Monday, September 18, 2017

Randy Brecker: Indy Jazz Fest welcomes back to Naptown a durable trumpeter-bandleader-composer

Randy Brecker and I are contemporaries, so it was a coincidental boost to my mental hold on youth to appreciate how robust a
Portrait time at the Jazz Kitchen: Kenny Phelps (from left), Rob Dixon, Randy Brecker, Nick Tucker, and Steve Allee.
trumpeter he remains after decades before the public.

The trumpeter turns 72 at the end of November; I dialed up that number on Sunday at the Jazz Kitchen, where Brecker was the Indy Jazz Fest's guest star with a band of local all-stars known as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

A clever composer with a puckish sense of humor, Brecker opened his first set leading the quintet through his "There's a Mingus Amonk Us," the punning title reflecting inspiration from 20th-century jazz titans Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Both the bassist and the pianist were highly influential to jazzmen during the formative years of Randy and his brother Michael, a powerful tenor saxophonist who died 10 years ago.

The tune starts out Monkish, with quirky harmonies and short phrases, then easily passes into the smoother but characteristically rambunctious style of Mingus. There were solo choruses all around, then exchanges — first eight bars each, then four,  between the hornmen and pianist on one hand, the drummer on the other. This is often the kind of format that pick-up small groups employ to get everyone used to each other; it quickly appeared that minimal rehearsal beforehand had been sufficient to get the band into high gear.

Brecker obviously admired his sidemen for the occasion: tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. He expressed his pleasure in between songs along with a few brief stories on his works' origins. "Shanghigh," for example, not surprisingly came out of an experience involving recreational drugs in China. Disco music was involved at the time, and so this peppy piece proceeded over a a steady disco beat.

Dixon, playing a horn new to him while his regular axe is in the shop, sounded remarkably at home. Though he always sounds like himself, he seemed to be channeling the Brecker brothers' roots in Philadelphia r&b and back beyond that to John Coltrane (who was based in the City of Brotherly Love for a while). There were "sheets-of-sound" aspects in his solo that channeled early and middle Coltrane, modified by Michael's bar-walking affinity for funky pop, a genre adapted profitably for jazz in the 1970s by the Brecker Brothers band.

Also notable in "Shanghigh" was the firm yet understated underpinning Phelps gave to Tucker's solo. The coming-together of disparate experiences continued with  "O Corko Mio," an attractive piece written by Brecker's wife, Ada Rovatti, an adept saxophonist who's part of the trumpeter's regular touring band. The theme is rooted in aspects of Irish folk music, the band having been working in Ireland at the time she wrote it. In one of his well-articulated solos, Brecker drew on both the florid lyricism of his wife's Italian homeland and the modal characteristics of the Celtic tradition. I liked the witty manner with which Allee climaxed his solo with chiming chords. Phelps followed with an effervescent solo before the end.

Brecker graciously included a piece each by Allee and Dixon. Allee's "Ebony" had the urban elan of his memorable compositions for "New York in the Fifties," the TV realization of a Dan Wakefield memoir. Dixon's enchanting "Twilight Dusk" brought forth from the saxophonist a solo that made his ownership of the material crystal-clear. There was some simultaneous improvisation in the hornmen's paraphrased return to the tune near the end.

In between, everyone got a chance to stop reading charts to offer "Body and Soul," which drew particularly rich lyricism from Brecker. The well-received set ended with a romp through Brecker's "Free Fall," which righted itself superbly after a false start.

Apart from his well-preserved chops and the oomph and brilliance that continue to come out when he plays, Brecker also struck a chord with me when he made gentle fun of the ubiquitous shortening of the city's name to "Indy." "We used to call it Naptown," he said in his first spoken interlude to the full house. He used the old nickname without a trace of disparagement, but accompanied "Indy" with a little eye-rolling. Exactly!

"Naptown" never implied that Indianapolis suffered from narcolepsy, I believe, while "Indy" always sounds a  bit like baby talk to me. Hey, I'm an old man. I don't have to make my peace with "Indy." So, kudos to the Indy Jazz Fest for bringing Randy Brecker back to Naptown.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]