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Rick Braun: A Smooth Student

The veteran trumpeter on Miles, Randy Brecker, Lee Morgan and more

Rick Braun

A leading force in contemporary jazz, Rick Braun has showcased his richly melodic style on 12 albums as a leader. On his latest, Sings With Strings (Artistry), the Allentown, Pa., native and Eastman School of Music grad reveals an engaging vocal style on a program of Great American Songbook favorites. Produced by Philippe Saisse, Sings With Strings places Braun in the pantheon of jazz trumpeters who exhibited impressive pipes along with considerable instrumental prowess-a club including the likes of Chet Baker, Jack Sheldon, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Hot Lips Page, Kermit Ruffins and the greatest of them all, Louis Armstrong.

Braun made his debut as a leader with 1993’s Intimate Secrets, and his popularity in smooth-jazz circles continued to snowball with albums like 1994’s Night Walk and 1997’s Body and Soul. In 2000 Braun and saxophonist Boney James collaborated on Shake It Up, and in 2001 Braun made his Warner Bros. debut with Kisses in the Rain. The following year saw the release of Groovin’, by the contemporary-jazz supergroup BWB (Braun with guitarist Norman Brown and saxophonist Kirk Whalum). In 2005, Braun and saxophonist Richard Elliot formed their ARTizen Music Group and released the joint project RnR in 2007.

The trumpeter, 56, showed up for his first Before & After session sporting a Lee Morgan T-shirt, showing allegiance to one of his favorite trumpeters. He proved to be an astute listener with a deep knowledge and respect for the jazz trumpet tradition.

1. Dominick Farinacci

“You Don’t Know What Love Is” (from Dawn of Goodbye, eOne). Farinacci, flugelhorn; Dan Kaufman, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Carmen Intorre, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Oh yeah, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Beautiful melody. I love the sound of the horn. And I love the fact that when it started out it had some mysterious harmonic elements to it, which reminded me a little bit of Clifford Brown’s version of “A Night in Tunisia.” Interesting arrangement-Afro-Cuban kind of groove with Bill Evans’ spatial comping. I also really like the bluesy quality and simplicity of his playing here. I don’t know who this is but is sounds like a modern recording. Sound-wise it has a little bit of a Lee Morgan-Kenny Dorham influence with that nice, fat tone. That’s pretty.

AFTER: [examines the CD art] I haven’t heard him, but he’s definitely going for the Chet Baker look. He’s very talented. The thing I’m noticing today is that so many young kids who want to learn how to play are getting there more quickly than back in my generation, because all you need to do now is go on the Internet and there’s a wealth of information that wasn’t there for us. You can see a transcribed Clifford Brown solo or have all these musical examples available to you, and it’s all there at the click of a button. When I was a kid you’d have to hunt for the records, and if you wanted to take a solo down you’d have to slow it down by dragging your finger on the record. But now, having all that instant access to the music and to things like transcriptions has accelerated the process of learning. I’ve seen some 17-, 18-year-olds playing with incredible facility; not just like Coltrane, but you can hear that’s where they want to go, and they’ve gotten pretty darn close at a very early age. This guy looks very young but he sounds very advanced, and he plays with a lot of taste and maturity. He’s got it going on. I like his use of space, I like his sound, I like the ideas. And it’s not like he’s trying to prove anything to anybody. He’s being very natural and expressive. I liked that a lot. And I love this song.

2. Tony Bennett

“Isn’t It Romantic?” (from The Best of the Improv Recordings, Concord). Bennett, vocals; Ruby Braff, cornet; George Barnes, Wayne Wright, guitars; John Giuffrida, bass. Recorded in 1973.

BEFORE: Another beautiful song. I know this voice, I just can’t put a name to it. Is that Tony? He’s singing so mellow, though; it’s so un-Tony-like. Oh … OK, that’s Tony. You can hear it when he gets in the upper register and really belts it out like that. I don’t know the trumpet player. It’s a little bit of a Jack Sheldon-type thing, but I’m not sure who it is. The feel of this is so laidback, like the things Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong used to do together-“Gone Fishin'” and all that. So it has that retro sound to it, like it’s from the ’30s or ’40s. I love it.

