Microtones and Bebop

Joe Maneri Turns 75; Nick Brignola 1936–2002

A highlight of the Tonic set was a brief, laid-back violin passage by Mat Maneri, who chain-smoked throughout the hour while affecting a smug insouciance, yet achieved a rhythmic suppleness and communicative ease of his own. In recordings with Matt Shipp and in his version of "Body and Soul," which is perhaps the expressive acme of Blessed, he has suggested growing maturity. The promise is realized on his recently released ECM debut, Trinity, a solo recital of unexpected depth and variety. His adaptation of "Sun Ship," a stark and rather insubstantial Coltrane fragment, begins with barely a hint of the source material, then proceeds to locate it in the course of deliberate microtonal stages, building to a vigorous peak as if the Coltrane figure had to be earned. He seems to have assimilated his father's assimilations to the point where he may be able to achieve his own rapprochement between microtonality and jazz per se.

Goodbye Nick The great baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola died Friday, February 8, at 65, after battling cancer for a year. His label, Reservoir, had just released his last album, Tour de Force, a terrific session recorded in December 2000, brimming with his usual bebop energy ("Donna Lee") and rhythmic wit ("Backwoods Song"), belying any incipient illness. I first heard Nick with Ted Curson's quintet at a Left Bank jazz club in Paris called Le Chat qui Peche in 1967; it was the summer of my freshman year and I had never heard of him, though I knew Ted's name from his appearances on recent albums by Archie Shepp and Booker Ervin. We all became friends, and when Ted launched his quartet (Nick, bassist Reggie Johnson, and drummer Dick Berk), I hired them to play my college. They arrived the week John Coltrane's posthumous Expressions came out, and Nick was eager to hear Coltrane's sole recording on flute. He was disappointed. Nick had just begun playing the instrument, and was far more proficient.

Joe Maneri: probing for the notes between the notes
photo courtesy of Francesca Patella/ECM Records
Joe Maneri: probing for the notes between the notes

Nick was almost ridiculously proficient. He had played in a youth orchestra at Newport and graduated to Woody Herman's 1963 band, before beginning his long association with Ted, which flowered during a residency at the Tin Palace in 1974. In those days, he often played clinics and had a gimmick in which he would give a student cards, each one marked with a chord. He would begin improvising at a clip and the student could flash the chords at him in any order at any time; he never missed a change. A totally unpretentious, working-class kind of guy, he was born in Troy, New York, and remained in the area all his life, spinning jazz platters on local radio and leaving when he had work. When I met him, he was 29, and hungry for recognition, so he self-produced an LP, This Is It! (Priam), playing baritone, saxello, flute, alto, and bass, overdubbing himself. Only his alto was uninspired, but he soon got past the need to show off and focused on the baritone.

By the late 1970s he was recording for Beehive, inviting Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne, as well as Curson, to join in, but he really came into his own with 10 smashing CDs for Reservoir, beginning in 1989, always backed by the best rhythm players—Kenny Barron, John Hicks, Dave Holland, Rufus Reid, Jack DeJohnette, and often his old friend, the spirited Dick Berk. As you'd expect of a guy who could whisk the changes, Nick had bebop DNA, but the thing about him is he would try anything: If it was jazz, he was game. He worked with Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Three Baritone Saxophone Band (Gary Smulyan, Ronnie Cuber), Mingus Big Band, Phil Woods, Dewey Redman; he loved jamming at Dick Gibson's Colorado jazz parties, and took a back seat to no one. In Paris, Nick had sniffed that Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet always played the changes, whereas in Ted's, they really went outside. But he loved Mulligan, and gave him props often, producing one of the hippest of tributes ("Gerrylike") on the 1996 Flight of the Eagle. Nick's sound had a fine, wood-grain finish with just enough grit to underscore its brawny valor—it was a sound you could easily love, like the man himself.

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