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Randy Brecker has been a prolific composer throughout his recording career, which, as a leader, began 50 years ago with the release of Score on the Blue Note subsidiary label Solid State. As he approaches his sixth decade of making music — after winning a handful of Grammy awards and playing in a wide array of bands, including Blood, Sweat and Tears, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the Horace Silver Quintet and the influential Brecker Brother Band — Brecker has become a revered jazz elder.
A hard-bopper at heart, he grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham under the spell of such trumpet greats as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown and Philly’s own Lee Morgan. He experimented with electronics throughout his career, most notably with the first edition of the Brecker Brothers Band, from 1975-82, and also, briefly, with Frank Zappa in 1976. During the last 10 years, he’s been a frequent guest of big bands both Stateside and abroad, having recorded projects with the Danish Radio Big Band, the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, Finland’s UMO Jazz Orchestra and, earlier this year with the release of Rocks, Hamburg’s NDR Bigband.
In October, he’ll add to his expansive discography with the release of Brecker Plays Rovatti, an album that showcases the trumpeter in peak form on a collection of tunes composed by his wife, saxophonist Ada Rovatti. On songs such as the swinging “The Queen of Bibelot,” the African-flavored “Brainwashed,” the lyrical “Sacred Bond,” the Brazilian-tinged “Other Side of the Coin” and “Helping Hands,” and the wryly titled “Britches Brew” — a nod to electric-era Miles Davis — Brecker plays with typical rhythmic assuredness and virtuosity alongside Rovatti and a core group of pianist David Kikoski, bassist Alex Claffy and drummer Rodney Holmes.
Brecker Plays Rovatti will mark the culmination of a busy year for Brecker, who turns 74 on November 27. He recently chatted by phone from his home on Long Island, where he resides with Ada and their 10-year-old daughter, Stella, who makes a cameo vocal appearance on “Sacred Bond,” the opening track from Brecker Plays Rovatti.Bill Milkowski: You had this very magical blend with your brother Mike on the frontline in the Brecker Brothers that seemed almost telepathic at times. Now with Ada, it’s a different but equally tight hookup. Can you talk about that chemistry?
Randy Brecker: It’s hard to put into words. It’s just great to have somebody special in my life, like Mike was — to be so close to somebody that we can play together the way we do. Ada and I play together so much and we’re together so much that I go into another kind of thing with her. And she’s never tried to copy Mike, even when she plays in the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion. She just has her own way of thinking through things, and she sticks to it. I think people assume, “Eh, she’s just his wife.” She gets that all the time, and she has to persevere through that stuff. But I think she’s a great player, a great composer, and the main thing is I’ve seen so much improvement from her. She’s very serious about it, and she’s reached another level in the writing department with this new record.
“Brainwashed,” on Brecker Plays Rovatti, features Ada playing a soprano sax that Mike gave her.
They were pretty close until the end of his life. They had a lot of talks, and he gave her this horn at one point. He rarely played soprano sax; he had stopped playing it at some point. He just didn’t want to do it anymore. But it’s a nice-sounding horn, and she really makes it speak.
She also plays that soprano on your piece from Rocks, “Adina,” a Brazilian-flavored number you wrote for her. How did you and Ada meet?
We met in 1996 at a big band gig in Italy, where I was guesting with my good friend Franco Ambrosetti. I first met her in Lugano, Switzerland, where Franco lives. She came up there to give me directions and show me how to get to this gig, which wasn’t far from where she lived. And she was also playing alto sax in this big band. We exchanged phone numbers, and she explained that she was moving to Paris. We started seeing each other long distance, then she moved to NYC after a year in Paris. It took about five years of deciding what to do, but eventually we got married in December 2001.
Another of your compositions featured on Rocks is “Pastoral,” a poignant requiem for the late Jaco Pastorius. What was it like playing in Jaco’s Word of Mouth big band and sextet in 1982?
With “Pastoral,” I was consciously trying to write a tune with Jaco’s sensibility in mind, and I also fit in a quote from one of his tunes, “Okonkole y Trompa,” as we were fading. We all talk about Jaco to this day. He was the greatest, he was our Mozart. He could just pick up any instrument and play. It was just total music with Jaco. And sadly, mental illness just caught up with him.
