Randy Brecker on the joys of big band, touring in his 70s, and what Jaco meant to him

Randy Brecker’s trumpet has been a constant in modern music for the last five decades.

The six-time Grammy winner has played with too many artists to mention, but if you’ve played with Horace Silver, Frank Sinatra, Jaco Pastorius and Parliament-Funkadelic, you’re doing something right.

The enduring legacy of the Brecker Brothers, the band Randy started with his late brother Michael in 1975, can be heard on his latest recording RocksIt features the NDR Bigband – The Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra in Germany.

Brecker joined Brad Barker on Afternoon Drive over the phone from East Hampton, N.Y., to talk about this new recording and a decades-long career spent in the studio and on the road.

Brad Barker: Can you tell me about how your relationship with the NDR Bigband started?

Randy Brecker: It started about three or four years ago — it all starts getting blurry since I’m travelling so much, and I do travel a lot in Germany. I was asked to come over there and do a short tour with them, which I did, and I corresponded with Jörg Achim Keller via email because he had some ideas about doing some of my tunes with him. Extended rhythm section, three-horn front-line nucleus like the original Brecker Brothers band, even though a lot of these tunes came later. And that’s how it started. The tour was very successful, so I was asked to do a second tour, which was also very successful. And then the higher-ups gave the OK to record everything. That took a while, because they have a lot of things to do and things get lost in translation. It’s a big company, since it’s a very well-known TV station; they do a lot of different projects. But that’s how the whole thing started.

It’s quite an accomplishment to get that many musicians into a studio in 2019, and make a recording that is so arranged and produced. 

I was just lucky, because if you do that on your own it can get pretty expensive. But they covered most of the expenses. We’re putting it out here, that is an expense, but it also came out in Europe and is doing quite well. And it’s doing very well here too, I’m happy to say. It’s just a great band. It’s always a thrill to play with them.

In all the time that you’ve been playing over all these many years, is it still a unique experience to be out in front of a big band like that, playing those types of arrangements?

Oh yeah, sure, sure. I’ll be going over to do two gigs in June with them near Hamburg, so I’m looking forward to that. Of course, I still like playing with my small group, but I get really excited standing in front of 16 or 17 pieces. I just spent last weekend in front of the Airmen of Note, which is the premier U.S. Air Force band, and they were just killing, too. We actually did some of these arrangements. It was a lot of fun in Washington, D.C.

Is there a different way you approach improvising when you’re in a small group as opposed to with a large group or a big band?

That’s a good question. Yeah, you do approach it a little differently, because it’s a little more controlled. I usually have a certain number of choruses mapped out, so I don’t have to turn around and cue the background solos. You want to get rid of any chance of a train wreck. There will be some cuing, but you want to keep it to a minimum because I’m playing and it’s hard to turn around and cue everybody. I’ll play four or five choruses, and on the fourth or fifth chorus start the background solo. Things like that. In that respect, there’s not quite as much freedom. You have a lot of people to think about, you want to spread the solos around and make sure everybody gets a chance to play. But it’s so exciting to stand in front of that many people. The sound is so big. And hearing my tunes arranged like that, the guy did a wonderful job.

That’s the guy you mentioned earlier, Jörg Achim Keller?

Jörg Achim Keller, who’s also a drummer. I didn’t even realize he played drums until I saw him in a recent video with one of my trumpet heroes, German trumpet player Till Brönner, who’s just incredible. Jörg also plays with him. He didn’t even mention that he played drums. He’s one of the writers for the NDR Bigband. He writes for all the radio bands in Germany. He’s just great.

So on Rocks, there are five Brecker Brothers tunes from the original days, three from the reunion album and one outlier, a Jaco tune. When you give him that music, do you get in there halfway through to see how it’s going, or does he present that arrangement to you and you hear it when the band hears it? What’s the involvement?

First of all, he picked ones that he thought he could do something with, or struck him in a certain kind of way. But then it’s just a matter of trust, because I hadn’t met him or even talked to him. It was all via email. But I figured if he’s working for the NDR Bigband, that’s a first-rate ensemble and there are no slouches in the arranging department.

You’ve got to earn your way into that gig, I guess.

Oh yeah, you’ve got to be good, and everything that goes with it — be quick, be really professional.

That’s a good point for any musician. It’s not just about how musical you are, you need so many other things in different parts of your career to make it all work.

That’s very true, especially a job like that. You have to be able to play a lot of different styles. They play a lot of other things besides jazz. They might add a string section to do a classical thing. So these are very well-rounded musicians. But they were thrilled to play a lot of this stuff. The rhythm section was particularly great. They have a lot of good soloists, too.

You’ve got some guests on the record, too — David Sanborn stopping by for a tune.

He’s on three, and my wife Ada Rovatti is on three.

And there’s a hot drummer, Wolfgang Haffner.

He’s great. I used to say, “He’s the best German drummer,” but he’s worldwide famous now. He’s playing with everybody. Right now he’s on the road with Bill Evans and Robben Ford.

I read a recent interview with you that your career, in some ways, was different from other people’s because you didn’t tour for the first part of your career because you were always in a studio, and as the later part of your career came, you’re on the road all the time now. That’s a big adjustment. I think it’d be easier if it was the other way.

You’re exactly right. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You go on the road when you’re young. When I first moved to New York, I figured that’s what I’d be doing … Long story short, I got sucked into the studio scene when I was a young guy and I had a little different perspective with the jazz-rock thing, and that was very lucrative for the first 20 years of my life. Not that we didn’t tour on weekends, but the first priority was to show up for the record dates. That’s why the original Brecker Brothers band didn’t tour much. Clive Davis was always saying, “Get out on tour! Get out on tour!” I’d say, “We’re making too much money in the studio, sorry.” And then when that kind of dried up with the advent of sampling technology and digital studios in your basement, we hit the road and we were lucky that we had another career. We were performers. A lot of people who were strictly studio guys ended up just learning how to fly helicopters, etc. That’s what one of my best friends ended up doing.

I wanted to play Pastoral. This is a tune you wrote for Jaco that showed up on a previous album that came out in 2001. There’s been so much written, so much said about Jaco, but as someone who’s worked with him, if someone came up to you and didn’t know a ton of the story and said, “Hey, tell me a bit about Jaco.” What would you say to them?

Well, he was a genius. I likened him to being our Mozart. He was a wonderful composer, he could play any instrument he touched, he was a good drummer, he could play brass instruments, he was a wonderful pianist, one of the most talented individuals and a hard worker. But unfortunately, he had serious mental difficulties that developed into what was really an undiagnosed mental illness. It was really difficult to have him stay in a hospital and be treated. And unfortunately that led to his early demise.

Well, it’s a beautiful tune. Do you remember when you wrote it and what you were thinking about when you wrote it?

Well, it was unusual but I really had Jaco in mind when I wrote it. It was close to when he passed away, probably in the mid- to late-‘90s. I just had him in mind. As I recall, there’s another tune of his that mysteriously appears in the fadeout. It was a tune we played every night. I was on the road with him for a couple years straight so I knew him really well. And it just hit really hard when I saw his mental decline take over and he just wasn’t there anymore. He could still play, but he was never the same.