Listening Session: Randy Brecker


Randy Brecker and I did this late night listening session after one of his concert performances at the 2011 Copenhagen Jazz Festival. He had been up for two days but was inspired by the selections played and offered insights into both the music and players.

1) Terri Lyne Carrington

“Michelle” (from Mosaic, Concord). Carrington, drums; Geri Allen, piano; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Anat Cohen, saxophone; Esperanza Spalding, bass; Gretchen Parlato, vocal. Recorded in 2011.

Before: Really good drum sound. There’s a beautiful, sultry quality to her voice. Maybe Gretchen Parlato? I enjoy her work. This is a nice arrangement. Pretty complicated too. I’d have to look at it before I played it. Let’s see if I can figure out the trumpet player. It might be Dave Douglas. There’s really good interaction, that’s the main thing I listen for. The rhythm section is really listening to the soloist and each other. There’s a lot of air in the music, which is nice to hear. Nice chart. Piano solo was really well done. They were interacting so heavily and the time was there but it was elastic. The soprano solo over the vamp was also well done. The influences of Liebman and Trane were obvious but I can’t quite tell who anybody is. Fine trumpet solo; good ears, good sound, a lot of flexibility. It probably wasn’t, but it reminded me of Dave.

After: I’ve played with Terri a lot. That’s good to hear. She sounds great, really loose. Terri can play anything, in any style. But that was really well done, really nice the way she tuned her drums. You can tell she spent time on that. There’s a real sound to it that rings.

2) Kenny Dorham

“Lotus Blossom” (from Quiet Kenny, Prestige). Dorham, trumpet; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums. Recorded in 1959.

It’s KD. I could tell that in one second. This is one of his classic tunes. He’s such a stylist. It’s a thin sound, but hip. He’s one of the hippest players harmonically and he set the path for a lot of trumpet players. He’s a guy who constantly studied. He’s a great guy to transcribe because he gets to the meat of the changes. People might say the sound is lacking, but it’s great. I wish I had that sound.

Do you think his sound was a conscious choice?

That’s hard to say. To a point, guys [then] thought about their sound more. It could have had to do with the equipment he was using. I was lucky enough to see him a couple of times. From a technical standpoint, he had a really good embouchure setting. So it probably had to do with equipment; maybe a shallow mouthpiece or the make he had, so it came out naturally and he developed it into a thing. Tommy Flanagan has a certain style of playing eighth notes that swings. They call those shell chords, where he just plays the root and the 7th that’s really hip. And Art Taylor has a hi-hat sound that I recognize. I love this melody and the chord changes. He was a beautiful composer.

When you met him, did you talk about anything in particular?

One time when I met him we were outside and I was in Washington Square Park listening to a folk singer and there he was standing next to me, so I introduced myself. And another time I went to hear him play at Slug’s. I had started to make a name for myself in the jazz rock world and I had the balls to ask him if I could sit in, but he said no. Then he asked: “Are you Randy Brecker? I could tell by your hair.” [laughter] So I was proud of that moment. He was a salesman at either Manny’s or Sam Ash and I would see him there, but I was too shy to ask him questions.

If he were here with us now, what would you talk to him about?

I’d ask him about his equipment and how he got his sound. And I ask him about his harmonic approach and how he goes through the motion of composing.

3) Tom Harrell

“The Time of the Sun” (from The Time of the Sun, HighNote Records). Harrell, Wayne Escoffery, saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Uggona Okegwo, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums. Recorded in 2011.

Before: [listens with periodic appreciative grunts] The head was interesting, really nice with a hint of electronics and, for lack of a better word, full bodied voicings. To get a good, recorded trumpet sound is difficult. This is pretty close to perfect with just the right amount of reverb. It’s really a nice sound. Good range. I can’t quite place the trumpeter. It’s a well-constructed solo, and it’s good trumpet-tenor quintet writing. Obviously, some younger guys.

After: Well, he always surprises me, and he did just now–really fresh sounding music. Hearing him in this context with electronics was interesting. The solo was, harmonically, stuff that he would do. The writing was great. There were no wasted notes. I have his last two records. I really liked this. He’s got great chops and he’s sounding better than ever. He keeps growing compositionally, too.