Having been on the road with him and watching his sad decline from month to month had a deep impact on my own outlook towards life. We had an ill-fated gig at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1982, where Jaco just disappeared from the stage in the middle of Bob Mintzer’s song “Mr. Fonebone.” The road manager, Michael Knuckles, found him taking a shower in the men’s locker room with his clothes on. Knuckles pulled him out, and Jaco came back onstage soaking wet and started playing Frankenstein chords on the keyboard until I grabbed him and yelled, “Play the fucking bass!” We got through that gig, but just barely. And things went further downhill from there. There were many sadder stories of him picking fights with people and just going further into decline. Jaco had a real serious bi-polar mental illness that was never treated. It was just a tragedy all the way around. I miss him a lot and think of him every day.
[caption id="attachment_21355" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Randy Brecker: "It’s just great to have somebody special in my life, like Mike was — to be so close to somebody that we can play together the way we do.”[/caption]
Earlier you mentioned playing a gig with Franco Ambrosetti in 1996. What do you remember about the international trumpet competition in Vienna that you two participated in back in 1966?
I remember quite a bit because it was a life-changing event for me. I was just 20 years old at the time and very lucky to be there because we had just completed a 16-week State Department tour with the Indiana University Jazz Ensemble. In 1965, we won the Notre Dame Jazz Festival and that was one of the perks. We were offered this 16-week tour of the Middle East and Asia, and we ended up in Greece. And we noticed that DownBeat was promoting a First Annual International Jazz Competition later that year, so three or four of us made our way to Vienna to compete. The judges were Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Ron Carter and Mel Lewis. It was put together by Friedrich Gulda, a very famous classical and jazz pianist and impresario.
I was there about 10 days and there were hundreds of young jazz players there, all either teenagers or barely 20, competing in the semi-semi-finals, then semi-finals, then finals. Among them — complete unknowns at the time — were Miroslav Vitous and George Mraz, who won the two bass positions, pianists Joachim Kühn and Jan Hammer, trombonist Jiggs Whigham and saxophonist Eddie Daniels. The trumpeters were Franco Ambrosetti, myself, Tomasz Stanko and Claudio Roditi. Franco ended up beating me by a tenth of a point. He was a little older, but I was right on his coattails. And we had a band that got second place with George Mraz, myself and Jan Hammer, who sounded like Wynton Kelly back then.
So this event was really instrumental in jumpstarting our careers because a lot of us moved to New York shortly after that and began forming musical relationships. And it was just fascinating meeting the judges. I somehow ended up in Mel Lewis’ room with Cannonball. Mel had the first Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra acetate with him and wanted to play it for Cannonball. And I just sat there like a fly on the wall as they checked it out. And as they listened, Mel would point out things like, “Watch, on the next tune Pepper Adams gets hung up in the changes.” And they both got hysterical laughing after hearing it, like two kids. It just taught me so much about how musicians interact, their humanity and their sense of humor.
Three years later, in 1969, you came out with Score, your first album as a leader. What do you remember about that debut session?
Duke Pearson produced that album. Around that time I started to write some tunes that were in a kind of folky-rocky vein. I recruited Larry Coryell, who I had previously met in Seattle before either of us had come to New York. Larry is one of the godfathers of fusion, you might say. I was very close to him his whole life. I was in his Eleventh House group in the mid ’70s, and I played on a reunited Eleventh House album from 2016, Seven Secrets, which was his last recording.
So I got Larry on guitar. Eddie Gomez, who was also playing with Bill Evans at the time, was on bass and Mickey Roker, who I had previously played with in Duke Pearson’s big band, was on drums. Hal Galper played piano and wrote four tunes for that record. And for two tracks I got the great electric bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Bernard Purdie, both of whom I had done a lot of sessions with. I had to coax Duke Pearson into letting them play because he had never met them or heard of them, so it was a stretch for Blue Note/Solid State. And finally, I got a 19-year-old Michael Brecker to fly from Indiana University to New York for this session. Imagine how nervous he must’ve been having never had a record date before and having never played in New York City before. He was still a diamond in the rough then. The Michael Brecker that we all know was there, but his style was not fully developed yet.
It seems like you had no trouble getting work after arriving in New York in September 1966. How did that happen?
