December 16, 2014


Nick Brignola - On a Different Level

"Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" (from the album):

"My Foolish Heart" (from a local public television concert): 

The baritone sax, unlike its higher-pitched brothers has never made much of a mark outside of jazz.  And within jazz its star practitioners have been far less numerous than the great alto and tenor players.  This is due, most obviously, to the large size of the instrument and the practical challenges it takes a lot of strength to play it and even more just to carry it around.  (In an old Robert Klein routine, he tells of his father castigating him after he takes up the bari in high school: "Don't be a shmuck, play the flute.  It folds up; you can carry it in your pocket.")   It is a beautiful instrument, though - singing, yet masculine, in the upper register; barking gruffly in the lower.  And while the number of star bari players is relatively small, they represent a collection of unique jazz voices: Harry Carney, the first great baritone player, provided the sonic foundation for Duke Ellington's band for over 40 years; Gerry Mulligan was the leading proponent of the West Coast/Cool School style; Serge Chaloff, one of Woody Herman's "Four Brothers," proved that the technical intricacies of bebop could be wrestled out of the big horn, showing the way to such bop/hard bop stylists as Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Cuber and today's featured artist, Nick Brignola.

Brignola is the nominal leader of this 1989 session, but he is joined by a rhythm section of absolutely top-rank stars, each of whom could have been giving top billing: Kenny Barron (piano), Dave Holland (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums).  This great band tackles a wonderful and interesting selection of tunes, including compositions by classic jazz masters (Ellington and Benny Carter) and more modern jazzmen (Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Tadd Dameron), a couple of standards from the Great American Songbook (both, coincidentally, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstien), and an original by one of the band (Holland's country rock-inflected "Backwoods Song"). 

While Brignola is featured and in great form throughout, three tracks in particular highlight the skills and contributions of each player.  "All the Things You Are," a Jerome Kern standard that was a favorite of beboppers, is taken at a suitably brisk pace and shows off DeJohnette's active and colorful drumming.  With his snare drum rolls and accents, cymbal hits and tight swing on the high hat, he's not just marking time, but effectively playing a duet with Brignola and Barron during their solos.  Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" was a ballad showpiece for Carney, and here Barron lays out, giving plenty of space to bassist Holland, who plays with a bow for the first 16 bars, before the trio goes into double time for the balance of the head and the solos.  "Key Largo" is also normally a ballad, but here is played with an up-tempo Latin beat that suits the tune perfectly.   Kenny Barron solos first, with his usual joyful mix of melodicism and rhythmic drive.

Posted by at December 16, 2014 8:04 AM

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