Summarizing the career of Randy Brecker in a few sentences is next to impossible. The 20-time Grammy Award nominee and 7-time Grammy Award winner has had a 50+ year run as one of the most talented and beloved trumpeters and composers in the world. During this time, he has performed with big bands as a youth, then with the jazz rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, all before his jazz influenced years with Horace Silver, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and, most famously, with his brother Michael. Along the way there was an equally successful stint as the Randy Brecker/Bill Evans Soulbop Band as well as various editions of the Brecker Brothers Band, both before and after Michael’s passing in 2007.
Randy has been a mainstay of The Jazz Cruise for years, appearing in just about every form and fashion imaginable. Randy is an encyclopedia of music. For those younger than 50, an “encyclopedia” was an ink and paper version of a search engine. Anyway, Randy was a performer on The Signature Jazz Cruise, a small ship program that Entertainment Cruise Productions produced in Europe, and, as part of the evening’s entertainment, the audience was invited to play “Stump The Band.” Not to embarrass the other players on the bandstand, but they (for the sake of argument, we will call them Shelly, John, Jeff and Wycliffe) struggled often to respond to the tunes being called out by the audience. When stumped, they simply turned to Randy and he belted out the tune and then some!
It is no secret that Randy is among the most favorite performers that The Jazz Cruise has ever presented. Recently, Michael Lazaroff, Executive Director of Entertainment Cruise Productions – Jazz, presented Randy with a few questions. Here is how it went:
Lazaroff: Randy, we have spoken on the phone and written back and forth over the past few months, but we have not seen each other. How are you doing and how have you held up during these trying times?
Brecker: Thanks for all the kind words Michael! Missing out, (as we all did) on The Jazz Cruise 2021 was such a big disappointment, but I’ve been faring well, since music is so intertwined in my life from every aspect. I often wonder how people fare who don’t have music so enriching their lives. What do they do? Of course I miss playing in front of an audience and my fans, but I try to assuage that temporary loss by searching for albums or videos (usually live) like Sonny Rollins 1963 Live in Scandinavia, for example, and late at night I turn down the lights in my music studio, put on headphones with the exact right amount of reverb like in a recording studio, and play along with the video or mp3. Last night I played with Coltrane’s Classic Quartet live from somewhere, it didn’t say where on YouTube, and it didn’t matter, it was live and it was them! I got excited playing along, almost like being on a gig!
I like to read books and informative magazines. Just finished Phil Woods’ autobiography “Life In E Flat” and fondly remember seeing him for the last time on The Jazz Cruise and of course his wife Jill who was on again, in 2019.
I have been able to exercise more, being home, eating right too, and have lost over 30 pounds which I intend to keep off and more … until the next cruise in ’22, then: Lemme at all that fabulous food!!
Lazaroff: I would assume that you, Ada and Stella have had the opportunity to bond during this time. Any special stories about how that has gone?
Brecker: Ha! That’s a good one but in short: yeah we have!! Ada was, for years, saying I was a ‘workaholic’ and I should stay home more at my age, and then when all work got postponed during Lockdown, that quickly morphed into: “But, but… you’re always here!” So truthfully it was an adjustment, a learning experience for the 3 of us, how to give each other a lotta love, but at the same time, some needed space. Well actually for Stella (at age 12 going on 30), she makes sure she has plenty of space from us in her beloved ‘Bedroom con Laptop.’ It’s that dreaded teen-time parents go through, but at the same time she’s been doing great at school under the most trying of circumstances. They just went back to full-time in-person learning after Easter, the first time in months, and her grade-point average is 96.
Ada and me during this whole year, never have had even a serious argument. We work on our musical craft and keep busy. In her case it’s crafts like cooking in any style, gardening, serious arts and crafts with Stella, and clothes designing and sewing with pretty amazing results. She says it makes her mind move in a way that takes her music and composing in new directions too.
