Five Questions with Randy Brecker

Randy Brecker Photo by John Abbott
Randy Brecker Photo by John Abbott

GRAMMY® Award winning Jazz trumpeter and composer Randy Brecker has helped shape the sound of jazz, R&B and rock for more than four decades. His trumpet and flugelhorn performances have graced hundreds of albums by a wide range of artists from James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and Parliament/Funkadelic to Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, Jaco Pastorius and Frank Zappa.

Randy Quartet l'Intrigue '67 with Galper, Gaylor. Schaeffer
Randy Quartet l’Intrigue ’67 with Galper, Gaylor. Schaeffer

Born in 1945 in Philadelphia to a musical family, Randy’s musical talent was nurtured from an early age. He attended Indiana University from 1963-66 studying with Bill Adam, David Baker and Jerry Coker and later moved to New York where he landed gigs with such prominent bands as Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band, the Duke Pearson Big Band and the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears, 1967
Blood, Sweat, and Tears, 1967

In 1967, Randy ventured into jazz-rock with the band Blood, Sweat and Tears, but left to join the Horace Silver Quintet. He recorded his first solo album, ‘Score’, in 1968, featuring a young, then unknown 19 year-old tenor saxophonist named Michael Brecker.

SCORE - First Record by Randy Brecker
SCORE – Randy Brecker’s first record

After Horace Silver, Randy joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before teaming up with brother Michael, Barry Rogers, Billy Cobham, and John Abercrombie to form the seminal fusion group ‘Dreams’. The group recorded two adventurous and wildly acclaimed albums: ‘Dreams’ and ‘Imagine My Surprise’ – now collector’s items – for Columbia Records before they disbanded in 1971.

Dreams; Steele Pier, circa 1972 (Photo by Peter Erskine)
Dreams; Steele Pier, circa 1972 (Photo by Peter Erskine)

In the early 1970s, Randy performed live with many prominent artists including Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, Stevie Wonder and Billy Cobham. He also recorded several classic albums with his brother under the leadership of the great pianist/composer Hal Galper.

Brecker Bros 1977 with Average White Band Montreux
Brecker Bros 1977 with Average White Band Montreux

By 1975, Randy and Michael were ready to front their own group, the Brecker Brothers Band.  They released six albums on Arista and garnered seven Grammy nominations between 1975 and 1981. Their first record, which Randy wrote, arranged and produced, featured his now classic composition “Some Skunk Funk.”

Mike & Randy @ Aurex Jazz Festival, Japan - 1980 (Photo by Peter Erskine)
Mike & Randy @ Aurex Jazz Festival, Japan – 1980 (Photo by Peter Erskine)

In 1992, exactly ten years after they parted ways to pursue solo careers, Randy and Michael reunited for a world tour and the triple-Grammy nominated GRP recording, ‘The Return of The Brecker Brothers’. The follow-up, 1994’s ‘Out of the Loop,’ was a double-Grammy winner.

AdLib Cover 90s
AdLib Cover 90s

In 1997, ‘Into the Sun’ (Concord), a recording featuring Randy’s impressions of Brazil, garnered Randy his first Grammy as a solo artist.

In 2001, Randy released ‘Hangin’ in the City’ (ESC), a solo project which introduced his alter-ego Randroid, a skirt chasing, cab driving ne’er do well, with lyrics and vocals by Randroid himself. This CD was especially well received in Europe, where Randy toured extensively with his own line-up.

Hangin' in the City
Hangin’ in the City

Randy’s next CD for ESC Records, ’34th N Lex,’ won him his third Grammy for ‘Best Contemporary Jazz Album’ in 2003. In May of that year he toured Europe with his Quintet in support of the CD, and in the summer went back to Europe yet again with the Randy Brecker/ Bill Evans Soulbop Band. The summer of 2003 culminated in the special headline appearance in Japan at the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival of the reunited Brecker Brothers.

Herbie Hancock, Antonio Hart, Randy Brecker - White House
Herbie Hancock, Antonio Hart, Randy Brecker – White House

2004 saw Randy touring Europe extensively as co-leader (with Bill Evans) of the band Soulbop. The WDR Big Band also celebrated Randy and his music that year in a performance at the Leverkusen Jazz Fest. The date was of special significance to Randy as it was the last time he played with his brother, who took ill shortly thereafter with a rare form of leukemia known as MDS.

In 2005, with Mike unable to travel to Russia for Brecker Brothers gigs booked there, Randy’s wife Ada Rovatti sat in for the first time.  Randy’s active schedule continued with the Randy Brecker Band performing throughout Eastern Europe and across the globe.

