When it comes to music, Randy Brecker gets around. His trumpet and flugelhorn have graced the stages and sound booths of some of the most enduring acts in jazz and pop, from Blood, Sweat & Tears and Bruce Springsteen to Frank Sinatra and James Taylor. And that’s not to mention his work at the head of The Brecker Brothers, the mold-breaking fusion group he led alongside his real-life brother, Michael, a saxophonist of immense influence who passed away in 2007.
But Brecker’s range isn’t solely musical. He’s racked up an impressive geographic reach as well, with a touring résumé that checks off nearly every continent with a jazz scene (sorry, Antarctica). By his calculations, he spends roughly half the year on tour, leaping from festival to festival for week-long stretches at a time. Most recently, the traveling has been done under the banner of the Brecker Brothers Reunion Band, which features longtime Brecker Bros. associates along with Randy’s wife, Ada Rovatti, holding down the saxophone chair.
For Brecker, the constant globetrotting can be arduous— “I couldn’t do some of these trips without the Ambien,” he told JAZZIZ in an interview — but it’s also been an extremely rewarding experience, bringing him to exciting, far-flung places he would have never visited on his own.
In the process, he’s accumulated a wealth of knowledge about what it takes to travel as a working musician. In a phone interview from his home in New York — where he had just returned from a festival in Elmhurst, Illinois — we asked him to expound on some of his fondest travel memories. Below, he reminisces about his life as a road warrior, and offers some tips for those of us aspiring toward our own jazz travels.
How much traveling did you do last year? And how much are you trying to do this year?
For the past 10 or so years, it’s usually around 170 days on the road. I never plan it like that, but it always ends up right around that number.
What’s the ratio of domestic to international travel?
Probably about 60% international and 40% domestic when you tally it all up.
What was the heaviest travel period of your career?
I’d say that last 20 years, honestly. I came to New York in 1966 and pretty quickly got ensconced in the studio scene until it disappeared in the early 1990s. And then I hit the road when I was in my 40s. It happened in reverse from what a lot of other players do. When the studio work literally fell off the map for me, I started touring more, especially once Mike [Brecker] and I got the band back together in 1992.
So you didn’t tour much with the Brecker Brothers back in the 1970s?
Not really, no. We were just way too busy recording. That whole band was made up of studio cats.
What was it like touring with the group during the reunion tour after a two-decade hiatus?
That was a lot of fun, man. We had a great band and we kept things going until Mike was taken ill.
Did that happen on tour?
Yeah, we were on our way to Russia when he just called up and said he couldn’t go. My wife, [the saxophonist] Ada Rovatti, wound up taking his spot in Igor Butman’s club for a week. That was the start of his illness.
Looking back at your career as a traveling musician, which destinations jump out as favorites?
That’s a hard one, man. I’ve been everywhere. It’s probably easier to say which countries I want to visit. Like, I’ve been to North Africa many times, but I’m still trying to get down to South Africa — Cape Town or somewhere like that.
But I suppose I go to Europe more than anywhere else. And particularly now, Eastern Europe is a great place to work. After the fall of Communism, people love jazz over there. I go to Poland and tour over there for, like, a month. It was how the U.S. used to be. Every city has a jazz club.
I guess I’d have to single out Prague, too. If there’s any one city that is just a complete work of art, it’s Prague. It’s so much fun to walk around and take pictures there. Prague might be Number 1 on the list. Krakow, in Poland, is very similar, though. The town square is just beautiful.
Were there any destinations that surprised you for how hip they were?
That happens all the time. I must say, it’s harder and harder to book tours now, so you go to some out-of-the-way places. But as you say, you arrive at some of these places and they just stun you with how beautiful they are. That happens a lot in Russia, actually. I’ve done a couple tours with the great Igor Butman. We took the Siberian Express all the way to Vladivostok, which is an incredibly beautiful place, the San Francisco of Russia. That was fascinating. There were so many great musicians there. I remember going to a Russian blues club there, and you would swear you were in the Delta.
When you’re on tour and arrive in a new city, what kinds of things do you like to do to acclimate yourself?
Well, I’m not so much of a “hanger” anymore. I used to hang out and carouse to the break of dawn. But those days are long gone. So I lead kind of a boring existence now. But I do like to walk around the city and take pictures. Find good restaurants, that kind of thing. With Google, it’s become so much easier to find good places to go.
Where was the best food you ever had?
Well, I like to eat, and I’m not partial to any style, but I loved going to Japan. We’ll be going to Japan in April and I’ll be bringing my wife and our 10-year-old daughter. She’s thrilled to eat some good sushi and shabu-shabu.
What are the things you absolutely must have with you when you travel?
Number 1: CDs for sale, my man. That actually takes up a lot of space these days. I basically pack around them. But things are different now. Back in the day, the philosophy was to just bring everything. I remember my brother bringing two or three cases of just clothes on some of these trips. Today, some of the younger musicians can make it through the entire tour with just a carry-on, doing their laundry every night and stuff like that. Not me. Dizzy used to say, “Bring everything so that you feel like you’re at home.” That’s more my style.
Your new album, Rocks, was just released. It was recorded in Germany, correct?
Yeah, it’s a fine record with the NDR Big Band, the radio jazz band of the Hamburg Jazz Orchestra. We did two tours that preceded that recording, and those tours were very successful. We recorded it overseas and then did our editing in Bonn at the Hansahus, which is a wonderful studio with an expert engineer. And it just came out great. I’m very happy with it. It features my tunes from different periods, from my early days to the recent Brecker Brothers Reunion CD that came out a couple of years ago. My good friend Dave Sanborn is on it, too.
Did you get to enjoy Hamburg while you were there?
Well, there’s a beautiful hotel over there, the Grand Elysee Hotel Hamburg, that is one of the most beautiful hotels in Europe. That alone you can get lost in. And they have a new concert hall there, the Elphibharmonie, that is just stunning.
The thing about Germany is that they have great funding from the government for all of these projects — four or five radio bands alone. I’ve been privileged to work with all of them, but Hamburg is the most swingin’.
Where would you want to visit?
One thing I haven’t done extensively is the touristy places of the U.S. — the Grand Canyon, places like that. So that’s definitely on our list.
Is ther one place in the U.S. you’re particularly drawn to?
I love Northern California, and I love Seattle, too. I summered in Washington state when I was 19 years old, and I have a lot of friends from there. That’s where I first met Larry Coryell. It’s just a beautiful town and it’s always had a lot of music there, especially for a small town. It’s almost like my second home.
Randy Brecker’s new album Rocks is available now on Piloo Records. To purchase or download a copy, visit Randy’s website.