AFTER: Tony Bennett is so amazing. What a voice! I did a gig with him five, six years ago at the NAMM show [a musical-instruments tradeshow in Southern California]. I was a guest with the Tower of Power horns and we played with Tony. He was in his late 70s then and singing great. His voice sounded ridiculously athletic; just an incredibly gifted singer. On my new recording we did a version of “The Good Life,” which was Tony’s signature song. I’m a big Tony Bennett fan. He’s the real deal, the last of a whole breed of singers like that. Sinatra had nothing but respect for Tony Bennett. I have to say I’m not familiar with Ruby Braff, but he did some nice playing here echoing Tony’s vocals.

3. Miles Davis

“Nature Boy” (Blue Moods, Debut). Davis, trumpet; Britt Woodman, trombone; Charles Mingus, bass; Teddy Charles, vibraphone; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: [within four notes] “Nature Boy.” Very eerie arrangement, very moody. This has all the remnants of a Chet Baker-type of a sparse orchestration, like the stuff he did with a sextet on that In Milan record [Jazzland/OJC, 1959]. This sounds like it was done in the ’60s, maybe earlier. I can’t tell who the trumpeter is yet. So far it sounds like Chet. Oh … OK, it’s Miles. When he just did that little figure where he went outside the harmony-that was Miles. What I like about Miles and Chet is they weren’t afraid to miss a note for the sake of going for an idea. They’re both minimalists and both melodic geniuses. And now that I’m hearing this solo, it’s definitely Miles, without a doubt. Is this part of the Gil Evans stuff that Miles did?

AFTER: This is a bit of an obscure Miles recording, but he still reveals himself in his phrasing. I’m a huge Miles fan. When I was learning to play trumpet I realized early on that I was not going to be Maynard Ferguson, I was not going to be Clark Terry or Dizzy Gillespie or one of those chopsmeister guys. So when I discovered Miles in my early teens, I listened to everything that he did and got deeply into Jazz at the Plaza and Milestones. Such a genius.

One of my favorite Miles recordings is “Old Folks” [off 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come, Columbia]. There’s a moment in there where if you listen to it on headphones you can hear that he’s got a little bit of spit in his horn. You can hear the note break. And then there’s a space in the phrase, and you can hear the chair creak, and if you listen carefully you can hear him empty his spit valve out and then it’s all cleared up. I love moments like that in recordings, where you feel like you’re actually watching in the same room where the artist is. That’s why I like the string noise on a guitar; it makes it feel human. I tend to leave those elements in a recording. You don’t want to clean it up too much. But this is nice. A little bit moody, isn’t it?

4. Randy Brecker

“Goldfinger” (from The Jazz Ballad Song Book, Half Note). Brecker, trumpet, with the DR Big Band and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis.

No, this is a brand new record, but certainly in that tradition.

Oh, that’s the James Bond theme song, “Goldfinger.” It’s a trumpet player’s big band?

It’s a European big band and the trumpeter is an American who is guesting.

This sounds great. The flugelhorn with the trumpet section and the particular kinds of voicings immediately made me thing of Thad/Mel. This lead trumpeter is very Freddie Hubbard-influenced, whoever it is.

AFTER: Oh, shit! My buddy! Forgive me, Randy! I just played with him a few months ago at the Berks Jazz Festival and he was even talking about having done this record. It was the first time I actually got to stand onstage and play together with him, and it was an absolute thrill. We played “Donna Lee,” “Body and Soul,” a bunch of standards, and it was just a ball. Randy is one of my absolute heroes. When I was at Eastman and we were doing fusion, the Brecker Brothers was my favorite band. Randy sounds so great here. This is a very clever arrangement and he’s just flying in the high register. The thing about Randy that’s amazing is he’s another one of these guys who plays on a huge mouthpiece, and that’s how he gets that super fat sound. What he and Arturo Sandoval play on, basically, are almost trombone-depth mouthpieces. And they both can just play in that upper register like crazy. I’ve got so much respect for them for that. Now I got to call Randy to apologize for not recognizing him right away.

