|July 29, 2011||By: Cheryl Boone Los Angeles,CA|
With “Rick Braun Sings With Strings”, Trumpeter Rick Braun bridges a very special part of his early years with his present to bring home romantic melodies, beautiful vocals and lush orchestration. Smooth Jazz Magazine caught up with Rick by phone just before leaving on his trip to Germany, and fell in love all over again with tunes that warm the heart and reminds us just how special love is.
SJM: How did you originally come up with the concept and the name for “Rick Braun Sings With Strings”?
Rick: Well the name of the CD I kind of came up with later on in the project. We were actually going to call it "Lucky To Be Me", but since it is basically me doing something entirely new, I mean singing with an orchestra is something I have never done in my entire career, we decided to entitle it “Rick Braun Sings With Strings” so there would be no doubt about what the record is. It pretty much says what’s going on musically on the record, and then people will know and it puts the sign post out there saying this is something brand new, check it out. The concept to the record is people may not know this about me but my very first big tour when I first moved to Los Angeles was as a background singer with a really famous Greek artist named Demis Roussos; I went to Australia with him. These songs and the concept of the record is an outgrowth of my love for great melodies.
SJM: You’ve also done vocals in the past for other artist, correct?
Rick: Yes, later on in my career I was in Rod Stewart’s band and background singing was a significant part of my duties in that band, along with trumpet playing and keyboards and then of course I toured with Sade. The 3 reasons I got the gig with Sade was first of all I was tall and I looked good standing next to Leroy Osbourne; secondly I could sing and the third reason was that I could play trumpet. So you see background singing has been a part of my career for a good portion of my life as an artist.
SJM: Growing up, was listening to these jazz/pop songs a staple in your household, or how were you first introduced to them?
Rick: Ooh way early on in my life, my mother, was a self-taught singer, piano and banjo player, and she would constantly have Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett or Sinatra on, so I grew up listening to a lot of this music and it was kind of like coming home and doing something I’ve wanted to do my whole life.
SJM: How was it working with an orchestra versus a band?
Rick: Well we’ve already done our first live show and this was the very first time on any project that I’ve performed an entire record before its release. We were at the Berks Jazz Festival and I performed the entire record with the Reading Pops Orchestra. So to answer your question, (laughter) it was fantastic. To hear the sound of all those violins, cellos, basses and harps and all those wonderful orchestral instruments being played live on stage by people who’ve practiced them for years and the energy that I was a part of was magnificent.
SJM: How long have you wanted to do this project?
Rick: Well you know I had a record out as a rock and roll type pop singer back in the late 70s and it was released in Japan. They never released it in the United States but it was on a small label in Japan and I’ve written a lot of pop songs there. I’ve written for REO Speedwagon with Kevin Cronin and I was a staff writer for Warner Chappell, so I was doing writing and singing demos of songs all along my career. So this was something I’ve really had in my mind and really in my heart to do for many years. And originally when I started out I wanted to be a recording artist as a singer.
SJM: How did you choose Philippe Saisse as the producer and how was it working with him?
Rick: Philippe is an incredible talent. He orchestrated some of the original Rod Stewart Songbook record and I think on his second one as well. He's had prior experience doing this sort of thing at a very high level. He’s also done string arrangements and worked with the Rolling Stones. He’s good friends with Michelle Legrand who recorded one of his songs from the CD. He’s just an amazing talent and he’s one of my dear, dear friends. And if you’re not familiar with his solo work Cheryl, you should check it out because he also produced one of my favorite records of all time for Gato Barbieri called Que Pasa. He produced that record and it’s a fantastic record. Philippe is my neighbor; I worked with him in New York; I met him through Jeff Golub probably about 10 years ago and we became good friends and admirers of each other and when it came time to do this record I was so honored that Philippe was willing to do it and he just did an amazing job. He does wonderful records and though he’s not that well known as an artist, he has made some incredible, wonderful records over his career.
SJM: Rick was this album a stretch for you creatively and do you want to do more projects of this type?
Rick: Yes! Yes it was a stretch but the desire to do it and knowing that…well I hate to put it this way because I’m not that old, but it was kind of a bust or miss record for me. I needed to do this record before I die lol. Before I said all the things I needed to say musically this was a project I needed to do. It was challenging and I didn’t know how it would turn out as we started the project. But when I started singing I was pleasantly surprised to feel my vocals getting stronger; feeling my intonations better, and my phrasing getting more and more natural. Doing this record has solidified my feeling that I can do this. And it is something that I want to continue to do. I don’t see this as a “one of” project. I picture this as something I will be doing from now on.
SJM: How does it feel singing songs that were made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Torme etc?
