The Power of Perspective #1: Randy Brecker

Jazz publications have come and gone over the past six decades but Jazz Journal has been publishing to international acclaim since May 1948 and continues to document and illuminate the music past and present with a depth of vision unavailable to most jazz magazines. That record of achievement is a reflection of the dedication of its publishers and writers, and their efforts have resulted in a unique archive reflecting jazz opinion and research as it was formed on a monthly basis through the now seminal jazz years of the 1950s and 1960s and onward. We mark our 64th birthday by publishing online selected pieces that illustrate JJ's peerless perspective on the 20th century's greatest contribution to musical culture, beginning with a 1969 interview with trumpeter Randy Brecker, cover subject of our March 2012 issue.




As first published in Jazz Journal, March 1969

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgement influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing.

Randy Brecker comes from a musical family. His father a lawyer, is also a pianist and his younger brother is according to Randy, a more than talented musician, playing alto, tenor and flute. Brecker Senior pointed the way for the sons with his own record collection and with his song writing. The boys grew up with the sound of such musicians as Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker and Max Roach coming to them via the record player and what they heard evidently went home. His mother also plays the piano, and is a full time professional painter, whilst his sister is a classical pianist. So it all runs in the family.

Both Randy and his brother Mike studied music at Indiana University where Bix’s ghost may still be hanging around the campus. In 1955 the Indiana University band won the all-American jazz award at Notre Dame, with Randy getting the prize for the best trumpet player. It is interesting to note that Mike Brecker following in his brother footsteps, won the award for the best instrumentalist at last year’s festival. Those Brecker parents must be proud of their sons.

This job with Horace Silver is Randy’s first with a combo, though he has worked in such first class company as with the bands led by Clark Terry, Duke Pearson and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. He left the last named to tour with Silver, regretfully he says, as the experience he gained sitting next to Snooky Young was really something. Snooky he affirms would be one of the best jazz soloists playing today, if he cared to push himself to the front, but he prefers to listen to others doing the solo chores, whilst he contends himself with providing that wonderful lead horn for the brass sections he graces.

Photo of Randy Brecker with the Duke Pearson band at the Half Note Café New York 1967, by Raymond Ross

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Randy Brecker 1967King of the Zulus Louis Armstrong. Decca DXM 155
I suppose in a way Louis Armstrong influenced every trumpet player who has come along since his time. Those old players played just what they heard - it was like as if they were singing to themselves. I think it’s a pity that that philosophy of playing is lacking in the new music. It’s very hard to do, but I do try to combine the things I work out at home with those things I hear and like. I just sing to myself and then play; which is what Louis Armstrong did, and was really how jazz got started. Vocalisation of the jazz instrument.

Ostrich Walk/In A Mist Bix Beiderbecke. Parlophone PMC 7064 and Philips BBL 7014
Well it may be my imagination but listening to that I hear a whole lot of Clark Terry, who I think in some way got a few of his things from Bix. Beautifully melodic, and such a clean player. I think I am right in saying Bix was primarily    a self-taught musician, and it sounds that way - he was unique. That sound and he played so pretty. They had of course some of his records in the school library and I used to listen to them. Also those by Hoagy Carmichael who was actually at Indiana University. Pity Bix lived as hard as he did, or we might have had him today. And that would have been something. Like so many records by Charlie Parker, one wishes one could hear him with other people behind him - and it was the same here. If only Bix could have recorded with a rhythm worthy of him, who knows what might have come forth. His melodic ideas were so far advanced, so far in front of the rest of the band there. That piano solo you played me. Well the harmonic ideas there were just marvellous. 1927, that was really amazing, and I never even knew he played the piano. That was just wonderful!

I'm A Man Muddy Waters. Chess CRS 8083
Well, we travelled around with Muddy and his band on this trip and it really opened my eyes. Those blues people, they just live the blues twenty four hours of the day. It's all blues! Muddy would sit in front of that bus like some matriarch, with Horace beside him, and every one had to listen to what he had to say. He was the boss in a kind of a way.

But they all just love playing and get at it every moment they have - their music is really a part of themselves and they’d like to play it all the time, if they get the chance. Several times on this trip we stopped off at a hotel or a restaurant where there was a piano, and they’d at once all just gather round and play. Unlike many jazz musicians today, who seem to have forgotten what the old jam session was like, these I guys like to jam at any time. Except for the drummer I think they all sang - both Luther and Sonny were both very good singers incidentally - and they all seemed to play guitar and piano. Man, they really love the blues, and they are all so full of spirit.

The beat they generate is perhaps primitive, but that is where it all started from. Clark Terry, who is essentially a blues player, he plays with that same kind of beat. So does Louis Armstrong. Jazz started in the cities and Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters both do the same thing, it’s only geographically that it is different. Muddy’s blues grew from a rural background, whilst Armstrong’s came from a more urban influence where the musicians took up horns rather than guitars - but it is really one and the same thing. Of course we also had with us the Stars of Faith, the gospel singers. Now that is another thing, a different approach, but underneath it all when you get down to it, it’s just the blues, that same sincere music.

