The Brecker Brothers: Funky Sea, Funky Blue

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The Brecker Brothers have had a profound impact on a great range of modern music. Trumpeter Randy and saxophonist Michael were virtuoso instrumentalists, but they also made music that drove jazz, pop, rock, soul and blues in new directions. Both men topped lists of ‘most wanted’ session musicians, and by their presence as sidemen on great numbers of albums, their style of music permeated the industry. However, it was their 1970s work as leaders of the ground-breaking band, The Brecker Brothers, that helped drive the engine of jazz-rock-soul fusions and contribute significantly to the way we hear music today. This book is as much about the amazing contributions made by a community of brilliant session musicians as it is about cutting-edge work by disciples of Miles and Trane. Musicians such as Steve Gadd, David Sanborn, Don Grolnick, Will Lee, Steve Khan and Peter Erskine are just some of the many musicians who appear throughout this study. The full story of the Brecker Brothers’ contributions to music is told here for the first time through a detailed study of their recorded works. Listeners will be guided through a selection of Brecker recordings, whilst fans of LPs and CDs will find rich rewards amongst the comprehensive discography.

This book benefitted greatly from assistance from Randy Brecker, who has expressed his appreciation of it. The book has also been graciously received by Michael Brecker’s family.

The Brecker Brothers: Funky Sea, Funky Blue by Ken Trethewey

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The following is an extract from The Brecker Brothers: Funky Sea, Funky Blue (2014) by Ken Trethewey

The Beatles tune, I Want To Hold Your Hand, shot to #1 in the US Charts in January 1964 as Randy was returning to the second semester of his first year at the University of Indiana. It heralded the British Invasion of the American music scene. Then, in August 1964, during the Beatles’ second visit to the USA, Bob Dylan, who had built a career as a new-age folk singer, was influenced enough by the Beatles to meet them in a New York hotel. Thereafter, possibly due to the marijuana that Dylan had introduced them to, the Beatles’ song writing seemed to take on a new creativity. Dylan’s style began to change too. He was now influenced by experiments with folk-rock conducted by his friend, blues singer, John Hammond, and soon he hired Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson who were in a band called The Hawks, plus Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, for a new electric backing group later called The Band. Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965) announced to the world that he had ‘gone electric’. Many of the fans that had previously enjoyed his freestyle acoustic folk ballads were upset.

Some big cities are all about cars. Los Angeles is about cars. You drive everywhere. You need to. In New York, however, you can walk most places. You want to. I once spent a whole week walking the streets of Manhattan. The minute I arrived there I belonged. Thanks to TV and movies, I’d seen it all before; the signage, the cops’ uniforms, the big yellow taxis, and the subway trains. Everything was so familiar that I felt I owned it. I felt like I was related to the Kennedys and the Rockefellers. I constantly looked up, and felt small. Native New Yorkers don’t look up. They’ve learnt. You can be whatever you want to be. No one cares. In New York, there are no surprises, yet everything is marvellous. Anything can and does happen on the streets of New York. Nothing is extraordinary. Nothing is right, nothing wrong. It’s not a capital, not a state capital, not a national capital, yet in many ways it’s the capital of the world. In the jazz way, that is.

Music is a pathway, a short cut through the established system. Musicians are dreamers. They dream of becoming stars, of making music that will change the world. Whichever part of the world a jazz musician comes from, he soon knows he must leave home to make his fortune. As Dorothy discovered, the yellow brick road leads only to one place – the muso’s version of the Emerald City. The jazz musician’s dream can be fulfilled only in New York. Through music you really can change the world.

New York is full of people who have run away from home, musical émigrés. They wouldn’t be anywhere else. They need the place more than their next fix. They need to be in the company of other musicians of similar mind. They need to be seen, not by those who will buy their records (for such people exist everywhere), but by those who will hire them, and above all, by those who will allow them to make records. Musicians need to be seen by other musicians who will help them to make reputations. Your reputation precedes you. The stars will call you by virtue of your reputation. You need to become a hot property so that when a regular band member falls sick or is double booked, you are there to receive the phone call, ready to fill his place. There is no personal life, only the next gig.

First things first. Find a place to crash. Who do you know? Walk the streets to investigate anything that looks like a possible venue. Go to a club every night and take your instrument. Try to get into the club for free. Don’t drink too much, it’s too expensive. Stay up late. Forget sleep; sleep only when you can no longer stand. Prolong your wakefulness by whatever means possible: junk food, another cigarette, just one more drink. And if you have to indulge in that kind of activity, make sure you know where the next one is coming from. Talk to the musicians when they have stopped playing. Try to befriend them. Ask to sit in. Try to find out where gigs are happening, where the best muso-haunts are located. Network. During the waking hours, join friends, woodshed, try stuff. Then more clubs, more bars, shady men, false promises, dishonesty, strippers, gays. Barely legal, sometimes you’re on the thin edge of the law.

At last you get a gig. Turn up on time, every time. Or else…

Randy arrived in New York sometime in late 1966. The city was on fire with musical experimentation. Rock bands were already starting to use horns as well as electric guitars. Now was the time for musicians with jazz backgrounds to start experimenting with rock techniques. Randy visited as many clubs as he could, sitting-in wherever he was allowed. This, of course, was a feature of the way jazz musicians worked. Their facility with improvisation allowed them – with no rehearsal – to join in spontaneously with bands. Such opportunities were the way they could show off their skills, and get invitations to join other bands. Musicians in rock bands, because of their generally lower levels of musical abilities, needed more pre-planning and rehearsals before new musicians could be admitted into their bands.

Randy’s immense natural talent complemented his already impressive technical ability, and quickly got him work in the conventional jazz environment. To earn a living he played in strip clubs, and other dubious establishments, such as the Metropole on Broadway, which he thought was fine because he learned a lot of R&B tunes there.

One of his first employers was Clark Terry. He had worked in Duke Ellington’s band during the 1950s and was a big influence on the young musician. It was a big band environment that Randy knew well. “… big bands were very prevalent in New York, not only working bands but rehearsal bands. It was a good way to read new music and meet a lot of musicians.” [5]

At the end of 1967, Randy was playing regularly with Duke Pearson’s Big Band. Pearson was already making records in smaller group settings and was now ready to try a large band format. Recordings with Randy Brecker in the band were made in December 1967 and December 1968, and are preserved on a Blue Note release called Introducing Duke Pearson’s Big Band (1968). It is Randy’s earliest appearance on record. (A 1998 edition CD contains these tracks plus other bonus tracks.)

So that was his bread and butter; the jam came elsewhere. In his off-duty networking around the New York clubs, Randy was soon mixing with musicians like Warren Bernhardt (piano / keyboard), Mike Mainieri (vibes), Donald MacDonald (drums), Joe Beck (guitar), Bob Moses (drums) and an old friend, Larry Coryell (guitar). Typically the music involved rock rhythms, blends of electric guitars with wind instruments, and vocals, unlike jazz music, which was mostly instrumental. Sometimes, the music included spontaneous improvisations with no pre-planning. In the jazz of the mid-1960s, it was extremely fashionable to play such music, inspired by the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. At first, these kinds of sessions were usually experimental and unpaid. But something big could always come out of it.