360°Sound recently had occasion to chat with contemporary jazz trumpeter and producer Rick Braun. The smooth jazz veteran’s 19th studio album Rick Braun drops February 11 on his independent label Brauntosarus Music. The upbeat and danceable new single “Feet First” is out now. It’s one of 10 original compositions on the record, which was recorded and self-produced at Braun’s home studio in southern California.
The Allentown, Pennsylvania native cut his teeth as a sideman, supporting such greats as Tom Petty, Sade, Rod Stewart and Tina Turner. Braun made his solo debut 30 years ago with Intimate Secrets. He went on to notch more than 20 #1 Smooth Jazz hits. In this exclusive interview, Braun talks about his new album, the inspiration of Miles Davis, the future of contemporary jazz, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: You’ve been releasing albums since 1992. Why did you decide that this one would be your first self-titled LP?
Rick Braun: This represents my first project on my label that is a smooth jazz/contemporary jazz record. It’s what I do, and it’s the first time I’m branching off and I’m not on an established label. It’s a new page in a lot of regards. In a business sense, it’s also the first time working with my executive producer on this project, Roy McClurg, who funded this record.
This is a record where there are no covers. Everything on the record is either solely written by me or co-written. It’s a real flagship record for me, a record that kind of makes a statement that this, more than any other record I’ve done, is about displaying what I do and having my hand on every aspect.
Tell us about the first single “Feet First” and how it came together.
My daughter Emma is 21 now. She’s a high-functioning autistic, and one of the things that she loves to do is to put music on at a really significant level out in the backyard. She says, ‘I’m going out to dance, Dad.’ She puts her outfit on and goes out there and just dances with absolute abandon and joy. Every record that I’ve done since she started like that has at least one song on it where I can picture her going out and dancing and it puts a smile on her face. I have to acknowledge that Emma is an inspiration to “Feet First,” and I think the title reflects that because if you get your feet there in a happening place the rest of you will follow.
You said, “With every project, every tour and each year that passes, I realize that as a musician and artist, I still have a long way to go before I am where I would like to be.” Where would you like to be?
I think every musician would like to be able to pick up their instrument and have it be second nature, to get rid of the limitations of the instrument. My instrument has three valves, and it’s made of plumbing. I picked that instrument because when I was 8 years old, my brother had played it, and there was one in the closet. I picked it up and started playing it. Without anybody telling me anything, I could get a sound out of it. That’s where the journey started. I fell in love with the sound of the horn. I was a closet trumpet player I guess you could say because I found the horn in the closet.
As the years progressed, I got better and better. But trumpet is an incredibly challenging instrument. If I don’t play one day and I try to go out and play in front of people, it’s not as good as it would’ve been had I played the day before. There’s a responsibility to the instrument. Trumpet is not one of those things you can walk away from and come back and have it be just as good as when you walked away.
There’s limitations physically and academically. Vince Lombardi said, ‘I never lost a game; I only ran out of time.’ With trumpet, I know for me it’s just going to be I ran out of time. I didn’t get it quite right or the way that I would have liked to. I think that’s just the journey of most musicians. You know you’re not going to get it perfect ever. You just keep trying to get better.
When you were learning trumpet, I’m sure you studied the greats, like Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard. How were you inspired by them while also developing your own unique voice?
For a long time, I wanted to just develop my own sound. I would listen to Freddie [Hubbard] or Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown or Miles Davis or Chet Baker. I would say, ‘I don’t want to learn their licks verbatim,’ but I would play along and get them by ear and get my simple thought version, especially when you’re talking Freddie Hubbard because he was virtuosic beyond belief. I would kind of adapt to it.
The process of developing your own voice is interesting because there are some people who are successful, but they’re still struggling to find their own voice because they’ve adapted different licks from different people. I think I found my voice, and it has a lot to do with the limitations that I have. I’m not a high note player. I’m not a Maynard Ferguson or a Dizzy Gillespie or a Clark Terry. I find that virtuosic.
I’m leaning more toward Miles Davis or Chet Baker. I’m not saying that I can play like them. I’m only saying those two guys were probably my biggest inspirations, especially Miles. He was just the coolest guy ever playing the horn – the persona, his choice of notes. Within the limitations he had, he certainly was brilliant.
What are some things you’ve learned about producing through the years?
I have produced quite a few things over the course of my life. It’s been some of the most joyous moments ever. I got a lot of decisions right and several of them wrong during the process. For me, it’s all about casting. In a movie, the producer is the guy who puts up the money. In music, the record company puts up the money, and the producer is the director.
One of the most important roles of a theatrical director is to make sure that you have a good script. My job would be to sort through songs that an artist would bring in and make sure we have the good script – the right songs that paint a picture with this artist and best represents what this artist does and pushes their career forward.
I like to use live musicians. I quickly grew out of the sequenced phase of let’s make everything a machine and get it perfect. If I listen back to the records that I chose that approach, I wish I could do them all over with great players. Another important part is casting. If you’re casting a movie and you want an evil dude and you know Dennis Hopper is that dude, you gotta get Dennis Hopper to play that part. There’s people that I use like on keyboards like Greg Phillinganes, Philippe Saisse, and David Garfield. That’s just keyboard, and you’ve gotta know what song works well.
And when you’re talking about drums, I have to think about the different personalities of drummers. Ricky Lawson was one of my favorite drummers; he could play just about anything. And then percussionists, there’s a different feel between Lenny Castro and Luis Conte. For me, being the director of the movie as a producer of music, it’s about the right people, the right songs, and trying my best to stay invisible and help the artist achieve their dream.
With smooth jazz, the fans obviously want it to be smooth. But is there a challenge when producing, in that you don’t want it to be too smooth and polished?
Spontaneity and personality and slight imperfections, like string sounds, are things that I value in music. There are imperfections on my new record. There are phrases where maybe there’s a note that’s not quite 100%. I’ll go back and try to make it as close to perfect as I can, but at the end of the day, inventing music is more important than perfection. Feel and emotion and something that grips the listener is more important than anything. If you don’t have a band playing it, you’re not getting the full measure of emotionality that’s available.
What do you think of the current state of contemporary jazz and how do you feel about the future of the genre?
I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate to have come into smooth jazz when I did. I came into it as it was a national phenomenon and there was a station in every major city and most secondary markets. There was an opportunity to become a big artist in the national scene if you connected with music, which I fortunately did.
It has changed significantly. It’s a lot more difficult for young artists to get traction. Even having a #1 radio hit now, the significance of that has diminished significantly. There’s a challenge. And is it going to get easier? Is it going to grow? I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. Our audience is an older audience. They’re a loyal, passionate audience and fortunately for us, they’re an affluent audience for the most part. Our shows and special events continue to be well attended.
I’d like to plead this, ‘I’m just a trumpet player.’ [laughs]. Nobody ever asks me what should be played on radio ever. Nobody ever asked me, ‘Where would you take this thing?’ I’ve never been a part of that conversation. My job has always been to make the best records I can make and make compelling music. I’m going to keep doing that as long as I’m above ground. The joke is, ‘The easiest job in the world is a retirement planner for a musician because retirement is like this, ‘Oh, what happened to Rick? He’s not on the gig?’ ‘Yeah, he died.’ [laughs].