5. Lee Morgan

“Speedball” (from The Gigolo, Blue Note). Morgan, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern Jr., piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1965.

BEFORE: It’s got a real Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers kind of thing to it. There’s nothing like the combination of trumpet and tenor, especially when you voice it out like that with those close harmonies. This sounds like an older recording, possibly from the ’60s. I don’t know who the tenor player is but I like his use of fourths. I always liked that. I love Joe Farrell, I love that whole angular approach to jazz as opposed to thirds. The trumpet solo sounds very Lee Morgan-like. Ain’t nothin’ like the blues on trumpet.

AFTER: I love Lee Morgan. “Sidewinder” is one of my favorite tunes. This was great. The thing I love about Lee Morgan is that he was an on-the-edge kind of player. He wasn’t afraid to let a trumpet be a trumpet, to let it break up and push it to the edge of where it sounded “nice” to the ear. There’s a kind of danger zone that you can cross into, where the sound is out there and brassy and full, and that’s the way he played. He did not hold back. He’s not playing soft here, and I love the attitude behind the notes. I also loved what Billy Higgins was doing here. I saw him play once at [long-defunct Los Angeles club] Donte’s and he had a kick drum that was the size of a tom tom. Maybe it was a tom tom turned over. I just love the way he plays.

6. Freddie Hubbard

“The Intrepid Fox” (from Pinnacle: Live & Unreleased from Keystone Korner, Resonance). Hubbard, trumpet; Billy Childs, piano; Larry Klein, bass; Phil Ranelin, trombone; David Schnitter, tenor saxophone; Sinclair Lott, drums. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: [within a few notes] Freddie Hubbard, “Intrepid Fox.” Yeah, I memorized this line back in the day. I shedded on this tune at Eastman, and then when I started a Tuesday night jam session in L.A. at this place called Cafe Cordiale, we’d play this tune a lot and … [as Hubbard begins his solo, Braun halts in mid-sentence and says, “I can’t talk during the solo,” and remains transfixed throughout Freddie’s lengthy solo]

AFTER: I think if somebody told me that I could only listen to one trumpet player from now on, it would be Freddie Hubbard. I mean, he was just so ahead of his time harmonically and his choice of notes was so adventurous. Not only that, he was a technical monster. Everything about his playing was perfect. I think Freddie has influenced more trumpet players than anybody else. More people have taken on his character of playing than anybody else. I remember playing the Montreux Jazz Festival right out of college and Freddie Hubbard was on the edge of the stage watching us play. To say that I was affected by his presence is an understatement. He’s absolutely been one of my heroes and I got to know him years later. He was always a sweetheart to me. This is a fantastic recording. It may not have the same fidelity that the CTI recordings have, but the excitement of being in the room is there. And the execution is incredible. There’s nothing missing on that. I’ll definitely have to buy this one.

7. The Wynton Marsalis Quintet & Richard Galliano

“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” (from From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf: Live in Marciac, Rampart Street). Marsalis, trumpet; Richard Galliano, accordion; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: Is that an accordion? Is that allowed in this country? It must be a foreign recording. I’m sure he’s going to be burning. [during drum solo] It’s a trumpet player’s record? He’s a very generous trumpet player because he hasn’t played really much at all so far on this track. But we’re that way out of necessity. I would say a trumpet player’s only got a limited number of good notes per night, so you gotta save ’em. [during trumpet solo] I don’t know who it is, but I know who he listens to.

AFTER: Yeah, it’s definitely inspired by Clifford Brown: the attack, the brightness, the constant flow of ideas-I hear that here with Wynton. There are very few players who have that technical ability. I mean, he absolutely has the technical ability of nobody else playing today. Arturo has that too, I guess. And the accordion player on this track is wonderful, a true virtuoso. He plays incredibly well. It’s just an unusual texture to hear in that super-uptempo bebop setting. One of the things that Wynton does so well is put together combinations of things that are surprising, like this.