This last weekend the 3 of us celebrated Ada’s second vaccine shot (I got mine several weeks ago) by doing some shopping in nearby Riverhead, Long Island. They wanted to go to the Salvation Army thrift shop. I said: “Why do you want to go there with all the other great stores in that ‘Outlet’ area?” ‘WOKE’ Stella chimed in: “It’s ‘Sustainable Shopping’ Dad!” Oh, there ya go … I’m bonding!
Lazaroff: Your career has spanned decades, genres and various musical styles. You have been a star in them all. If, now, you had to select one era of music or one configuration that you felt most “at home,” what would that be?
Brecker: Well being home for so long I must say I’ve become a little more conservative in my listening tastes. I’m deep into Bebop now, my first love, listening to all the great originators with even more respect, and have had more time for research to unearth things I didn’t know, going gleefully back in time to put the Great Jazz Timeline into more perspective. You make a sudden discovery and you say to yourself how did I not know that before? Some examples: Charlie Parker in duo with Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck’s early late-40s San Francisco Octet, everyone in the Octet was studying with Darius Milhaud, and it’s on a level of ‘Birth of the Cool’ in many ways.
Then there was my recent discovery of trumpeter Russell Gunn’s Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra out of Atlanta, a live concert at the Rialto there. That’s quite a modern big band with an amazing presentation, all representative of TODAY’s music and style with hip-hop interwoven and so much respect for the tradition and history of Black American Music.
Also I must say that watching Emmet Cohen’s incredibly consistent Monday Nights at Emmet’s Place has been so much fun to watch. It’s so great that I can see and hear some of the young guys and gals playing and singing so masterfully, and swingin’ so hard. Gotta thank him when I see him on the cruise in 2022! Our music is in good hands!
Lazaroff: You performed with your brother for many years. Working in the music world with family is something I have experienced as well. Tell us about the yin and yang of being on your own and being with family, in terms of your professional life?
Brecker: Well music is a collaborative art, and musicians I came up with are like family too, like David Sanborn, Blue Lou Marini, Don Grolnick, ex-drummer Richie OKon (who’s on The Jazz Cruise every year). We all met at the Stan Kenton Band Camp when we were 15. Sadly, too many of my closest buddies and band members are gone way too soon, brother Mike, Grolnick, Barry Rogers, Hiram Bullock, Victor Bailey and others, but I always gravitate to playing with people I’m close to personally, since it gives you that extra communicative-spark that goes with it. So I see it as one thing. That’s why we’re all so close on The Jazz Cruise. By now it’s family.
Y’know my father, a lawyer by trade, was a great pianist, singer-songwriter who wrote a tune for me when I was 2 weeks old, the first lines being: “I’ll be so proud of you honey, when I hear you give out on that horn!/You might play drums, maybe a hot fife/ and love Music even more than your wife!” So it was pre-ordained. My sister Emily is an accomplished classical pianist and more recently harpist. And Mike Brecker, well we all know about him. We had a family band: Dad on piano and voice, Mike doubling on drums, Emmy doubling on bass and me also doubling on vibes. Stella plays baritone sax and sings, she can belt it out! And my other grown daughter Amanda Brecker, (now Amanda Brecker LeSueur) has had several albums and videos out. The videos are up on YouTube. She’s a singer-songwriter with big success in Japan, where she toured several times, before becoming a very successful real estate agent and vice president of the company she was with. Now she’s also the Mom of Little Lucy who will be 2 in July and already banging out notes on her little toy piano. I did a CD by the way like 4 or so years ago featuring Amanda, Live at the NYC Blue Note, revamping of Hit’s I played on back in the day, called “Randy Pop!” ‘Pop’ in more ways than one!