In 2007, Randy was awarded his fourth Grammy for “Randy Brecker Live with the WDR Big Band” (Telarc/BHM), the live recording (also available in DVD format) of his performance with Michael at the Leverkusen Jazz Fest in 2004.

Tragically, Michael passed away that same year on Jan 13th.

2007 also saw the release of a 2 CD set of live recordings of the band ‘Soulbop’. Randy returned to his long-time love of Brazilian music in 2008 for the album ‘Randy in Brasil.’ A “Tribute to the Brecker Brothers” was released by JVC Victor in Japan in late 2008. In 2009, Randy’s roots were celebrated with the release of ‘Jazz Suite Tykocin.’ 2011 saw the release of ‘The Jazz Ballad Song Book: Randy Brecker with the Danish Radio Big Band‘ and The Danish National Chamber Orchestra,’ which garnered 4 Grammy nominations and enjoyed enthusiastic critical acclaim.

A Brecker Brothers Band Reunion tour of European festivals happened in the summer of 2013 in support of Randy’s project, Randy Brecker’s Brecker Brothers Band Reunion. The project re-introduced the familiar faces of Brecker Brothers Band members from the past and their special brand of music to sell-out crowds. A dual-disc release features a live DVD with an 11-song studio recording including David Sanborn, Mike Stern, Will Lee, and Dave Weckl. Randy’s Italian wife Ada Rovatti is in the ‘hot saxophone’ seat, keeping it in the family, on tenor and soprano saxophone.

 Randy with Horace Silver, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Joe Lovano, Roger Humphries
Randy with Horace Silver, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Joe Lovano, Roger Humphries

A long time in the making, this project is very close to Randy Brecker’s heart. It is dedicated to his brother, Michael, and other departed Brecker Brothers Band members.

Randy in Slovakia
Randy in Slovakia

Also in 2013, yet another project, a collaboration with Wlodek Pawlik trio and the Kalisz Philharmonic playing Wlodek’s “Night In Calisia” with Randy as featured soloist, netted Randy his 6th Grammy!

Grammy Awards 2011
Grammy Awards 2011

As a composer, performer and in-demand Yamaha Artist and Clinician, Randy Brecker continues to influence and inspire young musicians around the world.

The music of the Brecker Brothers was a part of my musical soundscape as a high schooler. It was a thrill years ago, when I first had the pleasure of meeting Randy, through my friend, Karrin Allyson.  I love listening to Randy these days, hearing what interesting directions the music is taking him. Randy is such a positive cat, generous & encouraging to other players, and just so very hip.

Randy gave his great answers to FIVE QUESTIONS via email.

1) My first question is about your practice habits. Do you remember when you made that shift in your playing from really good to great? How much/what were you practicing at the time? How/how much do you practice on the road?

RB – I’m not sure sure there’s a ‘moment’ when that happens with any musician, it’s a ‘cumulative’ process, but here’s a good story. The first time I ‘heard myself play’ I was around 11 or 12…Dad (Bobby Brecker-piano) had bought his first reel-to-reel  tape recorder. The great Jon Hendricks and his wife Judy were snowed in, in Philly, and Dad’s friend Erv Weiner (guitar) brought them over to our house, since we had a bunch of instruments in the living room…of course a session started, and I brought my horn down, and took a solo ‘by ear’ on a tune that Jon sang (I can’t quite remember the name of the tune, but I can hear it in my head)…  and after the first phrase of my solo (which I also remember) everyone laughed heartily…(because it was hip!)…I heard the playback and! I sound pretty darn good (my sound was developed and it had a real jazz tinge to it.) I was practicing a couple hours a day after school, and had been playing along with jazz records, and playing with my dad, since I was around 10, in addition to my classical studies with Sigmund Hering, of the Phila. Orch.  Can you believe I went and saw Jon Hendricks at the Blue Note when he was almost 90, and he asked about that tape?!!

On the road I usually just make sure I warm up correctly…have a couple good practice mutes and a good cup mute.if there’s a day off I’ll put on headphones and my Yamaha silent brass unit/mute which has an additional input….plug in my iPod and play with records for a couple hours to keep my chops up…..also have to mention my sandovalves unit invented and marketed by my friend Arturo Sandoval which is a valve unit and a buzz unit with variable resistance in one…. which is just great! check it out!

