Nick Brignola: Gifted Specialist on the Baritone Saxophone


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If the conventional history of jazz is dominated by a series of major innovators who have dictated the sweeping changes in style which have brought the music to its present point, there has been an equally important sub-strata of musicians who have contented themselves with taking those styles as a given, and refining and developing them throughout their careers.

The American saxophonist Nick Brignola is one such player. His chosen field was bop, and his preferred instrument the baritone saxophone. He was a regular winner on the instrument in the annual polls conducted by the American jazz magazines Down Beat and Jazz Times, and received a Grammy nomination for his 1979 album, L.A. Bound.

His family was a musical one. His grandfather played tuba, and his father played banjo and guitar at parties and dances to help fund his schooling. There was an element of accident to both Brignola’s choice of instrument, and the launching of his career.

He was largely self-taught as a player, reflected in some unorthodox techniques and fingerings which he employed. He began on clarinet at the age of eleven, and learned alto and tenor saxophone, and flute. He took up baritone when his alto saxophone had to go for repair. The shop were able to offer him only the loan of a baritone, and it quickly supplanted the alto as his main instrument.

Brignola was studying education at Ithaca College in New York when he record a tape with some fellow students, led by pianist Reese Markewitch, in 1957. On the strength of that tape, they were voted best college jazz group that year, an award which led to a recording, and prestigious bookings at festivals and the well-known Greenwich Village jazz club, Cafe Bohemia.

That same year, Brignola won a world-wide competition for the first ever scholarship to be awarded by Berklee College in Boston, edging out pianist Joe Zawinul. He did not remain long at Berklee, however, but did record with Herb Pomeroy in Boston before moving on to play with vibraphonist Cal Tjader in San Francisco, then returned to Troy to set up his own band.

He spent the early 1960s moving between leading his own bands and working with the likes of guitarist Sal Salvador and saxophonist Woody Herman, both in 1963, and trumpeter Ted Curson in 1967. The advent of jazz-rock saw him form a band in that vein in 1969, but he returned to acoustic bop-based jazz in the mid-1970s, working again with Curson, and leading his own bands.

He recorded several albums with other leading exponents of the baritone saxophone, including Cecil Payne, Ronnie Cuber and Pepper Adams, and worked occasionally with other leaders, including Sal Salvador and Phil Woods, and the Charles Mingus Superband.

Although bop was his favoured style, he was able to turn his hand to a wide range of music, and worked with musicians from across the jazz spectrum, from traditional giants like Doc Cheatham and Barney Bigard through to contemporary experimentalists like Dewey Redman.

Through all of these styles, he remained an exciting and inventive player, whether negotiating complex lines at searing tempo or caressing his way through an elegant ballad. Bop baritone players often sound more like tenors when playing at speed, but Brignola retained the weight and density of the deeper horn, and maintained his lucid sense of harmonic direction when he switched to soprano saxophone. If these were his main instruments, he was also adept on all of the saxophones and several other reed and wind instruments.

He formed a new group in the early 1990s under the ironic name of Endangered Species, and later joined the more literally named Three Baritone Saxophone Band, alongside Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan. He recorded numerous albums as a leader, the last of which, Tour De Force, will be issued posthumously later this month.

He was much in demand as a teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, and held positions at several educational institutions in New York State, including the University at Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the College of Saint Rose and Union College.

Brignola had been suffering from cancer for some time. He is survived by his wife, Yvonne; three children, Jillian Haggerty, Kristin Walker and Nicholas Brignola; and one granddaughter.

Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: [email protected]

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz.
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