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Nick Brignola: Big Horn, Strong Words

Rob Rosenblum By

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"A jam session is not a Sunday afternoon businessman's bounce for me," he told me. "I go up there after a guy's ass and expect him to be after mine.
This article first appeared in Coda Magazine in 1978.

With the possible exception of torture, there has never been an art form more maligned than jazz. So, it is inevitable that every once in a while there is an exceptional musician who finds that the financial rewards of being a jazz musician are too small, and its spiritual compensations too infrequent to continue this masochistic pursuit. Case in point—Nick Brignola.

If you say "Nick Who?" then it is understandable, for Brignola, after thrilling audiences the world over with Woody Herman and Ted Curson, on baritone and saxello, came back to his small home town community of Troy, New York, to be the big fish in the small pond and to slowly diminish into a "local" musician. He copied music, played commercial gigs and weddings, taught music and amused himself by becoming the local guru and hero and tearing up others in cutting sessions by calling upon only a small portion of his potential.

Like all jazz musicians, he found the late '50s and the first half of the '60s to be cold and hungry years. He supported himself and his family primarily by non-jazz employment. All too rarely he appeared in concerts and local clubs.

In 1967 he was given the opportunity to show his hand in front of some of the big names at the first jazz festival at the State University of Albany, New York. Dan Morgenstern of Downbeat was impressed with his playing and wrote, "he contributed robust, swinging improvisations" and "he performed on the big horn with feeling and flow."

In 1969 he produced a record independently before it became popular to do so. It was called This Is It (Priam 101). Reviewing the album, Pete Welding wrote that "Brignola is one of the better baritone players, with a striking command of the horn's full resources."

Welding continued by writing "Brignola's mastery of the baritone is impressive, but he is above all musical, full of blistering, hard playing... Let's hear from you again, Nick."

But although the world was ready for Brignola, he was not ready for the hardships of travel. He had paid his dues for years, and now he was only interested in an easy and economically secure life.

It seemed that things were about to happen for Nick in 1970 when he was chosen the baritone saxophonist most deserving of wider recognition in an international critics' poll. On the strength of this new exposure he formed a group which incorporated some of the new rock rhythms without sacrificing any of the spontaneity of jazz. This began a long and still standing association with a brilliant, though obscure pianist, Don York. A college jazz critic once described a typical Brignola performance of that period:

"Brignola enters on saxello, whining furiously while spiraling out of a fire fanned by Galleo (his drummer), who seems sympathetic to the various moods of the leader and by the wild, almost insane runs by York. Brignola is once again left alone, slashing and jumping, changing tempi constantly while occasionally alluding to the theme. The piano returns, followed by bass and finally drums. York and Brignola then demonstrate their skill in avant-garde jazz by frantically battling one another with no set rhythmic bass, but in a definite circular pattern. The song ends with the audience cheering madly."

It looked as though this new group was going to give Brignola the attention he deserved. The music was exciting and innovative. He captured the imagination of college audiences and was in constant demand for college concerts. At one such concert his group opened for Miles Davis, and his acceptance easily overshadowed—the response for the trumpet great. His group was contracted to Capital Records and was asked to record a soundtrack for a movie. The big breakthrough seemed imminent.

But once again, everything fell through. The record remained in Capitol's vaults, the group disbanded, and Brignola was back to playing weddings.

Looking back at his flirtation with rock, he told me, "It was a deviation and as such I welcomed it, and learned a lot from it. The drag of it was, it was also supposed to be a commercial thing. But it did free me, and prepare me for what I'm doing now."

This hiatus was a misleading one. Nick was getting impatient: ready to take on the world. He knew he was the best, and wanted everyone else to know it, too. When a club temporarily featured well known jazz artists, he was there, axe in hand, ready to destroy anyone in sight in a battle of musical minds. One such night Pepper Adams was in town. Nick got on the stand during the last set and ripped a series of astonishing choruses, frightening in their intensity. Ideas popped up that I had never heard him so much as approach before. He cut his fellow baritonist badly and Pepper, with a wry grin, knew it.

In the midst of an upsurge in jazz, Nick formed a group with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette called Friends. They drew record breaking crowds during their debut, and from the looks of things Nick was ready to once again pay those dues, so the world could hear him roar. The group lasted a couple of months.

