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Nick Brignola: Between A Rock And The Jazz Place

Rob Rosenblum By

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I went through years of playing very good music and I starved. I feel this way I'm going to be able to play all kinds of music and still make a living and maintain a very unique group that nobody else has. A lot of other musicians can't do this. —Nick Brignola
This interview was originally published in 1969 in an Albany, New York area arts publication called Transition. It documents a time when saxophonist Nick Brignola was in the process of trying to break out of the confines of bebop and incorporate some of the elements of fusion that was beginning to dominate the jazz market.

There are many references to a recording he was in the process of making. It was never formally released, although it has been available as a bootleg on line.

Brignola did experiment with fusion, both with his group that he had at the time of this interview and with a group called Petrus, which included Phil Markowitz, Gordon Johnson and Ted Moore a few years later. But his career took a sharp upward turn when he was re-discovered by Bee Hive Records, that placed him in the company of Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne, focusing on his baritone sax. That lead to a variety of highly regarded bebop albums on other labels, often with great jazz veterans like Roy Haynes and Kenny Barron.

Brignola died prematurely in 2002 at the age of 66 and is known primarily for his baritone saxophone playing. However, he was also accomplished on alto, soprano and clarinet, which he included on most of his later recordings.

Below is the text of the original interview:

Nick Brignola is probably the most familiar local musical name in the Albany, New York area. He has achieved this by virtue of his ability to pour out music that is always quite good and occasionally reaches prodigious heights.

Brignola has toured the world, as well as most of the U.S. with the big band of Woody Herman and a small group with trumpeter Ted Curson. As a result of this trip and an album called this Is It! his name jumped to the top of the Down Beat critic poll. Unfortunately, and through no musical fault of his own, Nick has never been very well known outside the capital district. Now that he has formed a jazz unit with many rock over tones and now that he has a record due out in a couple of months, it seems inevitable that his group will become one of the most highly respected in the country. Meanwhile, he continues to pack them in anywhere he goes and adding to a near fanatical following that have been sprouting from the seeds of Nick's genius.

Rob Rosenblum: How did you get in a rock-jazz bag?

Nick Brignola: About four years ago, after a successful tour of Europe. I returned to the states and found that jazz was still in the background—still in the minority—and there were a lot of rock things happening (much of which was bad). So, I felt I could do something in that direction. I have a group that I keep in mind that would be the best in the world, with or without the present company, because they would be able to do everything and be able to do it well; must be able to go in any direction. I feel I have those makings right now.

RR: What about the old saying, "Jack of all trades, master of none?"

NB: I don't think that will apply here because I think we will be able to do all those things and do them well.

RR: You say all things -does that include classical music?

NB: Yeah. Like our bassist plays cello and bass. Just the instrumentation I have and the classical training Don York (piano) has, we can get into those things. The only thing is... you're looking at me kind of weird. You're looking at me like a die-hard jazz fan.

But music is getting so big that you can't be limited to one thing and any one who does is cutting their head off. That's why people like Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody aren't making it today even though they are great musicians. They refuse to join other forms of music.

RR: If it is good music...?

NB: But that doesn't mean a thing. I went through years of playing very good music and I starved. I feel this way I'm going to be able to play all kinds of music and still make a living and maintain a very unique group that nobody else has. A lot of other musicians can't do this. I can't picture Elvin Jones even thinking this way—or even Miles.

RR: Is Elvin Jones where it's at?

NB: No, but he is a great jazz musician.

RR: Is he playing dynamic music now?

NB: I think Elvin has stopped growing musically about a year and a half ago. Now, if Elvin surrounded himself with some creative younger people he would probably go in another direction. Jazz musicians love to inhibit themselves. they're so concerned with playing their music. they feel that if they play long enough people will start to like them. That's a lot of baloney. You got to make certain changes because the world changes, and you have to constantly build new audiences. You can't depend on the older audience because they don't support music any more. You have to go to younger people. They have better taste. Whether it's phony or not I don't know, but they are more receptive to digging new music.

RR: Do you think that a lot of people out there really understand what you're doing?

NB: It's not a question of understanding, it's a question of liking. You don't have to understand something to like it.

RR: Why do they like it?

NB: I think there's a lot of energy and excitement created there. You have to be a corpse not to dig it -you have to be laid out. If you're sitting there and we're into something you don't have to understand it. If you can feel the generation of energy, that alone is enough to say, "Yeah!" On the other hand you more likely won't understand, it unless you're a musician. But that's the way jazz is, isn't it?

