Randy Brecker on Having One Foot in Jazz and the Other in Pop

Not long after trumpeter Randy Brecker joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1967 and played on the jazz-rock group’s debut, Child Is Father to the Man, he left to join renowned jazz pianist Horace Silver’s quartet. Brecker says it was a logical choice, but he had no idea that the next Blood, Sweat & Tears album would sell eleven million copies.

“But all in all, the way my chosen path moved, it was definitely the right move to make,” says Brecker, who turned seventy last year. “At the time I really wanted to play. And I was the perfect age, and it was just that the timing was right to do something like that.

"That led to meeting Billy Cobham and eventually playing with Art Blakey and then going back and playing with Billy’s band," he continues. "I was starting to write for my own band, and all those concepts kind of coalesced. Having one foot in horn bands and one foot in jazz — it ended up coalescing with the Brecker Brothers Band, where I wrote everything on the first record, which was really the sum of everything I had experienced before. If I had stayed with Blood, Sweat & Tears, I would have missed a lot of great stuff.”

While Brecker got to work with jazz heavies like Silver and Blakey, he’s also recorded with a slew of pop and rock players over the past five decades. On his latest album, RandyPOP!, Brecker delved into some famous cuts that he’s played on by folks like James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Donald Fagen that were re-conceptualized by a good friend of his, pianist Kenny Werner. The album was recorded live at the Blue Note in New York City.

Brecker says he did a lot of session work over the years that went in one ear and out the other. So when deciding on songs for RandyPOP!, he picked ones that were recorded during special sessions where the artists asked him for creative input. Brecker says that when he and his younger brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, and trombonist Barry Rogers (the three of them were in the band Dreams at the time) recorded on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” it was done completely live in the studio, which was unusual for pop records.

“So we jammed up some horn parts, and Todd with all the singers made up an instant arrangement,” Brecker says. “We threw in the horn parts. We all played together, and then he counted the tune off, and if my recollection serves me right, we did one take and that was it.”

Brecker made a name for himself as a go-to studio player who was well versed in many styles. Growing up in Philadelphia, he spent time checking out the Philadelphia Orchestra and American Bandstand as well as blues bands, jazz organ trios, bebop and R&B. He says the R&B radio station was right next to the jazz station, and he would toggle back and forth between the two.

Brecker says being a well-rounded player definitely helped his jazz playing, but even more important, it had an affect on his writing.

“When I got to my early twenties and decided to try to write my own music, all those influences came out in the writing,” he says. “And also, in a way, influenced my playing. My brother was thinking along the same lines, and we kind of became known as a horn section that could do both things – play straight-ahead, but also [with] a deep foot in funk and R&B and pop music. And it really helped our careers in that respect.”

The Brecker brothers got some schooling in jazz early on from their father, a semi-pro jazz pianist who had an epic record collection that included vinyl by jazz greats like Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Charlie Parker. The elder Brecker was also a fan of singers, including the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

“When we got old enough, we took the records up to our room and started just playing along to records, both of us,” Brecker says.

Randy studied with Bill Adam, David Baker and Jerry Coker at Indiana University in the mid-'60s, then worked with Clark Terry, Duke Pearson and Thad Jones before landing the gig with Blood, Sweat & Tears. A year after the band’s album came out, Brecker released his 1969 solo debut, Score, which also featured a nineteen-year-old Michael Brecker, who was unknown at the time but went on to be a hugely influential tenor player before passing away in 2007.

But long before they went on to form the jazz-rock fusion group the Brecker Brothers in 1975, Brecker says, they were kids who didn’t necessarily know what we were doing but who liked the sound of the reverb and echo in the bathroom. They just played anything, Brecker says — nursery rhymes or just something off the top of their heads, and an example of that ended up as “The Weasel Goes Out to Lunch,” which appears on Score and is a take on “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

“We just liked the sound, and one guy would play one thing and then the other guy would answer and we’d play together,” Brecker says.

Randy Brecker performs at Dazzle on Tuesday, March 29, and Wednesday, March 30, with shows at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. each night.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon