Randy Brecker: Saudades

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Randy Brecker
By Ed Berger
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Randy Brecker
By Nick Ruechel

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Only rare musicians can claim enough recording credits to warrant discographies of more than a few pages. Trumpeter Randy Brecker has a star-studded, single-spaced, 16-page scroll on his Web site that practically maps the history of recorded music during the past five decades.

From Aerosmith and Tina Turner to Frank Sinatra and Horace Silver; the Average White Band and Blood, Sweat & Tears to George Benson and Hank Crawford; Eddie Palmieri and Gato Barbieri to James Brown and Aretha Franklin; Eric Clapton and Elton John to Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon; B.B. King and Roy Buchanan to Charles Mingus and Jaco Pastorius; Phoebe Snow and David Wilcox to Diana Ross and Bette Midler; John Scofield and David Sanborn to Steely Dan and Frank Zappa, the New York City-based Brecker has recorded with top names in practically every modern musical genre.

“Occasionally, it still comes as a surprise to me,” Brecker says, “because someone hands me an album to sign, and I have no recollection of having played on it.”

Brecker, 62, has also released a dozen solo efforts, the latest of which will expand his Brazilian jazz catalog (which includes solo recordings and sessions with Eumir Deodato, João Donato, Flora Purim and Eliane Elias covering the past 35 years). Randy in Brasil (Summit) draws on Brecker’s love for the country’s music and culture, which was cultivated during frequent trips to Brazil during his marriage to now-ex-wife Elias. The disc features standards by Djavan, Gilberto Gil, João Bosco and Ivan Lins, plus two of the trumpeter’s originals.

“I have a history of going to São Paulo since I was married to Eliane,” Brecker says. “We went there through the ’80s into the early ’90s, since she had family there. We’d spend a month there over Christmas, and three or four weeks during their winter season. I also recorded an album called Amanda there with her in the ’80s, so I spent enough time to absorb some of the music and lifestyle. We had a great time, and I came back with a suitcase full of CDs. Everybody on that album gave me at least five.”

The sessions for Randy in Brasil were also recorded in São Paulo, at Banda Sonora Studios. But they were tracked live in the studio as part of what was essentially a working vacation for Brecker, which makes the CD’s American release, in effect, a happy accident.

“I went down there for about 10 days in 2006,” Brecker says, “and kind of went sight-unseen, which eventually made the album even more of a pleasant surprise. I went over completely cold. I hadn’t heard of most of the musicians, and hadn’t met any of them other than [guitarist] Ricardo Silveira, with whom I’d done several projects in the past.”

He wasn’t even familiar with the disc’s producer, arranger and keyboardist, Ruria Duprat. “I didn’t know Ruria at all,” Brecker says, “even though he’s one of the best-known studio arrangers and producers in Brazil. But he was great, a real pro. He wrote most of the arrangements, pointed me in all the right directions and helped me with my Brazilian phrasing. Originally, the album was supposed to come out only in Brazil on a label that Ruria had started called Rainbow Records. But the label never really got off the ground, and he had a lot of other projects going too. A few months later, we agreed that it turned out too well not to let it resurface, and started to mix it long-distance by e-mail.”

Duprat, who studied at Harvard University and the Berklee School of Music (on a full scholarship through Quincy Jones), was likewise impressed with Brecker. “We were all amazed to see how a guy like Randy, who is used to playing jazz and funk, had a lot to say in terms of the production, collaborated with us well, and was very familiar with typical Brazilian rhythms like samba and bossa nova,” Duprat says. “Actually, we think he is Brazilian, he just was born in the U.S.A.!”

Brecker may not have met his new CD’s producer or most of his bandmates, but his numerous career connections have a way of weaving such things together; Brecker has his own worldwide web of contacts.

“I’d met percussionist Marco Bosco the year before in Tokyo,” Brecker says. “The Japanese love Brazilian music, so he’s been able to make a living there. He didn’t play on the record, but he was instrumental in putting the project together as a partner of Ruria’s. So the idea for the Brazilian record started in Tokyo, Japan.”

Part of the allure for Brecker, once he learned about the musicians, was the Brazilian all-star band assembled to record with him. Duprat was joined on keyboards by Paulo Calazans, Andre Mehmari and Gilson Peranzzetta. Silveira played guitar; Teco Cardoso multiple saxophones and flute, and the rest of the ensemble included bassists Sizão Machado and Rogero, drummers Robertinho Silva and Edu Ribeiro, and percussionists Da Lua and João Parahyba.

