PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 27, 2007

Randy Brecker's Long Run

by Jim Newsom

When he steps on the Roper stage with his Quintet for Friday night’s Jazz on Granby concert, trumpeter Randy Brecker will have his wife, Ada Rovatti, with him on saxophone. Making music with family members is nothing new. He and younger brother Michael made a name for themselves in the ‘70s with their jazz-rock-funk-fusion band, The Brecker Brothers. And they’d been playing together since childhood.

“I started playing when I was eight,” Randy said in a recent telephone conversation. “By the time I was in high school, he was playing alto and we had a family band—my father was a piano player and my sister was a very fine classical pianist, also doubled on bass. Mike and I both played drums. My father would teach us tunes and we’d go down in the living room and just play for a while as a group. Also, our rooms were like a suite, adjoined together by a bathroom that we shared; we used to go in there to practice because we liked the echo and the reverb.”

They shared a pair of Grammy awards for last year’s live album, Some Skunk Funk, but sadly, Michael died in January after battling the rare blood cancer, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).

“I miss him dearly,” Randy said. “I’m glad that we have all of those great records together.”

Each of the brothers has a lengthy catalog of recording and performing credits that is matched by few others. The All Music Guide lists a thousand albums for Randy alone. With so much time spent in studios, I wondered if any particular sessions stand out in his memory.

“A lot of them run together,” he admitted, “because most times the artists weren’t there. I worked with some great producers; Arif Mardin, who passed away recently, pops into mind because I did so many projects with him at Atlantic. But it was like a recording factory. I remember when he had given me a bunch of stuff to do one night; I said it helps to know who’s going to be singing these tracks. And he said, ‘It might be Ringo Starr or Aretha Franklin or Bette Midler. We’ll figure that out later, once we get the tunes done.’ They were fun to do but I don’t even know what happened to a lot of that stuff.

“The ones that I remember are the ones where the artists were personally involved, like the James Taylor One Man Dog record or various Paul Simon records—we knew the guys and they were hands-on artists. The Parliament-Funkadelic sessions, those guys were always there.”

Born to Run was another. Bruce was there; I remember it very clearly. My recollection of that was doing a tune called ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,’ and we spent hours on the chart. Bruce really wasn’t sure what he wanted, so we helped him write the chart, then we changed things, and we finally got it. We had done a take when bounding in the door came this other guy who we didn’t know. It turned out to be Miami Steve, later of The Sopranos fame. He changed the whole thing. He had boundless energy and when he came in, he didn’t like anything we were doing. So we had to start all over.

“But ‘Meeting Across the River’ was just one take. It was a duo and we just did it.”

Randy Brecker spent his high school years in Philadelphia backing up American Bandstand teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. After moving to New York, he became a charter member of the pioneering jazz-rock band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, playing on their first album that came out in February, 1968. His decision to leave just before the group hit it big is a classic story of the road not taken.

“We had done one record,” he said, “Child is Father to the Man. At the time, the horn section, with the exception of Freddie Lipsius, were salaried employees. I had been getting calls from [jazz pianist] Horace Silver to possibly join his band. And as much as I liked Blood, Sweat & Tears, I didn’t get much of a chance to actually solo in the band; it was pretty tightly arranged—great arrangements, but it was mostly playing section parts.

“Horace called and said I had the gig if I wanted it around the same time that I heard that the rhythm section had voted and thought that Al [Kooper] wasn’t a strong enough lead singer, and wanted to add this fellow by the name of David Clayton-Thomas. We had a meeting, and Al decided to quit because he wanted to be the lead singer; he had his own vision and he didn’t want anyone to take that away from him.

“I also raised my hand. I thought about it and said, ‘I don’t think you guys will ever make it without Al.’”

Giving his two-week notice, Brecker asked friend and fellow trumpeter Lew Soloff to take his place in BS&T.

“At the time, it wasn’t a popular thing among a lot of jazz musicians to play rock,” he said, “even with a jazz-rock band. But I told Lew it was a hundred dollars a week whether you work or not: ‘just try it for a while ‘cause I’m gonna leave the band and they need a trumpet player.’

“At first he didn’t want to do it, but I begged him. So he tried it out and they recorded the next record a month later with David Clayton-Thomas. That record sold eleven million, and that $100 a week salary shot up to $5,000 a week in about five months. I was making $250 a week with Horace. Out of that $250 a week, Horace took taxes out and I had to pay for my hotel rooms. At the time I thought to myself, maybe that wasn’t the greatest decision.

“In the long run, though, I probably made the right choice. Playing with Horace led to a lot of things that staying with Blood, Sweat & Tears wouldn’t have—there probably wouldn’t have been a Brecker Brothers. My career had its own trajectory as a result of that decision.

“But I remember going to a club called Jim and Andy’s in New York—I came back after playing with Horace and I thought everybody would pat me on the back because I had stuck to my guns and did the jazz gig. I ran into [drummer] Grady Tate and an arranger named Gary McFarland, and they said to me, ‘What, are you nuts?’

“But in the long run it paid off.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


"Brotherly Love"
August 8, 2006
A review of Some Skunk Funk and
Sneakin’ Up Behind You: The Very Best of The Brecker Brothers.

"Staying Focused"
April 27, 2004
An interview with Michael Brecker.

"Philly Boys to Reunite at Jazz on Granby"
November 11, 2003
An interview with Randy Brecker and Marc Copland.