34th N Lex (Esc Records)
Released April 23, 2003
Grammy Award Best Contemporary Jazz Album 2004
One of the most outstanding trumpeters, composers and arrangers on the jazz scene over the past 30 years, Randy Brecker crafts from a larger canvas on his latest recording as a leader, “34th N Lex”. A paean to his Manhattan neighborhood as potent and in-your-face as the city itself, this urban-edged offering features Randy’s working quintet augmented by a dream horn section including his brother Michael Brecker on tenor sax, David Sanborn on alto sax and Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax along with the great funkateer and former James Brown/P-Funk sideman, trombonist Fred Wesley. Hard bop and swaggering funk are the watchwords of this hard-hitting session, which follows Brecker’s audacious 2001 offering on ESC Records, “Hangin’ in the City”, his infamous collection of “Songs of Rhyme, Reason, Romance & Raunch” which unleashed unto the world the audacious (and rather horny) rapping character of Randroid.
“There just wasn’t room for ol’ Randroid on this one,” says Randy. “There was too much other material that I wanted to do. I’ve had this band of younger guys (guitarist Adam Rogers, keyboardist George Whitty, bassist Chris Minh Doky and drummer Clarence Penn) and we’ve toured all over the world the last three or four years. So, for this project I wanted to feature them with special guests, using guys that I’ve played with coming up through the years. So, it’s mixing some of the older generation with some of the younger generation, and I was extremely lucky and thankful to get Fred and Sanborn, Mike and Ronnie all together in one place at the same time. Although I played with all of them in the past under different situations, this was the first time that this particular configuration of us five guys actually really played together.”
And the results are staggering. From the Latin-flavored title track, featuring some ferocious exchanges between Ronnie Cuber and Michael Brecker, to the urgent Brecker Brothers-ish funk-fusion of “Hula Dula”; from the vintage ‘60s soul-jazz Ed die Harris-Les McCann groove of “Shanghigh” to the subdued smooth-funk vehicle “Streeange,” “34th N Lex” covers a representative sampling of the music that Randy has loved and played over his illustrious career. His roots are covered here by the hard boppish “Tokyo Freddie,” an uptempo burner that he composed while touring Japan and in a Freddie Hubbard-ish frame of mind, while he steps into some new territory on “All 4 Love,” a contemporary groover with an infectious hook and sensuous vocal delivery by singer J Phoenix, a participant in a recent Tupac Shakur tribute album which has hit big in Europe.
A pervasive party-time vibe (a quality that Randroid was well acquainted with on “Hangin’ in the City” ) permeates two irrepressibly funky anthems, “Let It Go” and “Give It Up,” the latter featuring a particularly baaad solo by trombonist Fred Wesley. Randy demonstrates his attractive flugelhorn style on the poignant ballad “Foregone Conclusion” and also offers a heartfelt homage to his fallen comrade, the late tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, on “The Fisherman” (aside from jazz, Berg’s passion was fishing near his East Hampton, Long Island home). That uplifting ode features a typically impassioned alto sax solo by David Sanborn. “When it comes to this style of playing there’s just nobody else I want to use,” says Randy. “It was touch and go with him, whether he could fit it into his schedule. He’s always hard to pin down but he finally came through and I really like what he played on it. He’s so much more genuine than all of his imitators.” The album’s closer, an urgent and angular funk workout entitled “The Castle Rocks,” features Randy’s wife Ada Rovatti on a fluent and fiery tenor sax solo. “She really helped a lot with this project, getting everything together, calling everybody, helping me with parts, helping me print out the music, working as a copyist. And she sounds really good on this track,” says Randy. “She’s from Mortatta, Italy. She’s been in New York two and a half years. She went to Berklee in the early ‘90s then went back to Europe and worked there for a while. When I met her, she was playing in a big band in Milano that I did a special guest spot with. She was planning to move to New York, we started corresponding and slowly but surely, we started hanging out. And now here we are.”
Above all, this project gave the elder Brecker brother an opportunity to write for an expanded horn section, a challenge he relished. “That was nice because I’ve strictly been doing two-horn things for quite a while now,” he says. “In the ‘70s and early ‘80s I used to do a lot of charts for (pop producer) Arif Mardin on Atlantic Records that involved bigger horn sections. For instance, I did some writing for Diana Ross, George Benson and Chaka Khan utilizing four, five horns. But I hadn’t been doing it lately so it was nice to get back into that again on this new record.”