4) Bob Brookmeyer

“Some of My Best Friends” (from Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments, Verve). Brookmeyer, valve trombone; Clark Terry, Joe Newman, trumpets. Orchestra arranged by Al Cohn. Recorded in 1961.

Before: That’s obviously CT. This might be Brookmeyer and Snooky, guys from that time period. This might be an old Quincy record. This is the way I like to hear big bands recorded: open, reverb, air, stereo. It makes me feel good because when I first got to New York, a lot of these guys were there and active. I was lucky to play in Thad & Mel’s band and Duke Pearson’s band. Aside from that, it’s a really happy sounding arrangement. When you hear Clark, you can’t help but perk up because his trumpet expertise is so perfect.

After: I thought the other trumpeter might have been Jimmy Nottingham, but it makes sense that it’s Joe Newman. I was privileged to have played with all these guys. I just spoke with Clark the other day. He says he’s always got the horn on the bed. What a guy. Just talking trumpetistically, breathing and embouchure-wise, it’s perfect. He must have worked very hard to get it to that point. He doesn’t even need a mouthpiece to buzz, he could play a whole solo just on his lips. He can buzz a chromatic scale on his lips. His circular breathing and all the tricks he can do—it’s the sound of joy. Just like KD, it’s a unique sound. He was wonderful to me when I came to New York. He was a judge at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1965 where I got a trumpet prize. He handed me the award. And when I got to New York he called me to join his band so I worked my way in pretty quickly and it was all due to him. That was fun to hear.

5) Kenny Wheeler

“Anticipation” (from One of Many, CAM Jazz). Wheeler, trumpet; John Taylor, piano; Steve Swallow, bass. Released in 2011.

Before: Great tune. It sounds a little like Kenny Wheeler, something he would write. And I know he works with John Taylor. It’s an interesting sound on bass, almost like an acoustic bass guitar with a mic on it. Kenny is an original. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1966 in Vienna at a trumpet competition. That’s where I met a lot of the guys who later came to New York. I’ve followed his career since then and I’ve seen him sporadically over the years. I’ve always loved his conception. His writing is unique, harmonically; difficult, too. Like Tom, he’s self-effacing. They appear to lack confidence until they put the horn to their lips and then they play their asses off. It’s a pretty tune and the harmony is complex. He writes hard stuff.

After: That’s a great record. Those guys are pushing the envelope and they’ve all got quite a few years on me. Kenny’s pushing 80 [82, actually] and that’s quite an accomplishment because the trumpet is such an unforgiving instrument. You’ve got to hit it every day or it’s not going to happen. I know him more as a flugelhorn player, but if that’s a flugelhorn, it’s a very shallow mouthpiece. That’s very impressive.

6) Fats Navarro

“Nostalgia” (from The Savoy Story, Savoy). Navarro, trumpet; Charlie Rouse, saxophone; Tadd Dameron, piano; Nelson Boyd, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Recorded in 1947.

That’s probably Fats with Tadd Dameron. Such a pretty sound on cup mute. Miles did that a little later. It’s a beautiful tune. At first I thought this was Miles, but the vibrato gave it away. Today, all the young players are coming out of the same book, so it’s harder to separate them. Fats had a really good range, amazing ideas, no wasted notes, great harmonic sense. He was taken way too early.

Why do you think it happened to so many trumpet players?

That instrument will kill you, it’ll drive you nuts [laughs]. I don’t know; it was all for different reasons. Some were self-inflicted, with others it was just terrible luck or circumstance. But it is something to think about. Fats is one of my favorites and there’s not that much of him on record, so I hope everyone gets a chance to check him out.

7) Blue Mitchell

“Tones for Joan’s Bones “(from Boss Horn, Blue Note). Mitchell, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Jerry Dodgion, also saxophone; Junior Cook, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Chick Corea, piano; Gene Taylor, bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1966l

I know it’s Blue Mitchell but I want to see how he negotiates these changes. I know the tune because I played it with Duke Pearson every night at the Half Note. Marvin Stamm played the solo and played the shit out of it. It’s Chick’s tune, “Tones for Joan’s Bones.” It might be a Chick arrangement. Sounds like Jerry Dodgion. It’s a hard tune. Harmonically, it goes to a lot of different places. It never settles down. Blue did quite well on this but I think it was hard for him. He had a relaxed quality when he played and a deep sound, but he was scuffling a bit. It’s a great tune, one of Chick’s classics. That was a great period for him. All his periods are great but back then the way he synthesized McCoy, Monk, Bud Powell, Wynton and his own Spanish heart was fascinating. He a little older than I am but I played a few gigs with him when I got to New York. And Blue, in his prime, was one of my favorite players.

