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Interview: Randy Brecker

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Randy Brecker turns 70 in November and has just released a new live album—RandyPop! (Piloo). The album features reimagined arrangements of pop songs by James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Donald Fagen. Joining Randy are Kenny Werner (p, arr), David Sanchez (ts), Amanda Brecker (v), Adam Rogers (g), John Patitucci (b) and Nate Smith (d). Randy has appeared on more than 700 known jazz recording sessions and earily double that in the pop, rock, funk and soul realms. A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with Randy:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Randy Brecker: In Cheltenham, PA, which is right outside of Philadelphia. Our house was a block from the city limits. My father was a semi-pro pianist, so I heard music from the time I could walk. I took to it more than my sister, who studied classical piano. My brother Michael [Brecker] came to music in high school. Until then, he was into basketball and his chemistry set.

JW: When did you start playing the trumpet?

RB: In the third grade. I had a choice between trumpet and clarinet. I went with the trumpet because my father, Bob, was a trumpet fanatic. He loved Clifford Brown and had seen his band with Max Roach at the Rendezvous and Blue Note clubs in Philly. I remember my father playing me one of Brownie’s EmArcy albums and at one point grabbed my arm and said, “Randy, the trumpet is the greatest instrument.”

JW: And Michael?

RB: He got stuck with the clarinet and played it for six years. In the 9th grade he switched to the alto saxophone. I was four years older than Michael, so I missed his transition. I was already in college.

JW: How did you take to jazz as a teen growing up in Philadelphia at the height of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll?

RB: My father had a huge jazz record collection. When I was 10, he bought me a record player. I’d take his LPs up to my room and play along on the trumpet. Most often I used Miles Davis’s ‘Round About Midnight, Chet Baker’s My Funny Valentine and Shorty Rogers' Martians Come Back. I’d just play along after practicing my classical pieces.

JW: How did playing along help you?

RB: It gave me a chance to pretend to be playing with the band on the album, which gave me confidence. It helped me channel their instincts. It was good for me but not so good for my father’s record collection. I’d play the records over and over, improvising over the piano solos, when the horns took a break.  

JW: Why didn’t’ your father become a musicians?

RB: He was a lawyer who was working his way up at his corporate law firm. But he was always really a musician. He grew up as a player and went to the same music camp as Mark “Moose” Charlap, Bill Charlap’s father. But my dad was afraid of becoming a musician and not being able to feed his family. He knew he could always play piano, so he went into law. But we had great jam sessions at home.

JW: Were you a fast learner?

RB: Pretty much. When I was 15, in 1959, I went to Indiana University to play in Stan Kenton’s band camp. Kenton had just started to hold clinics at colleges. There were a lot of great players there—Dee Barton, Marvin Stamm, Louis Gasca, Buddy Baker and others. I met David Sanborn, Lou Marini and Don Grolnick at the clinic.  

JW: When you graduated high school, you attended college at the University of Indiana, yes?

RB: Yes. The university had a fledgling jazz program in 1963, but I played mostly by ear. David Baker helped codify things for me. He wasn’t playing trombone then. He was playing cello. But he taught me a great deal about sight reading. A lot of musicians came to the school from nearby Indianapolis, like Booker T. Jones (above) of Booker T. and the MGs. I played with him for a couple of years. By the time I graduated, I was a pretty darn good reader and soul player.

JW: What did you do after school?

RB: Actually, I didn’t graduate from the University of Indiana. In my senior year, at the start of 1966, I decided to take four months off and go out on a State Department tour of the Middle East and Asia. When I returned, I moved to New York in September to finish my degree at New York University. There was little sense of how big rock was going to get then, and the jazz and pop studio scene was pretty active. By then, I was getting mixed signals from my parents about whether I should become a professional musician. They were afraid I wouldn’t be able to earn a living to support a family. Finally, they backed off. My mom, Sylvia, was an incredible portrait artist, so she understood.

JW: Did you finish at NYU?

RB: Not really. I got sucked into the studio scene quickly. I had a suit and tie and was making a ton of money for someone my age back then. I was living in Greenwich Village at 21 Jones St., and I never had to take cash from my dad to support myself.

JW: How did the Brecker Brothers form?

RB: Mike had flown to New York to play on my Score fusion album in 1968. He moved to the city a year later in 1969. In 1970, we played together in our band Dreams for a few years with trombonist Barry Rogers, keyboardist Jeff Kent, guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Doug Lubahn and drummer Billy Cobham.

JW: This was just when Cobham was getting hot.

RB: Yes. In 1973, Billy hit with his first album, Spectrum. He hired me and Mike and my brother for his band, and I started working on a lot of sessions with Mike. During those years, I started to write for myself. I was listening to what others were writing. I had an electric piano and fooled around with scores. I put together nine arrangements. I brought Mike, David Sanborn and me together in a horn section and was getting ready to record a demo for a record under my name. Then I got a call from Steve Becker, a producer who had joined Arista Records headed by Clive Davis. Steve had us meet Clive. Clive said to me, “You know, if you call the band the Brecker Brothers, I’ll sign you right now."

JW: What did you do?

RB: I fought the idea for a while but it was too good of an opportunity to turn down. We recorded my nine songs and arrangements in January 1975. When Clive heard the sessions, he called me into his office on 57th between 5th and 6th.

JW: What did he say?

RB: He said, “I love everything you guys recorded but you need a single.” I trudged back to the rehearsal studio and told the guys we need a tune that the label could put on the radio. We jammed a tune, went into the studio and recorded Sneakin' Up Behind You. It became a hit. Pieces fell into place. Next thing I knew the band was opening for Chaka Khan and Rufus and the Parliament. Many people thought we were black, but we were white and that’s what sold it.

JW: Looking back, what do you think of fusion?

RB: Well it ended like everything else: awash in mediocre records. Fusion morphed into the “smooth jazz” format, which in turn helped give fusion a bad name. But at it's best, fusion was a perfect blend of various musical genres and available technology. When you think of the best bands—like Miles Davis, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Larry Coryell's Eleventh House, Billy Cobham's Spectrum and, yes, the Brecker Brothers—each had an individual concept based on jazz, rock, funk and soul. It was an exciting time where there were no limits on what you could achieve in your career. Every 10 albums on the Billboard 200 was an instrumental fusion album. Sadly, those days are long gone.

JW: What do you love most about your new album?

RB: The arrangements by Kenny Werner are great. He has an amazing ability to reinvent pre-existing tunes so that they keep their classic fundamentals but sound altogether different than the originals. It was also great to work with my daughter and singer Amanda. The band killed these difficult charts, once we got them under our fingers, and I think the soloing also is unique. You couldn't rely on your bebop/funk vocabulary. Instead, you had to think creatively and melodically to make something out of the unusual chord changes.

JW: What do you think of the Brecker Brothers when you hear your albums today?

RB: The band was great. Admittedly, I was treating the group as a hobby then, but looking back, it gave me a chance to play with my brother. I miss him.

JazzWax clips: Here's Randy Brecker with Kenny Werner's arrangement of Donald Fagen's New Frontier...

 

Here's Randy interviewed by Bret Primack...

 

And here's Diana Ross on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, with Randy behind her left shoulder on the trumpet and his arrangement of her Mirror, Mirror...

 

       

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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