Cuber sounds particularly inspired throughout, adding a low-end knockout punch on several tracks. “It was nice to hear him and Mike play together,” says Randy. “In the old days, before I got friendly with Ronnie in the early ‘70s, I always wanted to hear Mike and Sanborn trade fours. And ever since I got friendly with Ronnie I’ve always wanted to have him and Mike burn it out on one tune, so it was nice to hear them get into it on the opening track.”
Likewise, Randy was glad to get trombone veteran Fred Wesley into the mix. “For years I wanted to have Fred on one of my records,” says Randy. “He was a major influence on my writing. When I first came to New York I played on one of his early jazz records before he became that well known as a funkster. It was a tentet session…a real bebop record. After that he started writing for James Brown and George Clinton and Bootsy Collins and he just became a huge influence on me as a horn writer. So, it was great that he could come up and do this and also play such a terrific solo on ‘Give It Up.’ He really made that song something special.”
Randy’s intent on “34th N Lex” was to capture the hustle and bustle of New York City and convey that urgent energy in no uncertain terms. As he explains, “34th & Lexington Avenue is where I lived for about the last ten years. This streetcorner really typifies, to me, what’s great about New York. It’s a real crossroads kind of place. I can go in any direction and in five minutes I’m somewhere. So, it’s been a great place to live. It’s definitely got a lot of character. It’s a noisy corner but I’m just used to it. I kind of enjoy all the chaos. And I think subconsciously that really had an influence on just everything I’ve been writing since living here. It’s an old building, they don’t have double windows so I’m just always surrounded by city sounds whether I like it or not, and that’s bound to seep into the music.”
This album rekindles a long-standing musical association between Randy and David Sanborn that goes back 30 years. But their friendship goes back even further, as Randy explains: “We met when we were 15 at band camp and kept in touch. He went to Northwestern, I went to Indiana University. When we moved to New York, around the same time, he started playing with Paul Butterfield Blues Band and I started playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears and we did a lot of gigs opposite each other. Then we ended up playing together in Stevie Wonder’s road band all through 1973.”
Of course, the connection between brothers Randy and Michael runs even deeper. They grew up playing music together in Philadelphia before elder brother Randy departed for Indiana University. Upon arriving in New York in 1966, Randy’s first gig was with Clark Terry’s big band. Soon after he hooked up with Blood, Sweat & Tears and hit the road. A 19-year-old Michael is heard blowing scorching tenor licks on Randy’s 1968 debut recording as a leader, Score on the Solid State label (recently reissued by Blue Note). In 1970, the brothers joined with drummer Billy Cobham, trombonist Barry Rogers, guitarist John Abercrombie and the songwriting team of Jeff Kent and Doug Lubahn to form the seminal fusion band Dreams.
After two records on the Columbia label, Dreams disbanded and the brothers teamed up on the frontline of Horace Silver’s quintet. A year later they joined Billy Cobham’s powerhouse fusion group and by 1974 they were ready to front their own group. Drawing on a pool of New York session regulars, they formed The Brecker Brothers Band and saw their self-titled debut released on Arista Records in 1975. “That first Brecker Brothers record, in fact, was originally supposed to be my solo record,” Randy reveals. “Clive Davis (Arista record executive) heard about it through (producer) Steve Backer and thought it would be an easier sell as a brother act. He offered to sign this thing without even hearing it if I called it the Brecker Brothers. And it was a little strange because Sanborn was there from the beginning as the third horn, kind of like an honorary brother. Then we used him on the second record too and during that period he did his own first album, “Takin’ Off”, which took off big-time. That was the beginning of Dave’s solo career.”
The Brecker Brothers followed with five more highly successful crossover albums before disbanding in 1982. During that seven-year stretch they remained extremely active as first-call session players, appearing on hundreds of pop and jazz recordings by such stars as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Lou Reed, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, John Lennon & Yoko Ono and Janis Joplin.