“When we started seriously talking about this project, I thought, What the heck? They’re putting a great band together,” Brecker says. “They sent me a bunch of tunes to choose from, and I loved a lot of the material, and started writing some additional songs. I was happy to be able to contribute a couple of compositions within such esteemed songwriting company.”

Brecker’s dreamy “Guaruja” (featuring Pat Metheny-influenced tones by Silveira) and pop-samba “Sampop” fit right in among standards by Djavan (“Pedro Brasil,” “Maca”), Gil (“Oriente,” “Rebento”) and Lins (“Aiaiai”). The other modern piece is Peranzzetta’s “Fazendo Hora,” a ballad featuring his piano, Brecker’s hushed trumpet tones and Silveira’s acoustic guitar.

Yet many of the songs have a contemporary sheen. Duprat adds occasional vocal chants, and he and Calazans switch between electric and acoustic keyboards. Silveira and Machado do the same on their instruments. The nine Brazilian standards were chosen from the 20-25 initially presented to Brecker.

“We tried not to do the typical hits,” he says. “So we limited it to those composers. We all love Antonio Carlos Jobim, but there’s so much of his material out there. We wanted to try lesser-known compositions that deserved to be heard.”

Of his hundreds of recordings, Randy in Brasil is Brecker’s first for the Tempe, Ariz.-based, brass-oriented Summit label. The connection came through yet another strand in the trumpeter’s web.

“A radio [promoter] in Detroit known as ‘Dr. Jazz’ mentioned the label,” Brecker says. “His real name is Bob Cohen. I was playing the Detroit Jazz Festival last year and told him about the project, and he recommended Summit, which I was familiar with from buying some of their records.”

Brecker’s career got an unexpectedly early start while he was studying music at Indiana University.

“I didn’t quite graduate,” he says. “I was there for three-and-a-half years, and was in the university band that won a State Department tour in 1966 after playing the Notre Dame Jazz Festival. So instead of doing my last semester, I went to the Middle East and Asia for three-and-a-half months. We went to a lot of places where it would be a little risky to go these days. But I never made it back to Indiana. I transferred to New York University, and got sucked into the New York studio scene, since it was a great time to play in New York.”

Before long, Brecker had jumpstarted his discography by recording on debut albums by Duke Pearson (Introducing Duke Pearson’s Big Band, 1967) and Blood, Sweat & Tears (Child Is Father to the Man, 1968). Brecker’s own solo debut, Score, was released in 1969. By the early 1970s, he’d become a first-call trumpeter across the jazz, R&B, fusion and pop genres by appearing on influential releases like Horace Silver’s In Pursuit of the 27th Man, James Brown’s Get On the Good Foot, Larry Coryell’s Introducing Larry Coryell & the 11th House, and the debut release by the Average White Band.

In the 1980s, he recorded with artists as diverse as the J. Geils Band, Spyro Gyra, Billy Cobham, Dire Straits, the Mingus Dynasty, Ringo Starr, Bob James, Steve Winwood and Grover Washington Jr.

Randy in Brasil isn’t even Brecker’s first solo foray into Brazilian music, just his first with an all-Brazilian cast. He won one of his four Grammy Awards in 1998, a Best Contemporary Jazz Performance Grammy for his Brazilian-influenced Into the Sun CD.

“Into the Sun was more my impression of Brazilian music,” Brecker says, “but what separates that album from this one was that it had American and African musicians. Randy in Brasil is a full-fledged Brazilian production, and something I think any musician with connections to Brazil would want to do at least once in their lives.”

Brecker’s first Grammy was for the 1994 Out of the Loop CD by the Brecker Brothers, the group he formed in the mid-1970s with saxophone-playing brother Michael Brecker. Roughly half of the trumpeter’s solo releases have arrived since 2000. Other Grammys were for his 2003 album 34th N Lex (named for his residence in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan) and Some Skunk Funk, the 2005 live effort featuring brother Michael, conductor/arranger Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band from Germany.

On good terms with Elias, Brecker still records occasionally with the singing pianist, and recently did sessions with their daughter, Amanda Brecker. The 24-year-old is following in her mother’s footsteps as well as adding to her father’s discography.