RR: But in that case aren't a lot of things you do wasted?

NB: Sure. A lot of things everybody does is wasted. Don't tell me that Coltrane consistently played great solos nor did Bird.

RR: But if he did, it really wouldn't matter. They'll be as crazy over you when you play great music as when you don't.

NB: I don't think so. Here's the thing I find. Anybody that doesn't have talent or musicianship can't make the changes when a new style comes in. Take a group like Chicago—they do it. It's like a fight. You have to have the brains, talent, and musicianship to go 15 rounds. If you do, then you'r alright. You have to be equipped. The only thing that's in our way at this point is skulls. We don't think alike in a lot of ways, which we maybe aren't expected to do. But we're so busy making this album, I figure after it's done we'll be able to sit down and really get into some music.

RR: What are some of the other hang-ups of making an album?

NB: Work. We've been in there four or five weeks now and we have it half done. This is because we're really challenging ourselves. For example, we're overdubbing horn parts. In some tracks you're going to hear five or six horns playing, and they'll all be me. Also, we do an arrangement a certain way and when you record it, it doesn't sound the way you thought it sounded so you have to make changes. Plus we're working with a producer and he has to put in his two cents. but he has to be listened to. I really think that this album is going to get us out front.

RR: What about the type of guy I've heard you talk about who sits behind the desk with a big cigar in his mouth and runs the music business. Is he there too?

NB: I feel that that guy is the Madison Avenue guy who creates things for people to buy. He stays up all night thinking of gimmicks that he can lay on the public so he'll jump to it. And his job is to type this thing. The producer is trying to reach the widest audience. He's not creating a product. The product is already there.

RR: Isn't there somebody there who says, "No, you can't do that because the public won't buy it?"

NB: Yeah, that's always the way it is.

RR: And who is that? The producer?

NB: It's also me sometimes.

RR: What are some of the things that you're doing in the album that you wouldn't like to do?

NB: I don't really know because everything I do on this albums is something I'm really going to like to do, believe it or not. Even though they are not in the context that I'm usually associated with. For example, the album is about 60% vocal. But there's enough blowing on it and enough musicianship that I believe it represents our group well.

RR: If someone felt that deleting vocals would go over better, would you go along with that?

NB: Yeah.

RR: Would you prefer to do that?

NB: You have to remember that I'm a horn player, and what I do best is play horn. So, naturally I'd like an album where I blow my horn the whole album. But that isn't where it is. This time I'm in the game to win. I'm not just worried about a good performance, because I've already done that and will continue to do good performances when I'm put in a situation where I can relax and put in a good performance, which is at a hip place where I can play what I want. But now the job is to get the group out front and make waves.

RR: It seems that a record, to you, is not so much a media of expression, but rather a form of advertisement.

NB: No, because I feel it can be both. It can be both good music and salable. A lot of groups don't make it because it's commercial enough, but it lacks quality and musicianship and substance.

RR: But why don't you play what you have on records when you're at clubs like the Cellar or at concerts?

NB: The people who know us are going to come and see us regardless of what record we put out. But what about those in South Bend, Indiana, who never heard this group? They're going to like us because of our record. And because of our flexibility we can play behind a group like Chicago. Let's face it—most people who go to hear Chicago are faddists. But there are a minority who are going there to hear them play good music, not hit records. When we play opposite them, we're playing to our kind of audience. We can do these kind of things. When we played opposite Cat Stevens we were playing along side a group that was diametrically opposite of us. We made the mistake of playing what we wanted to play and we went over like a lead balloon. If we were able to do Stevens' kind of music, we would have done an exceptional job. That would be a money gig, so I shouldn't go out there to do my artistic thing, because that wasn't that kind of audience. I was there only for the dust.

Some day we will be the main group rather than a warm up and we'll play what we want.

RR: But isn't it true that the people that really appreciate your playing and as a result your group are basically jazz fans?

NB: Sure, because that's where I came from. But listen to the group. It's not just me in that group. There's a lot of other things happening. And this makes the group five dimensional really. So, in order to hear our group you have to hear us for three hours and then you'll have an idea of what we do. That's why we have to make this record -to be heard. We have to make concessions on it, no doubt about it, but at least they're musical. It's not bad, just like well played Hawaiian music isn't bad.

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