2) You play in so many different settings. Is it difficult switching gears for you? Are you always thinking of your own group(s) in the back of your mind? How did you first hook up with Wlodek Pawlik? Can you speak about collaborations? What inspires you to create?

RB – For me and my brother it was always easy, and more importantly, interesting to switch gears….it’s all the same basic musical vocabulary, you are just shifting inflection,nuance and sound a bit, and Music is spiritually so all-connected… I remember doing a session for  the band ‘Cameo’ in the mid 80’s. Trombonist Fred Wesley of James Brown fame, wrote the charts…. Fred probably was my biggest influence for writing horn charts….Anyway there were no markings on the chart, so I asked Fred how he wanted us to phrase everything (y’ know like the eight notes)…he just said (out of the side of his mouth, without even looking up): “bebop it!” It’s all connected. With Wlodek my classical trumpet training came into play, since it was with the Kalisz Philharmonic and kind of jazz/fusion/classical style. We had met on a tour of Poland maybe 20 years or so ago which was set up by bassist Tom Knific who teaches also at Western Michigan University and whose wife Renata, a wonderful violinist, is Polish. Wlodek and I really hooked up on the tour, and recorded a CD called ‘Turtles’ during my stay, and have done many projects together since then. I love collaborations where you can bounce ideas off another person, even my so-called ‘solo’ CDs are collaborations with the producer and musicians. In the old days, recording deadlines were my main ‘inspiration’ (!) also with some help from ahhh… various medicinal herbs etc.

But I can assure you, all musicians who lead bands or who do records, have a part of their brain that lives only in that realm of the unseen and unheard. As MIles said when asked why he never rehearsed, he said “You can’t rehearse the future!”

I’m not thinking about my ‘own groups’ so to speak since it’s so hard to keep bands together these days, but I’m always thinking about the ‘next project’ even though I hate that word, since it sounds like it belongs in a science lab. In the day, it was just your next ‘record’ and you didn’t need to have a snazzy hook, you could just record a bunch of tunes, find a title and you had the record.

Nowadays..when I’m home other than hang with my wonderful wife and kids…don’t have that much to do…not doing sessions any more-there aren’t any…so I sit around and slowly ‘write’ or more accurately these days: input ideas into Logic….was a lot more fun (and profitable) in the old days!..but it keeps me busy!

3) What artists are creating new work that catches your ears right now? Is there anyone doing anything you find noteworthy? Who are the heaviest cats out there now?

RB – Well you find great discoveries on you tube. Jacob Collier comes to mind…his self made videos are mind-blowing especially ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, then of course there is ‘Dirty Loops’, Stephanie Trick, Bria Skonberg, Grace Potter…..then bands like Maroon 5 and Lettuce and Parachute, and Antibalas,Shovels & Rope, John Mayer.. a very good musician…even Miley has a thing, and Gaga too. Beyoncé has a such a strong presence and sings great…lotta good stuff out there Snarky Puppy, Layah Hathaway.. I could go on and on.The aforementioned Panzerballett if you really want to hear some really modern electric stuff…

In Jazz: Chris Potter,the group Opus 5 with Sipiagin,Seamus,Kiksoki, Boris Koslav, and Donald Edwards, Clayton Brothers Band and Clayton-Hamilton Orch..etc Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes,the Cookers, Metheny,Meldau, Jeff Hamilton Trio, Gary Burton..ahhh this could go on forever..I’m always listening..always… Christian Mcbride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Keith Jarrett with Jack and Gary. There’s so much going on in Eastern Europe. Amazing bands, compositions and Musicians..check out HIGH DEFINITION! from Poland…then what about Igor Butman’s Big Band? you can go to Siberia and Find Russian Blues Bands, Big Bands and everything in between.

Then there’s the trumpet guys too numerous to mention but just for starters: Arturo,Wynton,Bobby Shew,Chuck Findley Sean Jones,Marvin Stamm, Tom Harrell,Ryan Kisor, all the great guys teaching me stuff on youtube to be a better player like Waynard, Faddis,Soloff, Til Brönner, Brian Lynch on and on….the cats who won the recent Monk thing this year, all baaaad-ass: Marquis Hill (and the Blacktet), Billy Buss and Adam O’ Farrell….

…and then all the older cats, CT, Chas. McPherson, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Slide, and those who aren’t with us anymore especially Moody + the  classical and world music therein lies another universe. Music is always expanding, like the universe, so this question turns in on itself…itself/flesti….

4) Can you talk about the success of the Brecker Brother’s reunion/ record? What do you think it was about the BB that reached people so much? Why do you think that people are still into those tunes/sound still today?