Nearly a year later, in 1975, Nick joined up with a group that was previously a trio called Petrus. Pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Gordon Johnson and drummer Ted Moore, were all graduate from Eastman School of Music. They were a rock/jazz unit and their first concert with Nick, at the State University of New York at Albany drew nearly a thousand people. The response from the crowd was overwhelming and it looked like Nick was, once again, on the way up. He worked frequently with this new group, filling clubs with excited young jazz fans.

Several months later calamity struck. Markowitz had his van containing his electric piano stolen. Gordon Johnson, meanwhile, was signed up by Maynard Ferguson and Petrus was no more.

Brignola's hunger for fans had made him cynical. He resented critics for ignoring him. In an interview I did with him, he told me "Most critics read album covers and this is the basis for their criticism. It's a drag because in a way they have a say over your career. It's like putting your whole career in the hands of idiots."

He is also quick to attack those musicians who are no longer living up to their names or those plastic giants who never deserved to be popular in the first place. That and his love of competition is what often attracted him to sessions.

"A jam session is not a Sunday afternoon businessman's bounce for me," he told me. "I go up there after a guy's ass and expect him to be after mine. I always dig that competition thing and it results in great music. It also keeps away the bad players. You either play or get off the stage. I don't like to hear amateurs. I'd rather see them sell the horn and get two new suits. And I'm out to make a lot of musicians among the best dressed people in the world."

Brignola will take on anyone. He has been on the stand with Clark Terry, Elvin Jones, Zoot Sims, Thad Jones, Chet Baker, Jimmy McPartland and, of course, DeJohnette and Holland. About the latter two he says, "I've played this kind of music before, but never with such great players. They had the basics before they got into this stuff, and it really allows us to work together quite well, while still being unpredictable enough to make it exciting."

Nick can cover the whole field of jazz, as he proved to a sellout crowd at Cohoes Music Hall in June of 1975. There he performed a Dixieland set with Jimmy McPartland, a bebop set with Howard McGhee and a more modern performance with Petrus. The response from both the crowd and the critics was ecstatic.

He has long ago given up on mainstream jazz fans, saying that most of them would rather "stay home and watch Bonanza" than go to a jazz concert. He senses that if he is going to make it he must rely on the true jazz fans who have never deserted the ship, and the under 30's who are looking for something more fulfilling than rock.

Meanwhile, Brignola will try once again to form a group of his own.

"My problem is I've never fit into anyone else's group very well. I was just a cog in the wheel," Nick said.

He is looking for young players who can really play well and develop with you. "If I can get someone who can play bass, harmonica or even a refrigerator and can do it well, I'll bring him into the group," says Brignola.

Author's note:

This article was written in the late 1970's for Coda Magazine. Subsequently, Nick recorded several albums as a leader with such illustrious sidemen as John Patitucci, Billy Hart, Pepper Adams, Walter Booker, Jimmy Cobb, Walter Davis Jr., Claudio Roditi, George Mraz, Sam Jones and Roy Haynes. Over the years he established himself as one of the best, if not the best, baritone players in jazz, then or ever.

In retrospect, I look back at this interview and can see that only Nick Brignola really knew his potential. Or at least he knew a lot more than me. I was a great admirer of Nick, but also one of his toughest critics. I don't think I truly appreciated how much he was capable of accomplishing until well after this was written. He went on to win several jazz polls in both Down Beat and Jazz Times. One of his final bands was with two other premier baritone players, Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan.

I spoke to Smulyan recently about the band. He told me, "it was a lot of fun. It was really competitive on stage, but we had a great time."

I had interviewed Nick several times during the 1970's. He was very cooperative and you could always count on him for some good quotes. He never pulled any punches and that is evident from his remarks in this article. He was a huge part of my life back then. We traveled together several times, he introduced me to many great musicians, got me involved in booking jazz, paved the way for me to be a jazz columnist, jazz disc jockey and jazz educator. I was just one of many people of jazz who were indebted to him as a friend and an influence. It was my pleasure to know this larger than life character. I owe him more than I could ever repay and I am not sure I properly told him that.

Nick Brignola died prematurely just short of his 66th birthday of cancer. His many fans and fellow jazz professionals still miss him.

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