Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Nick Brignola: Roaring and Soaring on Baritone Saxophone

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“He favored the big side of the horn, playing a hard-bop vocabulary with great power and command. … his virtues are a great sound, great time, smart tune selection, and a band that cooks at a great temperature.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th ED.

Having previously posted features on baritone saxophonists Pepper Adams, Serge Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan, Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to spend a little time with the music of Nick Brignola.

As Jazz author and critic, Herb Wong has pointed out: “Although the baritone saxophone is his instant identification, Brignola has a masterful command of a veritable arsenal of a dozen woodwind instruments.” In addition to Nick’s work on baritone, I am especially fond of his work on soprano saxophone.

When Nick solos, the burners are switched on to maximum for as his counterpart on baritone saxophone, Gary Smulyan proclaims: “Nick doesn’t just blow into the horn – he screams into it!”

As is the case with Smulyan, Nick started off as an alto saxophone/clarinet player.

“‘A little more wind and you can play the same stuff.’

Maybe not one of the more interesting quotes in jazz history, but that remark — made by ‘the guy at the music store’ where aspiring alto saxophonist/clarinetist Nick Brignola went to get his alto repaired — changed the course of Brignola's musical life back in the distant '50s. See, the guy at the store didn't have an alto to lend Nick, so, since the baritone's in the same key, he laid the big horn on him.

‘When I brought it on the gig,’ says Nick, ‘the musicians that were on the gig — well, I guess they just hadn't heard a baritone, 'cause they all wigged out. It was like. 'Oh, that's the axe you should play.’” [Lee Jeske, insert notes to Raincheck, Reservoir RSR CD 106].

In interviews, Nick ventured that he was “trying to showcase the baritone saxophone which I think is the horn that best expresses me” and added that what he was trying to do with his music was “… to make a statement, extending the range of the horn.”

When you listen to what Nick can do on the baritone sax, there seems to be little doubt that he has accomplished his objective. The man is all over the axe and seems to take it wherever he wants to go – effortlessly.

This ease of execution on such an awkward instrument can lead to taking what Nick does on the baritone sax for granted until you stop and realize the complexity of the  improvisations he is creating.

“When I start playing, swinging is automatic,” Brignola notes, “and I like playing long interesting lines utilizing substitute chord changes.”

Trombonist Bill Watrous says of Nick: “His ideas are unending … he is unflagging and his thrust is unbending.”

Trumpeter Ted Curson observed: “Nick is a natural player. And lot’s of people can get into what he’s doing, but he doesn’t sound like any other musician.”

In his insert notes to Nick’s L.A. Bound CD [Night Life Records NLR 3007] Dr. Herb Wong comments that “Brignola’s solos are fiery and animated. … The character of his playing includes personalizing every note – whether the notes are part of a brief comment or an elongated musical essay.

A value judgment from Woody Herman adds a summary of interest. He has said on several occasions that besides the late Serge Chaloff [the vanguard bop baritone saxophonist of the early Herman “Herd” on the 1940s], he would cite Nick Brignola as ‘the other dynamite baritone player’ he has really dug in the bands that he has led over his 40+ year career as a bandleader.”

With the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facility at StudioCerra, we have developed the following video tribute to Nick on which he is joined by trombonist Bill Watrous, pianist Dwight Dickerson, bassist John Heard and drummer Dick Berk in a performance of Horace Silver’s Quicksilver.

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