“I just recorded on two tunes for Amanda’s first record, which will come out in Japan,” Brecker says. “I think she’ll be real popular there, and it’s a really good record, so it may come out in other countries as well. She plays piano and sings, and one of the tunes I recorded on was written in Portuguese, so the tradition of recording things of a Brazilian nature continues.”

When he’s not on the road, Brecker spends time at his Midtown East residence with wife Ada Rovatti, an Italian tenor saxophonist. He’s also appeared on three of her CDs, although her touring schedule is currently on the back burner.

“Ada’s going to be staying home a little more, because we have a child on the way,” Brecker says. “She’s due in December.”

The trumpeter more than deserves an addition to his family, since he suffered a devastating loss in January of 2007 when Michael Brecker succumbed to leukemia at age 57. The saxophonist had been diagnosed with a broken back in 2004, but a biopsy revealed the actual cause of his pain: myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder. Exhaustive searches for a suitable transplant donor yielded no matches, and experimental treatments no desired results. Family, friends and fans watched powerlessly as the condition developed into leukemia, and Michael slipped away.

One of the most influential saxophonists in jazz history, Michael Brecker won 15 Grammy Awards. He won as many posthumous Grammys—two each for Some Skunk Funk and his brilliant 2007 solo coda, Pilgrimage—as his brother has total, and has a discography that’s nearly as long. Yet Randy still feels that Michael may be remembered for something else.

“Michael’s wife, Susan, is organizing a lot of fund-raising events for the marrow.org cause, and trying to keep his legacy alive,” Brecker says. “But he ended up being so important in so many people’s lives, and partly in ways that went beyond music. He was sick for two-and-a-half years, so it was a long, drawn-out affair. In retrospect, he probably wasn’t ever well enough to accept a transplant anyway. But there are a lot of people who need them, and not enough donors on the registry. So it’s a big problem, particularly among minority groups, and that’s something Mike brought to the fore by bravely going public with his illness.”

“He was also studying Bulgarian folk music,” Brecker continues, “and there were a lot of those sequences on his computer. So Susan and some of our old friends are trying to extract as much of it as possible and figure out what to do with it. Hopefully, in some form, it’ll see the light of day. We all miss him terribly, and think of him every day. We’re doing as well as we can under the circumstances, mainly by trying to stay busy.”

Randy Brecker was born on Nov. 27 (“Jimi Hendrix’s birthday,” he says), 1945, in Cheltenham, Penn., Michael Brecker was born nearly three-and-a-half years later.

“We grew up in a town literally one block outside of Philadelphia,” Brecker says. “As an older brother, I kind of acted as a mentor to Michael by passing information on. He started at age 8 on clarinet, since there were only trumpets or clarinets at our music school, and he didn’t want to play the same instrument as I did. But he didn’t really take to the clarinet. Instead, he got heavily into his chemistry set and basketball. When I went away to college at Indiana University, he switched to alto sax, and I sent him some lessons I was studying. He took those to heart, switched to tenor in 11th grade, and the rest is history.”

One of the most historic chapters in his brother’s life occurred near the end of it. Pilgrimage was recorded only five months before Michael’s death. The weakened saxophonist had to fight valiantly to summon the strength to record, and his bandmates and friends—pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette and arranger/producer Gil Goldstein—had to stay composed enough to do the same. Yet the album positively breathes eloquence, life and hope, and was unquestionably one of the best the younger Brecker brother ever produced.

“It was amazing that he found the strength and wherewithal to carry that out,” Brecker says. “He was sick for a long time, but he was really sick then. I have no idea how he accomplished that.”

As the elder Brecker stays busy to help cope with such a loss, his own remaining 2008 accomplishments will involve mostly—what else?—session work.

“I have a lot of tour dates, just not a lot supporting my new record,” he says during a two-day layover at home, where he’s in between concert dates in Japan and Syracuse, N.Y., with guitarist Mike Stern.

“I’m touring extensively in Europe in October and November with Stern’s band. I’ll also be doing some things with Kenny Werner, and doing some composing. I’m considering another studio record, and maybe a ballads record, too. And hopefully, I’ll be playing in support of the Brazilian project. If anything, it’s a little more commercial and accessible than a lot of my stuff has been in the past. So I’ll be busy until the end of the year, and then the baby’s coming.

“In fact,” he adds with a chuckle, “I think I might end up a little too busy.”

Originally published in October 2008

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