Rick: In one word, humbling. It’s very humbling because you’ve just named all the people whom I respect and admire so much and have been listening to for so many years. And the challenge for me, especially on a song like “The Good Life” which Tony Bennett absolutely owns that song, or “I Thought About You” which Frank Sinatra owns that, there are so many songs that I’ve heard sung by other artist and I tried to put my own individuality on it. And I tried to focus on the sincerity of the lyrics and focus on the message and the simplicity of the message rather than trying to outdo anybody who’d done it before because there is no way I’m going to outdo Tony Bennett, or Frank Sinatra or Chet Baker. I needed to find my own individual voice and say what I needed to say. That’s how I have forged a career as a trumpet player and I come from the same melodic song place when I approached the vocals.
SJM: Even though you have a fantastic voice, did you have any vocal coaching in preparation for “Sings With Stings”?
Rick: I did, I actually did, lol. There’s a vocal coach here in LA whose name is Bob; he’s a vocal, acting and performance coach. Peter White also studied performance with him. I went in and I had some of the tracks that we were already building for the record, and I sung them for Bob. He basically said to me you’re there. You’re sounding fine and he gave me a couple of exercises to do; a couple of words of advice to open up my register and especially the lower register because that’s an area that I wasn’t feeling as secure in as I was in the higher register. And he helped me a lot with that and to be comfortable singing in a lower, closer to a baritone register than being in the tenor area.
SJM: Outside of artist like Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble’, male jazz vocalist of this caliber aren’t as prominent in the smooth jazz arena. Do you think this project will encourage or inspire more male artist to step forth and do more of the same?
Rick: I don’t know. Every artist has their own direction, their own dreams, strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s nice for me that there aren’t that many artist out there, singers, doing this, but there is room. I mean it’s not like I trying to play saxophone. I am grateful that there is room for someone else to step up and fill in the blanks. If it does inspire somebody else to go this route, I think that’s fantastic.
SJM: You mentioned earlier that when you first became an artist that you wanted to do vocals but you ended up playing the trumpet and you’ve kind of come full circle back to what you originally wanted to do. But on this project you’re not playing trumpet. You’re playing the Flugelhorn. How different would the results have been if you’d played the trumpet?
Rick: Well listen, first of all you’ve done your homework; you’ve really listened to this record and read the liner notes, and I don’t know if you’d had the chance to check out any of the making of videos we’ve posted, but it’s really neat. We shot a HD Video of the process, did you get to see any of those?
SJM: Thank you and yes I have seen the videos.
Rick: Thank you for doing your homework (laughter) that’s really cool. It’s always tough to talk to someone who doesn’t know anything about what you’re doing. I’m sorry, what was the question again (more laughter)? I got side tracked there…
SJM: (Laughing) you played the Flugelhorn instead of the Trumpet?
Rick: Oh yeah, well we talked about it and no one has done this. No one has done Flugelhorn and vocals. There have been trumpet players like Louie Armstrong, Clark Terry, Chet Baker and others, who have done vocals, but nobody has done it on Flugelhorn. And what I love about the Flugelhorn and the reason I’ve had so much success with it, “Hollywood and Vine”, and “Notorious” were both on the Flugelhorn or had it featured, is because I feel it’s a really nice warm welcoming sound, where as the trumpet, if I’m not careful, and I put too much air into it, it can be a very brassy and boisterous instrument. And this record is not brassy or boisterous; it’s romantic, warm and inviting. And that’s the sound of a Flugelhorn. I kind of equate it to like comparing an alto saxophone to a tenor. To my ears a tenor saxophone is warm and an alto you think of David Sanborn or someone like that; its more boisterous. We wanted to keep this album warm and inviting.
SJM: We talked briefly about the “making of” videos earlier and on there was a segment about Al Schmitt doing your mixing. Since he also worked with Frank Sinatra, and Frank being one of your influences, how was that experience of having him work on this project?
Rick: This record would not be what it is without Al Schmitt and he took it a step further and involved Doug Sax who mastered, and mastering in the next step to mixing, the final part of the project. Al Schmitt stepped in and agreed to work on the record almost as a favor, because we didn’t have enough money to pay what he usually gets. And not only did he mix the record, but you know Al I think has won 7 Grammys, and he has recorded Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, Eric Benet, Diana Krall Live and George Benson. He’s recorded everybody; I mean everybody. So when he agreed to mix it and to mix it at Capitol Records, where they have live echo chambers and the same echo chambers that you hear on my voice and Flugelhorn are the exact same ones used on Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. So this record has an authenticity to it because of Al and because of where we mixed that couldn’t exist without him.
