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Tour De Force by Nick Brignola

I was shocked when I learned that Nick Brignola had passed away on February 8 from an extended struggle against cancer. For, I had just received his most recent--and now his last--CD for review, and he never sounded better. How could a cancer victim play such a difficult instrument so aggressively and yet so sensitively? A check of the liner notes, then, revealed that the Tour De Force session was recorded in December of 2000, even though it is just now being released.

From the first tune, fellow upstate New Yorker Dave Holland's "Backwoods Song," to the final gambol of Dave Santoro's "Indigo Rays," it's evident that Brignola was one of the instrument's master craftsmen, building a solo from on-the-spot inspiration with technical effortlessness, the saxophone a means for expressing what he felt. While some of the jazz publications have characterized Tour De Force as a CD weighted down with standards, that description is literally less than half true. Three of the tunes are new compositions by Brignola or his guitarist, Chuck D'Aloia, while Holland's and Santoro's tunes unfortunately don't qualify for standards status.... yet.

Even more important, Brignola's beguiling approachability belies the fact that Tour De Force offers contrasts within consistency. "Donna Lee" possesses only fleeting references to Charlie Parker's bebop melody and instead unabashedly refers to the original conception of the, after all, simple song, "Back Home Again In Indiana." Or just as the listener has Brignola pegged as a big band-cum-bebop saxophonist, Brignola composes the not-quite-free-jazz delight, "Labyrinth," Brignola and D'Aloia swirling in a controlled frenzy over the tune's repetitive pattern. Or, coyly or not, after Brignola sets us up to expect a Mulligan-like affair of upper-register delicacy and refinement on, for example, "Local Motion," he reveals later that such a sound is only one component of his entire range over the instrument, his irresistible swing on "Sweets" Edison's "Centerpiece" rising from the signature vamp to a classic solo of altissimo wailing cascading into a low-C growl.

In spite of Brignola's apparent traditionalism, he followed an inherent sense of rightness that spilled over into the integrity of his music. Largely self-taught on the baritone sax, Brignola developed professionally into one of its greatest practitioners, having gained a respectful following but none of the somewhat celebrity of Gerry Mulligan. Playing on one of the better-selling contemporary big-band albums, "Woody Herman 1964" (during whose intended session on November 22, 1963, Rahsaan Roland Kirk announced to everyone that President Kennedy had been assassinated), Brignola preferred smaller groups. Having his fill of touring, Brignola withdrew to do local work in Albany until Ted Curson convinced Brignola to join him for a tour of Europe. Eschewing now-conventional forums like the IAJE conference and blithely unconcerned with his own reviews, Brignola nonetheless was flattered to win the Down Beat polls. Grudgingly joining the promotionally conceived Three Baritone Saxophone Band, Brignola reveled in experimentation in the possibilities of the instrument, particularly after meeting his idol, Harry Carney. Choosing the jazz musician's life of variable income, Brignola was able to live comfortably near Albany, New York, drive a sports car, own a house and raise a devoted family of successful children.

Brignola's choice of musicians on Tour De Force helps vary the feelings he intends to convey, a confident and joyous lightness cushioning his effortlessly furious harmonic investigations through sixteenth-note building blocks that create unexpected final forms. Rather than employing pianists like Kenny Barron or John Hicks, as he had in the past, Brignola asked guitarist and former student D'Aloia to rejoin him, and the results are deeply satisfying as the two of them lock in on every tune, particularly the duo version of "I Should Care." Eddie Gomez contributes his distinctive sound to the CD, as he does to every other recording on which he plays, imaginatively soloing with fluidity and strength, especially on "Local Motion," on which his haunting invention for ending tune reduces Brignola's intensity to the bass's softening ritardando. Performing for the first time with Bill Stewart, Brignola intended to generate another feel for the music from that on previous albums featuring drummers like Dick Berk or Billy Hart. Indeed, Stewart provides the lead-in for "Donna Lee" as Brignola improvises with only the drums as back-up on the first chorus. Stewart uses brushes to create the Latin atmosphere of "In Your Own Sweet Way," along with Café's percussion, or he uses the cymbals for dramatic effect on "Labyrinth."

But Brignola's voice, mixing a cry with a blurt or a logical twist with a melodic urgency, is the one that remains after the last tune, "Indigo Rays," slowly fades out like a passing Brazilian carnival street parade.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nick Brignola
  • CD Title: Tour De Force
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Reservoir
  • Rating: Five Stars
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