After the Brecker Brothers breakup, Randy joined the ranks of Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth big band while Michael joined the progressive fusion group Steps Ahead. Following a Brazilian project with his then-wife Eliane Elias (1985’s Amanda), Randy returned to his bop roots in 1986 with “In The Idiom” and continued in that vein the next year with “Live at Sweet Basil” . He returned to a more commercial funk-fusion direction on 1990’s Toe To Toe, then in 1992 Randy and Michael reunited for the aptly-titled “Return of the Brecker Brothers”. Their 1994 followup, “Out of the Loop”, received a Grammy nomination and Randy received a Grammy nomination of his own the following year for his Brazilian-flavored “Into The Sun” . In 2001, Randy took a walk on the urban side with the decidedly nasty “Hangin’ in the City”. Now comes another crowning achievement in “34th N Lex”.
1. 34th N Lex (Randy Brecker) 6:29
2. Streeange (Randy Brecker) 4:21
3. Shanghigh (Randy Brecker) 5:37
4. All 4 Love (Randy Brecker/ Gary Haase) 3:36
5. Let It Go (Randy Brecker) 3:59
6. Foregone Conclusion (Randy Brecker / Joe Henderson) 7:42
7. Hula Dula (Randy Brecker) 5:11
8. The Fisherman (Randy Brecker / Leo Kottke) 5:33
9. Give It Up (Randy Brecker) 5:01
10. Tokyo Freddie (Randy Brecker) 4:36
11. The Castle Rocks (Randy Brecker) 4:50
Randy Brecker: trumpet, fluegelhorn
Michael Brecker: tenor saxophone
David Sanborn: alto saxophone
Ronnie Cuber: baritone saxophone
Ada Rovatti: tenor saxophone
Fred Wesley: trombone
Michael Davis: trombone
Adam Rogers: guitar
Chris Taylor: guitar
Chris Minh Doky: bass
Gary Haase: bass, programming
George Whitty: keyboards, programming
Clarence Penn: drums
Zach Danziger: drum programming
Makeeba Mooncycle: voice
J Phoenix: vocals
Recorded February 5 – 9, 2002
Tracks 3, 6 and10
recorded live at Bennett Studio Englewood NJ, by Dae Bennett;
Additional Horns recorded at Campo Recording Studio NYC, NY, by George Whitty;
Additional recording: Wonderland Nyack by Randy Brecker, Phil Pagano, Gary Haase, Chris Minh Doky and Adam Rogers
George Whitty, except 2, 4, and 9, produced by Gary Haase
Co-produced and Pre-Production Programming by Randy Brecker
Mixed by George Whitty
Mastered by Greg Calbi
Randy Brecker’s last release (Hangin’ in the City) was one strange puppy, a handful of serviceable tunes wound tightly around the convoluted perversion of “Randroid,” the trumpeter’s streetwise cabbie alter-ego. Brecker wisely got back to the groove this time around, leaving this disc’s few vocals to more capable hands. The result is a highly entertaining album showcasing his strong suits of trumpet playing and composition, yet still maintaining a 21st century sensibility.
The ensembles range from quartet to octet in size, all sounding much more than their sum thanks to Brecker’s arranging skills. His trumpet and flugelhorn are the centerpieces most of the time, with outstanding contributions from brother Michael, bassist Chris Minh Doky, Ronnie Cuber, David Sanborn, Fred Wesley and other compadres. The leader must be one of the hippest white guys in the business, having nailed various aspects of black popular music down pat. Hip-hop beats color “All 4 Love” without sounding generic; a muted Brecker recalls Miles around the time of Star People, while J Phoenix’s layered vocals bring a more fashionable vibe. Makeeba Mooncycle paints vocal accents and scattered words onto the canvas of “Streeange,” giving the impression, if nothing else, of a mere phone call in the background.
Less stereotypical urban sounds are also explored. The intro to “Foregone Conclusion” briefly recalls “Somewhere Out There” but blessedly moves into more appealing territory. “Tokyo Freddie” is a breakneck slice of neo-bop; “The Fisherman” leans close to Weather Report; heavy percussion and George Whitty’s electric piano contribute to the intense urgency of “Hula Dula.” These rank among Brecker’s best compositions and will hopefully stay in his repertoire for some time. Low points: the rather uninteresting “Give It Up,” which would fare better were it not imbedded among so many stronger compositions, and the general sense of sameness among the many minor keys and dark moods. High marks to Adam Rogers’ cookin’ guitar on “Shanghigh,” Ronnie Cuber on the title track, and the whole bloody band for negotiating the difficult rhythms of “Let It Go.” One of Brecker’s best releases in a career full of hills and valleys; bravo for a successful evaluation of the state of jazz today.
Todd S. Jenkins (All About Jazz)