It was just amazing the way the thing unfolded for me. One thing just easily led to another. Clark Terry, who was a judge at the 1965 Notre Dame Jazz Festival that we won, asked me to join his Big Bad Band shortly after I came to town. Marvin Stamm, who was my trumpet instructor at the Stan Kenton Jazz Camp I attended when I was 15, moved to New York around the same time, and we both were asked to join Clark’s big band. Marvin then got me into Duke Pearson’s big band. Shortly after that, Mel Lewis called me to join the Thad-Mel Orchestra. So in terms of my entry into New York, I had a pretty easy time of it, mostly from meeting all these great musicians at the competitions and band camp. I was just lucky being in the right place at the right time.
[caption id="attachment_21356" align="alignleft" width="682"] Randy Brecker: "all talk about Jaco to this day. He was the greatest, he was our Mozart. He could just pick up any instrument and play. It was just total music with Jaco."[/caption]
Did you make the loft session scene that took place around New York in those days?
Quite a bit. One of the main places was Dave Liebman’s loft on 19th Street. There were three floors in this building between 5th and 6th avenues. Lieb’s was on the third floor, Chick Corea was on the second floor and a drummer named Howie Wyeth, who was the grandson of the artist Andrew Wyeth, was on the first floor. At some point, Dave Holland moved into that building. My brother Mike lived there for a while, too. It was just a steady stream of musicians coming through there to jam, sometimes three sessions going on at once at that place.
Liebman’s place was mostly free-jazz jams. The bebop and Miles-infused fusion jams were over at Gene Perla’s, who shared a loft under the Williamsburg Bridge with Jan Hammer and Don Alias. I was over there quite a bit, too, along with Steve Grossman and a lot of people under the Miles wing, so to speak. There was also a rehearsal studio on 89th Street that big bands and small groups used. That’s where Horace Silver auditioned me. So there was a lot going on in those days — music going on 24 hours a day.
Where did you live when you came to New York?
I had a small courtyard apartment on Jones Street in the Village, just off of Bleecker Street. The rent was just $90. Eventually I moved into a 1600 square-foot loft on the Bowery where the rent was $175, and I stayed there for years. It was easier living in New York back then because rents were cheap. Rates for musicians really haven’t gone up that much in New York, and yet their expenses have gone up 20-fold. So now it’s impossible.
Over the past few years you’ve done a number of gigs where you’re the featured soloist with big bands. That’s not something you did during the heyday of the Brecker Brothers. How did that come about?
I just take it as it comes. Last night I played at Dizzy’s with the Yale Jazz Ensemble. They did Duke Pearson arrangements off that first record that I was on years ago [1967’s Introducing Duke Pearson’s Big Band, on Blue Note]. So it was fun to play that stuff again.
You also recently guested on Shiny!, a big band recording by the Lisa Maxwell Orchestra, which is dedicated to the late trumpeter Lew Soloff. What do you remember about him?
Lew was a true original, just in love with the trumpet. He was one of the great players in any style, in any idiom, on any trumpet. He was the world’s greatest jazz piccolo trumpet player. He mastered it. He was an unbelievable, original character and one of my closest friends. He had such a great, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Everyone has Lew Soloff stories, but he was just a wonderful man, a wonderful family man and a wonderful trumpet player I always looked up to. I took lessons from him; we kind of shared trumpetistic things — I gave him some pointers, he would give me pointers. We played so many gigs together, and it was such a shock when he left us because I had just seen him. And we had just buried Clark Terry, and two weeks later Lew was gone.
You just finished a European tour with Billy Cobham’s Crosswinds Project, revisiting music from that 1974 album that featured you and your brother along with John Abercrombie and George Duke. You’ll be touring the States this fall with that group, right?
Yeah, it’s part of Billy’s 75th birthday-year celebration. He’s got a lot of gigs lined up, and I just hope I can last. But I haven’t played with him in years, so it’s been fun. It’s kind of an unusual front line in that the other horn is a virtuoso bassoonist named Paul Hanson. And Billy’s still playing great. It was a lot of work to relearn all that music. We started at Ronnie Scott’s in London in June and then toured around Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
You’ve obviously been very busy this past year with recordings and gigs. You’re playing better than ever, and you have a beautiful family. Seems like things are going well for you.
Yeah, I’m blessed, man — knock on wood. I just look up every day, and I’m thankful for the way things turned out. - Bill Milkowski