Any favorite Blue Mitchell recordings?

The two that he had with Chick and Junior Cook. One is called Down With It and the other is Hi-Heeled Sneakers. He sounds wonderful on those. There’s a Jackie McLean record, there’s a ballad record I like with him and strings. And all those things with Horace, like “Filthy McNasty.” When I was with Horace, Blue would come see us. I was always proud of that. One night Blue and Lee Morgan were standing right by the bandstand at Club Baron in Harlem. They were complimentary, both very nice to me, but I was nervous.

8) Charles Mingus

“Mysterious Blues” (from Mysterious Blues, Candid). Mingus, bass; Eric Dolphy alto saxophone; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums Recorded in 1960.

Before: That was a great trumpet solo. What the hell is this? I should know the trumpet player, but that’s Eric Dolphy. Maybe if I figure out the trombonist, that will tell me. It’s probably Jimmy Knepper with a mute. I guess it’s Mingus. So who the hell was the trumpet player? Sounded like Snooky. Let me hear it again on the out chorus. This is another one I haven’t heard. Eric is so off-the-wall, so joyful and funny at the same time with such a wealth of ideas. And Knepper was such a flexible trombone player, unique. I just downloaded “The Clown.” Oh, it’s Roy Eldridge! This is probably a Mingus record. The piano player was great, too, the way he comped behind all the different styles. Roy is such a strong player. It threw me off because he had the mute in at first. But he was putting so much air through the horn that I thought it might be Snooky or a lead player. But the solo, the way it built, was incredible. And then when he took the mute off, it was unmistakable. And he set the tone, you know?

After: Flanagan was great, even though he didn’t solo. Just to comp for Dolphy, and then turn around and comp for Knepper. Amazing cut. Wow, pretty wild.

9) Ralph Alessi

“Pudgy” (from Wiry Strong, Clean Feed). Alessi, trumpet; Andy Milne, piano; Drew Gress, bass; Mark Ferber, drums. Recorded in 2010.

Before: Was that it? Let me hear it again. The whole thing is sort of Booker Little, maybe? It had a little Woody in there, but it wasn’t Woody. Maybe it’s a new guy? Does that lead into something? As a rubato thing it was nicely done with the other horns playing. The trumpet player had a lot of angularity, it was easy for him to get around on the horn. Nice Harmon mute sound, that’s a hard thing to capture correctly, but it was recorded well. I thought of Eddie Henderson because he also has a distinctive Harmon mute thing, but this was more angular than he usually plays. I like what the trumpet player played. He had a wealth of ideas.

After: He’s an outstanding player. I’m more familiar with his open trumpet playing. He’s an outstanding trumpet player who can play wide intervals easily, like he did on that. That’s hard to do, to jump up and down and have that much facility on the horn. You could tell it was leading into something else. But I liked it. That Harmon mute can be a difficult beast. It still mystifies me how Miles, under what must have been adverse circumstances for the most part, could get such a warm sound out of a Harmon mute. That staggers my mind. If the sound isn’t right, you can’t focus your air right and it’s hard to play in tune. If you can hear right, it’s easy. A well opens up. And if you can’t hear right, it clogs up your airstream. It’s hard to describe but you have to hear the ring of the mute. Miles played it really softly and most guys have a tendency to play it louder to get a little more ring out of it. This was very impressive. I wouldn’t have ever guessed it was Ralph.

10) Don Cherry

“Awake” NU (from Where Is Brooklyn?, Blue Note). Cherry, trumpet; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone; Henry Grimes, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. Recorded in 1966.

