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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.

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