Jeez, and OK while we’re at it, let’s go a little back in time… My grandfather Manny was a fine singer in Vaudeville, his brother Lou Brecker started the famous Roseland Ballroom in Philly in 1916 and moved it to NYC around 1920 and Lou and his immediate family ran it for over 90 years! ‘Uncle Lou’ Brecker gave Louis Armstrong his first gig in NYC in 1923, as featured soloist with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra… (true!) The last artist to work there was Lady Gaga! On my mother’s side (she was a pianist but mainly a fine portrait artist), her cousin Morty Tecosky (Mom’s maiden name) also born in Philly, was known as Morton DaCosta (to me: Uncle Morty), a Broadway actor and director. He directed the stage and film versions of “The Music Man” (76 Trombones!) and oh yeah “Auntie Mame!” … so the family connection with music goes way back.
Lazaroff: You must know that when we sit down to fill out the lineup for The Jazz Cruise every year that no list will ever be submitted without your name on it. Is that okay with you?
Brecker: Well yes, as a matter of fact, I would think heavily upon that very conception which would be most enjoyable for me. Um, in other words, You ain’t leavin’ without me!
Lazaroff: Our readers are always interested in what is up with Randy Brecker. Is there a current project or opportunity that you would like to share with them?
Brecker: Well thanks to Ada’s tech chops as engineer and editor, we’ve done some music-videos together which are up on YouTube, plus thanks to file-sharing remote recording, we’ve done a lot of sessions too for various clients all over the world. For instance, I’ve recently done a project for guitarist Laszlo Halper who’s located in Budapest. Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsies” material re-imagined, except this band really are Gypsies!
I had something like 8 releases out the past couple of years (they’re all up on my website including ‘Brecker Plays Rovatti’ which did great at jazz radio) but all in all, way too many for the market to bear these days, and they all came out around the same time on different labels, including our own, way too close to each other. The upshot was: I used to be a million-seller, now I have a million in my Cellar!
So most recently there is a Brecker Brothers Band first-time release “Live in Hamburg” 1980, and just last month there’s The Hal Galper Quintet “Live at the Berlin Jazz fest 1977′ with me and Mike as the front line.
The last ‘proactive’ project is “Double Dealin'” with the great Eric Marienthal. Yes, him! … of both The Jazz Cruise and The Smooth Jazz Cruise fame as the co-leader. It came out last September and we had some great tours planned, which I hope will be re-scheduled.!
So that keeps you up to date. In the future I’m thinking Quartet à la Art Farmer Quartet records loosely structured, and a lot of improvising with me as the only horn, which, believe it or not, I haven’t really ever done.
Lazaroff: I am going to put you on the spot a bit and you are free to demur, but, in terms of fellow trumpeters, now and in the past, who would you consider to be the top 5 in terms of talent, impact and musicianship?
Brecker: Well here they are, with more explanation right after:
1. Louis Armstrong… well nothing needs to be said about Pops, that’s a given!
2. Roy Eldridge
3. Dizzy Gillespie
4. Miles Davis
5. Wynton Marsalis
‘Impact’ is the key word. One of my many old memories: Years ago there was an annual NYC Brass Conference organized by Charles Colin and family. That particular year, Dizzy was being honored, and he was seated center in the front row. Johnny Glasel, himself a wonderful trumpeter, and President of the Musician Union Local 802 came out onstage to open the proceedings, and stated proudly: “First there was Louis!… then there was Dizzy!” Roy Eldridge — who happened to be sitting next to me! — curtly stood up and yelled: “No! First there was Louis! Then there was ROY!! And then there was Dizzy!” Johnny backtracked, and quickly re-vamped a stuttering, similar statement to include Roy!
So I’m in agreement with that: Roy was the greatest trumpeter of the Swing Era, with many hit records, and was Dizzy’s biggest influence, Dizzy said so himself many times. The Fats Navarro/Clifford Brown/Booker Little/Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw trumpet-lineage all grew out of Dizzy, as did Miles, but Miles was such an overall creative spirit his longevity, open-mindedness and influence in all of music — and in all the arts! — can’t be understated. Wynton came along and with his mastery of both classical and jazz traditions set a new bar on trumpet playing and in-the-moment pure improvisation utilizing aspects of the trumpet we can only dream of. Plus heading JALC, Jazz at Juilliard and his many other musical and educational endeavors.