RB – I’m as shocked as anyone that you input ‘Some Skunk Funk’ in youtube and there are 37,500 ‘results’!..thousands and thousands of versions: Ice Skaters on ‘Donny and Marie’, Serbian tap dancers, Japanese all-girl Orchestras, Big Bands, String quartets,trios every configuration you can think’s part of a ‘rite of passage’ to have to learn that tune as a young musician. Check out the German Death-Metal Band “Panzerballett” on youtube who play ‘Skunk Funk’ in quintuplets!?

As far as the reunion CD/DVD goes; I was asked to play at the Blue Note NYC some years ago and was given a list of guys to call…that’s kinda the way the Blue Notes operate quite often. Anyway some guys were OK, some not, but I realized the band I came up, with were all members of the Brecker Bros Band at one time or another, which I mentioned to Jeff Levenson who booked me…Next thing I know it says ‘Brecker Bros Band Reunion’ on the Marquee..I had first resisted, but Jeff was right when he said  calling it BBBR  made the week into ‘an event’ which it was..the club was packed all week, so we decided to video one night and also go in the studio the next week, and studio-record a bunch of my new compositions and sell the live stuff (where we also played some of the old tunes) and studio takes in a ‘bundled’ package, and guess people just responded…it got great reviews all over the world (except in Downbeat of course), and we toured behind it with some of the cats who played on the record. If my wife Ada Rovatti wasn’t a great saxophonist in her own right and in the band and in my life, I don’t think I would have put the thing together, but she has her own thing going stylistically, and she doesn’t try and sound like Mike, which is very refreshing, and of course, we keep the ‘brand’ as they say today, in the family!

As far as why originally it reached and touched people so much…well first of all, it must be said that there was no one like Michael Brecker(!) just go back into youtube just to remind yourself that he was in a lineage of one, HIMSELF! and together we had ‘a sound’ along with Sanborn as the third horn…and the original band..we were all best friends and people could tell we were always having a ball onstage…and even though critics loved to put down us along with fusion, during it’s heyday and now..what can I say? Multitudes of people seemed to love it then, and love it now…venues were and are packed….and for us it was a way to express ourselves in a context that showed where we really were coming from… a mixture of bebop, soul, funk, and pop. Philly was a great Jazz town, but was also the home of the original American Bandstand, the birthplace of B3 Organ Trios, the home of Philly International, Gamble and Huff, and the Phila. Orchestra…so we got exposed to a lot of everything growing up there.

Also I have been touring with the ‘Original Heavy Metal Bebop Band’ w/Terry Bozzio, Barry Finnerty,Neil Jason and me and Ada. In a recent Japanese ‘Sax & Brass Magazine’ Poll “Heavy Metal Bebop” was voted the #1 ‘Horn Record of All Time’! Bird with Strings” was #2, and “Kind of Blue was #3!

Of course in the day it was also voted one of the 10 worst records of the year 1978 in People Magazine, who said there was enough electricity on the album to light up Cleveland!…so maybe it’s high energy wasn’t for everyone! haha!… and of course today the only way anything remotely connected to Jazz is mentioned in ‘People’ is if a couple band members commit suicide, or transgender themselves.

5) What are your goals long term/short term? What are you most looking forward to regarding your career?

RB – Short term goal is to play the next phrase perfectly…Long term goal is to finish out the night with some chops and ideas left!

…and that’s as far as it goes….and hope I ‘sell a million’ rather than (accumulating) a million (CDs) in my cellar!

I would like a large statue of me and my horn to be placed somewhere in times square…the Inscription could read: “He Played with Frank!!’

(thanks to the late great trumpeter Alan “Mr Fabulous” Rubin who wanted that to be the epitaph on his tombstone. We miss Alan and his ‘musician humor’!) Ah, honestly just intend to keep practicing and doin’ what I’m doin’…next year I’ll be 70 and am going to release ‘RandyPop!’…an anthology of hit tunes I played on in the day, as ‘deranged’ by the great Kenny Werner. Some Paul Simon,Springsteen,Steely Dan,Todd Rundgren, James Brown, Bette Midler, and others recorded live at the Blue Note NYC featuring my daughter Amanda Brecker vocals on like 3 tunes or so, and Kenny, John Patitucci, Nate Smith, Adam Rogers and David Sanchez…a great retrospective for my 70th b’day, but put in a new and ‘whacked’ context (I promise!)….. then next I think will be a CD of new original compositions with an acoustic  group….then???? we’ll see, we’ll see.





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