Aebersold records and blow every night into the wee hours of the morning to keep my chops up. Just a couple days ago, I played out where we live in the Hamptons, the Sag Harbor music fest, where I played in a trio with Ada and a great pianist who's also from New York and has a place out here, Bill O'Connell. I had slowed down a little the last couple months. I purposely decided to stay home this summer rather than go to Europe, because we have a seven year old daughter, Stella, and I wanted to try to spend a little more time at home and enjoy myself. But it just felt great playing. So, I'm anxious to get back into the rat race, so to speak, and get back out on the road for a while and really hit it."

Photo credit: John Abbott

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