The 10 Greatest Jazz Cameos on Pop Songs

Our choice of crossover moments to remember

The presence of jazz players on non-jazz records constitutes a long tradition in American popular music, but it may have hit its peak in the ’70s and ’80s with baby-boomer rockers and pop stars looking to jazzers to enhance, or even legitimize, their recordings. During that boom in the record industry, jazz musicians who formerly would have been touring with Art Blakey or Betty Carter were taking high-paying session gigs in New York and Los Angeles. Of course, when all that studio work died out, many returned to jazz as their primary focus.

For this JazzTimes 10, we opted for players who are more well-known for their jazz career than for their work as studio musicians. Hence, we haven’t included Raphael Ravenscroft, whose main claim to fame, besides his Spinal Tap-like name, was his earworm solo on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” We also tried to choose the most popular artists and songs we could think of, in search of that sweet spot where massive pop hit meets cool jazz cameo. The list is in chronological order. 

Randy Brecker on Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River”
from Born to Run (1975)

Randy’s haunting trumpet kicks off the tune and plays on in the background, as if blowing from a nearby apartment, while Springsteen tells the melancholy Sopranos-like story of a down-and-out street tough trying to convince his girlfriend that this “meeting” could be their last chance. Randy, David Sanborn, and some others were in the studio to cut the horn section parts on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but the producer Jon Landau asked Randy to stick around for a trumpet solo on this other song they’d already recorded. “Nothing was written out,” Randy remembers. “I did the whole thing by ear, and just played what I heard in my head and they liked it. They still do that tune sometimes and often they utilize a transcription of my solo.” Inexplicably, the Boss wrote in his otherwise great memoir, also called Born to Run, that this solo was performed by Michael Brecker. Yes, Randy’s brother. The saxophonist.

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