I forget the name of this record but I was always a big Don Cherry fan. Where is Brooklyn, maybe? This is so expressive. And I love Gato [Barbieri] on this, so expressive. You never heard anybody play like that. It’s a different kind of sound and it blended really well with Don, who you’re used to hearing with Ornette. That was a really fun record to listen to. It’s melodic, straight-from-the-heart playing. With Don it’s hard to put your finger on what made it so great, other than Don could swing. He had a good knowledge of bebop and he could swing and he had a grasp of his own harmonic thing. He didn’t have a lot of traditional trumpet chops. What he had to work with was fascinating.

Do you think he had much impact on trumpeters who followed him?

He did. I don’t know if it’s lasted. Everybody’s so Wyntonized and technique-oriented these days. But at the time, yeah, I think he did, especially in Europe.

Did he have an impact on you?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t sound like him but I listened to those records, the Ornette records over and over again. I tried to play like that but it didn’t sound quite natural when I did it, but it did when he did it.

Did you ever play with Ornette?

I was lucky enough to play a rehearsal with him. I’ll never forget that day. Ornette’s trumpet parts are stratospheric and I can’t play up there, so Lew Soloff stuck in a shallow mouthpiece and could actually play these parts that Ornette heard. They were written rather screwy, but I was so thrilled to play with him for two or three hours. So I did as good as I could to emulate Don Cherry. It’s sort of ironic that I went straight from that to a Johnny Cash record date where I played with mariachi trumpets.

What did you think of Ornette’s trumpet work?

It’s great. He had a unique setup of whatever he used. He spent a lot of time playing and it was his own way to play. Quite an amazing musician; He must have listened to a lot of blues and bebop. And Don was the same. It’s great that they found each other and made all those records together.

11) Clifford Brown & Max Roach

Daahoud (from Alone Together, Mercury). Brown, trumpet, Roach, drums; Harold Land, tenor saxophone; George Morrow, bass; Richie Powell, piano. Recorded in 1954.

This harkens back to my earliest years in music and listening to jazz. Clifford and Max and that band would play in Philly quite a bit and my father would go every night to hear them at a place called The Rendevous. I remember the day Clifford was killed we were at the breakfast table and my dad read the newspaper and almost started to cry. He had just heard them a couple of days earlier. These are classic records and Clifford set the standard for trumpet players, as did everyone in that band. Just amazing records. The warmth and the emotional content grabs you first—just the sound, period. And then on top of that he had all the technique. He could play all over the horn. But I think the thing that grabs everyone the most is just the emotional content he has in his sound. That’s a hard thing to get. You either have it or you don’t.

Any favorite Clifford Brown records?

Clifford Brown with Strings, because I love the ballads. They’re all favorites because he didn’t make that many of them. They’re all top of the line. My father was a big fan, he had all the records so we heard them all the time. And because of the Philly connection, he was around in the 50s. It was so tragic, but what a musician. I recently acquired a collection of him playing the piano, just practicing. He was such a studious worker. It’s so evident in everything he did. He was a good piano player. I’ll lay it on you. I have it at home.

Name two or three records that changed your life.

Well, all those Clifford records. I was so drawn to them. Miles ‘Round About Midnight with Coltrane. That’s another one my father had. The first three records I played along with were Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, because I went for the more lyrical guys, even though I loved Dizzy. With Clifford, the technique was too daunting so I started with Miles playing “Round Midnight,” Chet Baker playing “My Funny Valentine,” and Shorty Rodgers’ Martians Come Back, which was also the first record my brother played on because it had Jimmy Giuffre playing clarinet and Mike started on clarinet. And Philly was a big R&B town, so there were all those James Brown records, Parlament/Funkadelic, and Mingus’ Blues & Roots.

And what are you listening to lately?

With my iPod I flip from one thing to another. I listened to Mingus’ The Clown a couple days ago, and Cannonball’s Bossa Nova, with Sergio Mendes. I always use that as an example for kids to learn how to play a melody and how to express yourself using vibrato and open the floodgates of emotion.

This session was originally intended for a JazzTimes Before & After. This is its first appearance anywhere.

One comment on “Listening Session: Randy Brecker

  1. Paul Hrycaj says:

    This is a great interview. Love it. Randy Brecker is a great player, but he obviously has a wealth of knowledge about other players and listens to everything and listens with an open heart and mind.

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