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Randy Brecker: Overdue Ovation

Putting the band back together is a family affair

Randy Brecker (photo: Ada Rovatti)
Randy Brecker (photo: Ada Rovatti)

If a biopic or TV series of Randy Brecker’s life was produced in Hollywood, it would likely require multiple actors to successfully capture his varied career. It’s hard to think of another accomplished jazz musician who has excelled in so many different styles of popular music: hard bop with Horace Silver and Art Blakey; big band with Mel Lewis, Clark Terry, and Duke Pearson; jazz-rock with Blood, Sweat & Tears and Dreams; fusion and funk with the Brecker Brothers and Jaco Pastorius; Brazilian music with his then-wife Eliane Elias; pop, rock, and R&B as a first-call studio musician in the ’70s and ’80s. Did I mention that he also owned and ran a jazz club—Seventh Avenue South—for several years in New York City? (When it closed in 1987, his brother Michael called it “the end of an error.”)

But the 74-year-old trumpeter is no chameleon. He always sounds like himself, an expressive player with amazing range and chops. As one half of the famed Brecker Brothers, alongside his saxophonist brother Michael, he established a horn-section sound that lives on in their own recordings as well as countless others. After losing his brother to leukemia from a rare blood disorder in 2007, Randy understandably put aside the band they had created to focus on his own diverse career as bandleader, sideman, and guest soloist. But in more recent years he’s picked up the torch again, creating the Brecker Brothers Reunion Band, featuring many musicians from the group’s long history and, in the tenor-sax chair, his wife Ada Rovatti, with whom he also recently recorded the album Sacred Bond: Brecker Plays Rovatti. That’s in addition to a new album with alto saxophonist Eric Marienthal, Double Dealin’, as well as a live 1980 archival set from the original Brecker Brothers Band, Live and Unreleased.

Brecker attributes his long, successful career to being in the right place at the right time, starting with his hometown of Philadelphia in the ’60s, “a virtual potpourri of music coming together,” as he describes it by phone from his house in the Hamptons. From there, it was off to Indiana University, where he not only met a wide array of talented players but also embarked on a 16-week State Department tour with his classmates. After the tour ended in Greece, they saw a notice in DownBeat for an international jazz competition in Vienna—oddly, the only year it was ever held—which paved the way for Brecker to make serious connections in New York, where he completed his degree at NYU and established himself on the club and studio scenes. Eventually he, brother Michael, and drummer Billy Cobham became key members of the seminal jazz-rock band Dreams. After Cobham left to join the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in Brecker’s words, “the band kind of fell apart.” However, the drummer would soon end up hiring both brothers to play in his own band.

“It was during this period, around 1974, that I started to write some music,” Brecker remembers, “having the thought that my brother and Dave Sanborn, who had just moved to town, would make a great horn section. We had kind of a jazz-fusion-funk rehearsal band—Don Grolnick was in it writing, Steve Khan also writing, then Chris Parker, Will Lee, me, Mike, and Sanborn. We got together every week. I had nine tunes and I was ready to start doing a demo.”

Before that happened, though, Brecker got a call from jazz record exec Steve Backer. “He’d heard about the music—it circulated around town because we’d been rehearsing a long time—and he said, ‘Clive Davis just started a new label called Arista. He’d like to sign you, but you have to call it the Brecker Brothers.’ I protested and said, ‘Look, I’ve just written all the music and it’s supposed to be a solo record, and it’s going to look funny because Sanborn is in the front line, there’s three of us. He’s going to look like a long-lost cousin.’ But those kinds of opportunities, as they say, knock only but once, so about a week later I said, ‘Sure, call it the Brecker Brothers.’” And one of jazz-rock’s most influential bands was born.

Interestingly, Michael had little interest in the group. “He was off practicing and he just wanted to play jazz and do what he was doing,” Randy says. “But it just caught on. We recorded the nine tunes, and we just rattled it off. Steve Backer was amazed. He said, ‘Man, lots of guys come to the studio unprepared and you just hit it.’”

Everything was great. Except one thing. “Clive told me that he loved everything we recorded, but he said, ‘You guys have to have a single.’ I protested once again, but he said—in his own way, very diplomatically—‘If you don’t do a single, I’m not releasing it.’ So I went back and explained the situation, and lo and behold, we jammed up a tune in around four hours and recorded it a couple days later.” The song was “Sneakin’ Up Behind You,” a hit not just on the jazz and urban charts but on the pop one as well. “Some Skunk Funk” proved to be another hit, and the group quickly became a model for young players who wanted to play jazz with funk underpinnings. The group made five more records for Davis and Arista, with varying degrees of success.

Contrary to what people might remember, the Brecker Brothers Band didn’t tour or perform a lot, at least not in proportion to its profile, largely because its members were all so in demand as first-call studio musicians. “Clive wanted us to be on the road 50 weeks a year,” Brecker says, “but we were just doing too well in the studios and it was too nice a way to make a living.” All those session gigs also meant that the Brecker Brothers horn section became ubiquitous on pop, rock, and R&B albums of the ’70s and ’80s, instantly recognizable for its unique tone blend, vibrato, and note-bending.

Fast forward to 1996, when Brecker first met Ada Rovatti in Italy, in a big band that he was guesting with. They exchanged numbers and kept in touch when the young saxophonist moved to Paris and later New York, where she played with various bands and where their relationship blossomed, leading to their marriage in 2001.

Ada first stepped into Michael’s role in the Brecker Brothers inadvertently in 2004. “We were supposed to go to Russia for my good friend, [saxophonist/bandleader] Igor Butman. His life’s dream was to bring me and Mike together to his club. We had it all set up, we were supposed to leave on a Monday, and Friday night I got a call from Mike saying that he couldn’t go, something was the matter with his back. And I said, ‘Look, Mike, just get on the plane and we’ll figure it out when we get there.’ But this was a real thing. Sadly, it was the first symptom of his illness. He didn’t go and Ada was coming along just to sightsee, so she ended up playing. The week was sold out at Igor’s club, we just killed it, and she sounded great.”

But after Michael stopped touring, the Brecker Brothers didn’t work much. And three years later, Michael died from myelodysplastic disorder syndrome (MDS). “I didn’t revisit that material for a couple of years after he died,” Randy notes, “but we wanted to still keep the legacy alive, and we put the Reunion Band together.”

“People seem to want to hear the Brecker Brothers’ music. What the hell, it’s a big part of my legacy.”

Although the group hasn’t been a full-time thing, Brecker finds it rewarding nonetheless not only to celebrate the music he made with his late brother but to do so with his wife—on her own terms. “Ada was just a natural, and what I loved about her playing was that she didn’t try to copy what Mike would’ve done. I didn’t really want that. She has her own thing going.”

Randy is particularly enamored of Rovatti’s compositional skills, which he says have continued to grow over the years: “Her writing is really impressive. The tunes [on Brecker Plays Rovatti] don’t sound hard to play, but they are hard. All written out very methodically by her, it wasn’t anything near a jam session. I don’t like listening to stuff after it gets done, but whenever I put that record on I can listen to it from beginning to end.”

Brecker isn’t one to dwell on the past, but he does feel an obligation to keep the Brecker Brothers’ music playing. “People seem to want to hear it,” he explains. “What the hell, it’s a big part of my legacy. It’s a continuation. Not only it being literally family, but all those other guys in the band became like a family, we were together so long, and here we are back. It’s true family.”