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February 17, 2014IM -
When your career spans several decades, like that of Randy Brecker of Local 802 (New York City), diversity helps keep things fresh. Some cities and communities are rife with diverse musical talent and ambition, and in those locations, influence is almost inevitable. Such was the case in Philadelphia in the middle of the 20th century, where Brecker was born, raised, and influenced.
He considers the Philadelphia of his youth a musical melting pot, where jazz, R&B, pop music, and even the Philadelphia Orchestra coexisted. “Jazz permeated pretty much everything,” recalls Brecker, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn. His father, a pianist, would host jam sessions at their house, and introduced young Randy to many jazz musicians. It wasn’t long before Brecker began walking the streets of Philly, trying to find places to play. “Particularly, the African-American community was very kind to me,” he says, citing Clarence “C” Sharpe and Robert “Bootsie” Barnes as two musicians who were instrumental in the early development of his skill. “I backed up singers, played shows in a lot of organ trios, blues bands, weddings,” says Brecker. “So I was a pretty well-rounded musician by the time I got to New York.”
In 1966, after graduating from Indiana University, Brecker moved to New York City and became an AFM member. “One was almost obliged to join the union,” he explains, “because all the great musicians were already enrolled.” Networking with other professionals is a huge perk of union membership, one that has certainly benefited Brecker. “Eventually, you’d form relationships and play gigs with other members. And one thing always led to another,” he adds.
By ensuring he consistently played gigs, the union helped Brecker build a reputation for himself. “I’ve been a long-term union member and supporter,” he says proudly. He remembers it being the only way to get work. “You’d go to union days, and contractors were there, trying to put together a band to go on the road for the weekend. There were guys with megaphones shouting, ‘We need a trumpet player for Friday night!’”
Brecker goes as far as to say that no musician could really live without being a member of the union. “They’re a great watchdog,” he says. “Processing all the checks, making sure that all the payments are sent out.” And in retrospect, in the fifth decade of his career, Brecker is thankful to have joined when he did. “[The union’s] wonderful pension plan is very important for young musicians. It’s important they realize that they have a future when they get older.”
Joining the union led to Brecker’s tenure with the Larry Elgart Band, with which he went on the road every weekend for his first couple years in New York. As his name grew more recognizable, Brecker became a sought-after musician. He recorded the album Child Is Father to the Man with Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968, but, finding the group’s method too structured, he left after a year. “I needed to stretch out and play,” he reflects.
Over the next several years, Brecker began writing his own music. He played in numerous bands, including the Horace Silver Quintet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and the seminal fusion group, Dreams, which also featured saxophonist Michael Brecker, his younger brother. “I really enjoy going from one situation to another,” Brecker says of his musical endeavors.
“When I began writing a lot of music on my own, I started putting a band together with my brother and Dave Sanborn [of Local 802],” Brecker says. “A gentleman called me up and said he’d heard about the music I’d been writing because we were rehearsing around town, doing a couple of gigs. He said he had just signed a production deal with a new label, Arista, and if we’d call ourselves the Brecker Brothers, he’d sign us.”
This took some consideration on Brecker’s part; he had wanted the band to exist under his full name, since he had written the music. Still, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “I called him back a couple of days later, after talking to my brother and Sanborn, who was kind of the invisible third brother.” They were then signed to Arista. “It was a combination of being in the right place and time, but also being able to deliver when opportunity knocked. Sometimes, as they say, opportunity only knocks once, and that was a big knock.”
The Brecker Brothers’ self-titled debut was released to critical acclaim in 1975. It was nominated for four Grammys.
By the time they disbanded in 1982, the Brecker Brothers had recorded six albums and had been nominated for a total of seven Grammys. The success made Brecker an international star. Through the ’80s, he kept busy by continuing to record and tour, but also did some producing, composing, and arranging. “I sometimes think of myself as a Zelig of the trumpet,” Brecker says of his wide-ranging pursuits. “Jazz has always been closest to my heart, but I love R&B. I love playing classical music and different varieties of world music.”
He has also recorded and performed with some of the highest profile musicians, including Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, Bruce Springsteen of Locals 47 (Los Angeles) and 399 (Asbury Park, NJ), Todd Rundgren of Local 802, Frank Zappa, and many more. “I was always open-minded as long as the musicianship was there,” Brecker says.
One of his most memorable experiences is touring Eastern Europe in 1989 with his quintet, as the Cold War was ending. “We did a three-month tour where we visited all the countries behind the Iron Curtain: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia. There proved to be a wealth of amazing musicians that I got to know quite fondly, and had some wonderful experiences with, touring as far as Siberia.” Brecker was shocked by the musicianship. “We found musicians in every town, towns that you’ve barely heard of … not only jazz musicians, but musicians of every type. I remember being somewhere in Siberia, and we saw this Russian blues band, and I swear, you’d have thought you were in Mississippi.”
The ’90s, like the preceding decades, were good to Brecker. After he spent a couple more years touring and recording, the Brecker Brothers reunited in 1992 for a world tour and the triple-Grammy nominated The Return of the Brecker Brothers. This was followed up by the double-Grammy winning Out of the Loop, which was released in 1994. Brecker’s third solo album, Into the Sun, garnered him his first Grammy as a solo artist two years later.
“They’re sitting downstairs in my basement, in my little recording studio,” he says of his trophies. Then, humbly, “There’s five.” His most recent Grammy came in 2008, for a recording he did in Sao Paolo, called Randy in Brazil. “I was thrilled each time,” Brecker says. “It’s a very nice honor when your peers take you into consideration.”
The near decade-and-a-half between his first and most recent Grammy were defined by an enthusiasm for touring that has led Brecker to perform in China, Japan, South America, and all over Europe. His exuberance isn’t so different from when he was first starting out, walking all over Philly to find a gig; it’s just that now, he’s gone all over the globe. “It’s a combination of things,” Brecker says, explaining his motivation. “Enjoying the instrument I play, enjoying writing music, and I enjoy thinking of new projects.”
One recent project was performing a week at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, with a band he assembled a few weeks earlier. “Upon putting [the band] together, I realized most of the members were former members of the Brecker Brothers Band. So we called it a Brecker Brothers Band reunion, and I’m going to go into the studio and record a bunch of new tunes, and also do a live recording at the Blue Note, for a DVD. We’re going to release it all as a package later next year.”
Despite his prolificacy, Brecker finds time to spend with his family. By his calculation, he’s still on the road about half the year, and doesn’t intend to retire any time soon. “My vague plan is to try and be more selective, and cut back some,” he says. “I mean, I’m almost 66. I have a wonderful wife and a young daughter, and I enjoy both of them very much. My wife, Ava Rovatti, is a wonderful Italian saxophonist, and she tries to come with me whenever she can, she and little Stella.”
He recently got rid of his apartment in Manhattan, and now lives year-round in the Hamptons. “It’s been great,” he says of the change. “There’s actually a nice little local jazz scene around here, too. There’s a little coterie of guys who like to play on Thursday nights. I don’t go every week, but sometimes, and the local cats are all pretty good.”
Brecker is now faced with trying to find the perfect balance between home life and his artistic pursuits. “Things have changed quite a bit,” he says. “I plan to be around as much as possible, but I want to keep my foot in the door, so to speak, because I love playing for people.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where he’s playing, whether it’s on a different continent or within walking distance of his winterized home in the Hamptons. What’s important to Brecker is that there are people to play for, people to hear the music. “That’s why we do it,” he says.