Now when Ornette Coleman first came out people thought what he was doing was terribly advanced, but really I think his music is closer to the blues and early jazz than it is to any other form. It is certainly not an extension of be-bop, and harmonically it is all folk music - music made by musicians who are primarily self taught. He just plays what he sings to himself, so does Don Cherry, and I think they are the best of the so-called avant garde. Their blues are sometimes of 13 bars, instead of the usual 12-bar ones, and sometimes even 14-bar or 15. Like Muddy, he does the same thing, doesn’t keep track of the bars because their minds don’t think in that direction, and it gives them greater freedom. They can either skip a bar or add one, it doesn’t matter, and that is exactly what Ornette does. They just sing and what comes out, with no bar line hindrance.

Jazz started as a spontaneous movement and that is one of the things lacking in some of the music these days. Some of the advances on be-bop as played by some of the modern players have become too structured, it lacks the philosophy of the blues - it even lacks the spark and spontaneity of the Dixieland ensemble playing, the simultaneous improvisation, which a real part of the basis of jazz. I think folk music is a much broader term than most people think, it embraces so much - a lot of early jazz and of course the blues.

I think of folk music as that self-taught music which is not based upon European principles of music study. Big band music will come somewhere in the middle of all that. Take Ellington. First you have his musicians, and then a genius in front of them. I don’t know just how much Duke was self-taught, but his grasp of harmony and knowledge of music in general is so far advanced that, although he borrows heavily from folk music, he can stay in both worlds. His musicians as I see it are mostly folk musicians. They have their own way of playing, it is what they say themselves, they don’t abide by any rules that don’t suit them. I have heard it said that the band don’t play in tune, well maybe not, but that to me is part of the excitement. That is the way they want to sound, and more important that is the way Ellington intends them sound.

The funny thing about most geniuses, and that includes Billy Strayhorn, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, is that although they are self-taught musicians, the depth of their genius was so great that they could borrow other sources and put it together in their minds so that it comes out like part of themselves. It is the same with Miles Davis and Thad Jones. Miles really sings when he plays, but Thad is such a composer when he plays. I think I would rather pattern myself after Thad than anyone. He is always so spontaneous, never plays licks, and yet always stays with the melody. He bases his improvisations (Sonny Rollins is another example who springs to mind) on the theme, rather than anything else. And that is what I like.

It is of course possible to base one’s improvisations not on the melody at all, but that is something I don’t understand, because surely the whole piece is supposed to be unified from beginning to end. But if they don’t use the melody at all how can it have any unity? To play on the harmonic structure only, to me is not enough, I think to make music one must have a theme. That is why to me so much of the old jazz is better than some of the new, because then they were really elaborating on the melody, but somehow they seem to have got away from that, and I think it’s a pity.

Butter & Egg Man Charlie Byrd/Clark Terry. Riverside 673010
Clark Terry, there is a man who completely his has his own style. The only way he can do that, play that way, is because originally he was self-taught. In fact it seems to me that most of the great jazz players are self-taught - as opposed to myself who was not! One of the main reasons I stopped taking trumpet lessons is that I think one needs a certain amount of time just to do things on one’s own - to get as much out of oneself as possible. But I guess Clark never needed anything like that. Some of the things he does melodically remind me of Bix (not this record), the melodic ideas are very similar and to a certain extent the tone also. Clark is technically so proficient, and so strong, he never gets tired. And he plays exactly as he is - his playing matches his personality perfectly. He is certainly to me the greatest blues trumpet player alive. He bends those notes, very like a blues guitar player does - I suppose the word for it is funky. And he also sings the blues like he plays them - beautiful.

Larry-Larue Max Roach. Riverside 673004
To speak about Max Roach for a moment, he is the one drummer who is in keeping with what I was saying before. I usually find it hard listen to drum solos, because they so often merely sound like a bunch of technique. But when Max plays a drum solo it is really like as if he were playing a horn. His solos are always so unified. I heard him whilst we were on this tour. He would set up his kit and play for half an hour, but he was never boring for he was playing a song all the time. People say his style is dated, but it isn’t. I hate when people say that about anything: ‘Why should I listen to him, his style is dated’, they say. But that is ridiculous because really great music never dates. The classics don’t date, and nor does any good music. I hadn’t listened to Max Roach for a couple of years. I just hadn’t run across him, had almost forgotten him. And it was one of my most illuminating experiences when I heard him here just recently, playing with just a bass player. He can really make a drum sound like an instrument, beautifully controlled and he never says more than is necessary. He always comes back to his focal point and he really states the melody on drums, which is very hard to do. The playing of Booker Little on that record was lovely - I only wish I had heard more of him. There seems somehow to be a curse on trumpet players, so many of the great ones succumb before one has a chance to realise their potentials. Booker Little didn’t record all that much, and he was also a really fine composer, in addition to being an exceptional trumpet player. The only thing I find lacking in his playing is that he doesn’t relate any of his lines to the melody, which is a thing I think too many young musicians fail to do today.

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