8. Animation

“Bitches Brew” (from Asiento, RareNoise). Tim Hagans, trumpet; Bob Belden, soprano saxophone; Scott Kinsey, keyboards; Matt Garrison, bass; Guy Licata, drums; DJ Logic, turntables. Recorded in 2006.

BEFORE: [after the opening dissonant blast] I’m scared. The trumpeter is kind of Woody Shaw-like. It’s obviously a more contemporary guy. I don’t know who this is. Is it Roy Hargrove?

AFTER: I’m not familiar with these guys, but I don’t get out much. I gotta say, I’m not a fan of that heavily effected trumpet sound. You know, Teo Macero produced the first record that I ever made, when I moved to Los Angeles with the fusion band Auracle. And, of course, he produced Bitches Brew. Basically, he edited that record together from days’ worth of Miles just walking in and jamming with whatever was going on. Teo would just keep putting a multitrack up because he’d run out of tape, and then he really edited all of those tapes together into a record. So he built those songs.

Were you a fan of that record when it first came out in 1970?

I’m kind of more of a traditionalist. Miles started to go more in that electric direction with A Tribute to Jack Johnson, which I liked. [Ed. note: Jack Johnson was recorded in 1970, Brew in 1969.] Bitches Brew, I had the record and listened to it but it just didn’t make it for me. I’m more of a melodic guy. I may be more old-school, where I need something to hang my hat on a bit. I respect where he was going and, of course, Miles sounds great on it. But, for me, Bitches Brew was a little bit too freeform. Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, to me, was the perfect marriage of freeform and funk. I think that’s where Miles wanted to kind of go, but Herbie kind of brought it all together and had a whole lot of commercial success with it because he just gave you a little more to hang your hat on melodically and form-wise. Whereas Bitches Brew was a very abstract freeform record.

I think musicians expressing that whole freeform thing is a fantastic thing, and it’s good to have that freedom, but I think it comes with its risks where you’re not going to connect with everybody. It’s a fringe thing. Look, I’ve made my living making a lot of commercial music. I live in commercial music. I love songwriting. I’ve written some songs that have gone Top 20, so I live in a more melodic world. It’s like for me when I listen to Woody Shaw. Woody lived in that bi-tonal world, and being the melodic addict that I am, it’s harder for me to relate to freeform music. That’s just me. I understand it; it’s just not my thing.

9. Ron Miles

“We See” (from Heaven, Sterling Circle). Miles, trumpet; Bill Frisell, guitar. Recorded in 2001.

BEFORE: It’s a Monk tune. I don’t know who this is, but it’s an interesting combination, just trumpet and guitar. I like this. Nice ideas, and the trumpeter has a beautiful sound. I like the courage of just doing something like this. Love it. I love minimal stuff. I love the clarity of it, where you can hear every note and inflection. And obviously, these are two really great musicians getting together here.

AFTER: At the Berks Jazz Festival, Chuck Loeb and I did a version of “Body and Soul,” just guitar and trumpet. I would love to do a record like this.

Do you have the freedom to do a project like that? Or would this be considered unmarketable?

No, I mean … look: I managed to convince the record company to let me do this last record, which is totally different from anything I had ever done. So if there’s any good side to the collapse of commercial radio and the commercial music business, it’s that there’s no pressure on the artists to come up with radio-play hits anymore. In the past, artists always heard from their labels, “We need something for radio because we gotta sell records.” I’ve never been one to write to radio. I think that’s the worst mistake an artist can make, to produce cookie-cutter hits. Radio should react to the artists, not the other way around. I think as soon as you start writing for radio you’re doomed as an artist. But those conditions don’t exist anymore. There’s none of that now because radio has no impact. We can’t deny that the business has collapsed. We’re in a state now of trying to figure out where it’s going to land and hopefully take off from. Meanwhile, I don’t feel any pressure from my label at all because there is no clear direction in terms of selling records.

That must be pretty liberating. Maybe artists will be more emboldened to pursue more ambitious and personal projects.

Yeah, and listening to this, I could totally see my next record being something minimal and understated like this-a complete about-face from the big orchestral project I just did. That would definitely be one of the options.

Originally Published