SJM: I have to ask you about one song in particular, “Plus Je Tembrasse”, on which you’re singing in French. Are you’re fluent in French or did you learn it just for this song?
Rick: I cheated, it’s also on my bucket list as well to learn French before I get my big show live in Paris, (laughter). And I’m hoping it comes sooner than later so I’m forced to study my rear end off to get there. Of course Philippe is from Paris, and he’s actually a French Knight, and he’s grew up in Paris and then Nice , and we saw that song and he said “do you think you could learn to sing this?” He said this is such a great song. I said well let me try. And he wrote it out for me phonetically and he was just like the French Schoolmaster with me. It was a no mercy approach to learning how to sing it. And then he got Jasmine Roy to sing with me (she’s a French pop star over there). She recorded her part in Paris and the French Violinist whose name I’ve forgotten at this point, he recorded his parts in Paris and then we combined all the parts in Hollywood and mixed it. But it’s a real fascinating story about that song.
SJM: Well you did a great job with that song and though I don’t know French, you sound flawless to me.
Rick: Hey thank you Cheryl (laughing) you know what’s interesting is that my kids now know how to sing it. So they’re singing it in French and they don’t have a clue what they’re singing either. But the lyrics are actually very romantic; they are talking about the more I hold you, the more I want to hold you. The more I see you, the more I want to see you. The more I kiss you, the more I want to kiss you. So it’s a very romantic lyric.
SJM: I actually translated the words from French to English to see what you were singing about, (laughing)
Rick: You are good! I like that. And you know what’s really interesting about this song is that it’s over 100 years old and it was originally a Barber Shop Quartet song called “Heart of My Heart”. I didn’t know that about the song and I came back here and was singing it for my sister and she was like I know that song.
SJM: It’s hard to have just one favorite off this album, so my personal favorites are, “Time After Time”, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, “I Thought About You” and of course “Plus Je Tembrasse”. But I love the strings at the beginning of “Time After Time” and thought that it was a great and dramatic way to start the album. Was that the effect you were going for?
Rick: That song was the one that when I went to sing the vocals, after not having had much sleep, and tossing and turning wondering if I was doing the right thing, it was very stressful. So I went over to Philippe’s house to sing “Time After Time”, and of course it’s the highest song on the record and it’s a very challenging song to sing, and we did 2, 3, 4 takes and it just wasn’t happening. I was ready to give up and Philippe said, let’s give it one more time. And that’s the take that ended up being the keeper. And if you listen to the record, my voice on that song is a little more raspy, and it was because I was so tired that day. But I tried to do it again later and decided it’s just the way it needed to be.
SJM: What are your favorites on here?
Rick: Oh gosh it depends on what day it is, but one is the Leonard Bernstein song, “Lucky To Be Me”. When we found that song I thought what a beautiful melody (Rick actually begins to sing, What a night, suddenly you came in sight…) and just the thought that there is a Leonard Bernstein song on here is incredible. I also like “Once Upon Summertime”; it’s a beautiful song and the one I’ve been doing live when we do a show.
SJM: What are you hoping your fans will get from the album and what do you think their reactions will be?
Rick: I know there are going to be a handful of people who are going to look at this and say this is a little bit to different for me. This is not the Rick Braun that I know and I’m ready to accept that. But what I hope will happen and be their reaction is that he’s singing. Wait a minute; oh he’s singing and I didn’t know he could do this. I’m hoping that people will be touched by the record and the sincerity of it and come along for the ride. I hope they love it.
SJM: Well let’s see, since it’s coming out in August, come next May if you go to the malls maybe you’ll see a lot more baby carriages, laughter.
Rick: (Laughing hysterically) that would be great. Maybe I should put a disclaimer on here to be careful who you listen to this with.
SJM: What’s next for you?
Rick: Well I’m trying to get the word out to symphony orchestras, community orchestras, and university orchestras and of course the big orchestras that there is something new that they can include in their concert series, and it’s me. Because to hear this music with a live orchestra Cheryl is really something.
SJM: Rick, I love the album and I thank you so much for allowing me to talk with you about it and the overall scope the project.
Rick: Thank you as well and it was a pleasure talking with you too. All of us are counting on you and Smooth Jazz Magazine and other like you to spread the word now that radio has absolutely gone by the wayside. We’re counting on you to help keep our careers going and I appreciate you helping to get the word out there.
From Rick’s CD cover complete with an argyle pattern, vintage broadcast mic and fedora resting on his horn to his beautiful choice of romantic songs, “Rick Braun Sings With Strings” brings it all home. So sit back, close your eyes and enjoy with someone special.
Photo By: Anna Webber
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