The Popdose Interview: Randy Brecker
It’s putting things stupidly mildly to say that Randy Brecker has seen a lot over the course of his career, but it’s also true — during the 40-plus years since he made his recorded debut as a member of the original lineup of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Brecker’s trumpet and flugelhorn have graced songs by a dizzying array of artists, including Frank Zappa, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bruce Springsteen, Charles Mingus, Dire Straits, Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed, Jaco Pastorius — and, of course, the Brecker Brothers, the pioneering fusion outfit he founded with his brother Michael in 1975.
After scoring a series of hits during the ’70s, the Breckers went on hiatus following 1981’s Straphangin’ and spent the remainder of the decade doing solo and session work, only to reconvene in the early ’90s for a pair of well-received albums, The Return of the Brecker Brothers and Out of the Loop. Though the Brothers entered another protracted layoff following their second reunion release, there was always the hope that we’d get another studio record out of them — until leukemia claimed 57-year-old Michael Brecker’s life in 2007.
As it turns out, the Brecker Brothers are still going strong — both on stage, where Randy currently leads the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion, featuring many of the musicians who played with the Breckers in years past, and on the shelves; on August 28, Legacy is releasing reissues of the six LPs the band released for Arista between 1975 and 1981. Randy took a moment to talk to us about the Brecker Brothers — past, present, and future.
The Brecker Brothers were at the vanguard of the fusion movement, which had to have its frustrating moments when fusion ended up becoming a four-letter word.
Yeah, that did have its moments. I mean, that definitely wasn’t the case at first, but then as people like us started getting on the charts, and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, a lot of lesser artists jumped on the bandwagon. Mike and I found ourselves performing on some records that really didn’t need to be made, especially under the fusion moniker, and that was a difficult time. It didn’t last that long — fusion kind of fused itself into the ground there for awhile, thanks to all the mediocre records being put out by people who just wanted to copy the sound.
You were also pioneers of some individual elements of fusion that were later misused, like electronic wind instruments.
That’s true, too. Mike was instrumental in bringing the EWI to the forefront, and if anything, he set the standard so high that it was hard to duplicate.
Did any of this have anything to do with the impetus behind the extended hiatus the Brecker Brothers took in the ’80s?
That was part of it, but the main reason was that our record deal with Arista expired, and we’d been playing together for close to 10 years. Mike wanted to pursue more of a solo career and play more jazz, and a group called Steps Ahead had slowly evolved in our club. He wanted to do that for awhile, and it was a nice opportunity for both of us to take a short break. We meant to start up again and look for another record contract, but that turned into a 10-year hiatus, because we were busy. Occasionally, we got together at our club and put the band back together — but, you know, time flies when you’re having fun.
I played with Jaco for a couple of years, and started leading my own bands more and more. I put out a couple of solo records in the interim. I guess I played a little more jazz — playing sessions, doing my own thing. But before I knew it, a decade had passed, and we reconstituted in 1992. That went by really quickly — I think partially because we got married and had kids. We were off in a different gear.
I remember when The Return of the Brecker Brothers came out, I was nervous because it was on GRP — but it doesn’t sound like a GRP record. It has a nice bite to it.
Yeah, we raised a few eyebrows at the label when the tapes were turned in. But [label co-owner] Larry Rosen liked it — he was still a musician at heart. On the whole, I guess the label was more into the L.A. sound, more of a smooth jazz thing, but we weren’t doing that. I had a good time on GRP, though — I enjoyed playing with the GRP Big Band, and became pretty close with some of those guys.
Can you talk about your personal journey leading up to the current reunion of the Brecker Brothers Band?
I guess it’s always been in the back of my mind. After Mike passed away in 2007, it was hard to do anything for awhile, but in the ensuing years I started writing more music, and I’m married to a wonderful tenor saxophone player, Ada Rovatti. I was also playing with Mike Stern and Dave Weckl a lot, and the idea started coalescing around that, because they were both in various incarnations of the band.
I got Will Lee, who was in the first band, and asked George Whitty, who produced our later albums and a lot of our solo stuff, if he wanted to fly to New York and play at the Blue Note for a week. At first, it was just going to be the Randy Brecker Band, but then I realized that literally everyone who was playing had been in the Brecker Brothers, so I decided it made sense to at least let people know that up front.
So we called it the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion, and we recorded a live DVD at the Blue Note — and then the next week, we went into the studio and recorded an album of new tunes. We brought in other musicians who had played with the Brecker Brothers, including Dave Sanborn, who guested on a couple of songs. Rodney Holmes, Mitch Stein. There’s a pretty wide swath of players in there — it came out pretty well. It has that flavor about it — some New York stuff. I’m very proud of it — it should be out early next year.
It seems like all this must be an important part of the healing process for you.
Yeah, it is. My brother Mike, even more than I did, always had a yen to represent himself as a jazz player — he always wanted to do a solo record, and finally got around to it when he was around 38 years old. But for me, the Brecker Brothers was really where I wanted to be. In a way, it still is — not that I don’t want to do other things, but it’s at the core of my being, my legacy. And my wife doesn’t really play like Mike, but she’s great, and having her there sort of keeps it in the family. It makes sense.
Have you gotten any sense that this reunion serves the same healing purpose for the audience?
Well, I’ll tell you, that week at the Blue Note was killer. They had us back, and we immediately packed the place. The people were crazed. The review in Downbeat substantiated it — they said we awed the crowd.
You’ve obviously been at this for awhile, and you’re at the top of your field. What, at this point, is your practice routine?
Well, I still have to practice every day — I usually do it for two or three hours in the evening. I’ll warm up during the day, but around 10:30 or 11, after my wife and daughter go to sleep, I’ll head downstairs and put in that time. If I do it, it feels great to play, but if I don’t — if I miss a day or two — I pay for it on the bandstand. It’s the nature of the trumpet, and I think most trumpeters will agree with me; you just have to put in the time. And as I get older, it gets more challenging, but it’s somehow still a lot of fun to play.
How close are you to where you want to be as an instrumentalist?
Oh, I don’t think anyone is ever close. I’m still just trying to copy Freddie Hubbard. [Laughs] But I’m gaining on him. Maybe by the time I’m 70, I’ll have it figured out.
And where does songwriting fit in? What’s your discipline as a writer?
Well, it’s all part of practicing. I’m constantly putting song puzzles together — little bits and pieces. There are certain times of year when I tend to write more — like winter, when I don’t get out much. It’s an ongoing process, and of course, computers and sequencing programs have helped a lot; I can hear it right away instead of using pencil and paper or rehearsal to get it out.
The reissues are going to be exciting for the longtime Brecker Brothers faithful, but what about new listeners? Where would you recommend they start out with these records?
I think I’d pick the first one. Go chronologically, if for no other reason than that you can hear my brother’s development as a writer. That first album was conceived by me, and it was supposed to be a solo record. Steve Backer, the executive producer, told me he had a production deal with Clive Davis — he said if I called it the Brecker Brothers, he could get me a deal. I was kind of taken aback at first, because I’d been planning on making a solo album — and I thought it would be kind of weird to call it the Brecker Brothers with Dave Sanborn playing horns on it — but it was such a nice opportunity that I ended up calling him back and saying okay.
So the first record is kind of all my conception, and through the albums, Mike slowly got more involved, and so did the other band members — it really became more of a band effort. You can hear that develop over time if you listen to the albums in order.