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Blue Note
By Al Quaglieri
Photo by Martin Benjamin

Farewell to local jazz legend Nick Brignola: prickly raconteur, humble scenester, consummate musician

Nearly 20 years ago, I found myself sitting in the back room of the Lark Tavern, listening to Nick Brignola and Howard Johnson trading fours on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” A notoriously difficult song to play straight, let alone to solo atop, it was careening down the road at breakneck speed, knocking down fences and mailboxes along the way. Johnson would force an amazing-yet-unnatural cascade of notes and squeals from his tuba, then Brignola would grin and answer with a major avalanche of improvised mayhem on baritone sax. This went on and on and on, and by the end the band was a sweaty mess and the audience was wobbly at the knees. Witnessing these two men Indian-wrestle their comically oversized brass contraptions was as unforgettable as watching two elephants do a graceful tango.

Late last week, Nick Brignola lost his year-long battle with cancer.

Brignola’s life story and his long list of accolades and accomplishments have already been recounted quite nicely by other area writers and media, and God bless them for it. Ask anyone who knew him, though, and you’d find Nick wasn’t much for sitting around admiring his trophies or reliving past glories. Always itchy to get out and play or teach, Nick knew instinctively that music is the continuing-ed course that lasts a lifetime.

After 10 teenage years of fits and starts, Brignola and the baritone met, beginning a glorious 45-year evolution from big-band sideman to hard-boppin’ sax superhero. In his journeyman days, Nick shared the stage with most of the jazz greats. He wasn’t much of a name-dropper, so I’ll do it for him, partially, and alphabetically: Chet Baker, Randy Brecker, Chick Corea, Ronnie Cuber, Ted Curson, Miles Davis, Jack DeJohnette, Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Harrell, Woody Herman, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Bob James, Elvin Jones, Chuck Mangione, Pat Metheny, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Sal Salvador, Doc Severinsen, Clark Terry, Cal Tjader, Phil Woods.

That was Nick Brignola, International Jazz God. We in the Capital Region knew about all that stuff, but . . . well, Nick never acted like a big shot around here. Rooted firmly in Eagle Mills with his wife and three lovely children, Nick would routinely jet off to the West Coast to give seminars, or attend some jazz festival in Europe or Asia; the next week, he’d be back playing with the local cats at bars and clubs in our neighborhoods, and teaching in our colleges.

As anyone who’s ever tried can attest, making a decent living playing music in this area is hard work, and Nick worked the hardest. One night he’d be onstage at Proctor’s, and the next he’d be blowing at funky little dives like the Gemini Jazz Café‚ for the equivalent of lunch money. The gig never mattered; Nick would give 100 percent and then some, regardless of the venue. Whether entertaining some Saratoga society matron, or watching a waiter at the Golden Fox drop a salad on the floor and then re-plate and serve it (“Now that’s what I call soul food!” he’d quip), Nick remained gregarious, funny, and accessible. As drummer Mark Foster put it: “Nick was a triple-threat entertainer. You could watch him onstage, then he’d come sit at your table, and then afterwards you’d meet him at Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Just about the only thing that could ruffle Brignola’s feathers was performing for people who were talking louder than he was playing. His ongoing feud with noisy, inattentive diners reached epic—and hilarious—proportions at Justin’s, where he maintained a love/hate relationship with both the club and former dining-room manager Tess Collins. (Tess recently visited Nick in the hospital, and he whispered to her, “When I get out of here, I’m gonna kick your ass.”)

“The night he got his first wireless sax microphone,” recalls guitarist Chuck D’Aloia, “we’re onstage doing a song without Nick, and all of a sudden this voice booms out of the PA system: ‘Hey you, yeah, the couple at the front table—shut the hell up!’ I looked up and there was Nicky at the back of the room, shouting into his little microphone.”

Drummer Dave Calarco adds: “When the crowd was really loud, we’d work them into our songs. Nick would suggest trading fours with the audience. So it’d be four measures guitar solo, four measures Nick solo, four measures drum solo, then four bars of nothing, just the audience going yadda yadda. It was a private joke for us, and maybe one hipster in the back who’d be falling over laughing.”

Because the man was an unrepentant jokester and accomplished raconteur, everyone who ever knew or even briefly met Brignola has a classic Nick story to share. At this week’s wake and memorial, trading such tales helped ease the collective burden of grief shared by family, friends, fellow musicians, and local jazz fans, many of whom were not only losing Nick, but also the glue that made them a community.

One day last year, on my way past the front desk at the Manhattan studio where I work, the receptionist handed me a note from Nick: “Quag—Chuck and I are recording around the corner at Avatar. Stop over and say hello.”

Come lunchtime, I and my engineer, Joe Palmaccio, walked over to Avatar. Nick and Chuck D’Aloia and a few others were listening to playback of a new take. When it ended, we exchanged greetings, and I introduced Nick to Joe. Brignola said, “Jeezus, Brignola, D’Aloia, Quaglieri and now Palmaccio . . . get one more Italian in here and we can open up a pizza joint.”

After several minutes of joking around and making mock-disparaging remarks about his percussionist, Nick walked into the live room and picked up his baritone sax. In separate booths sat drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Eddie Gomez. Nick stood alone in the cavernous, dimly lit main room. The tape rolled. Nick turned and counted off tempo, then ripped into “Donna Lee.”

It was the same “Donna Lee” as 20 years earlier in the Lark Tavern, though not quite as reckless and wild. Instead, it was fluid, assured and stunningly sophisticated, imbued with the lustrous patina of time well spent. You can hear for yourself on Nick’s final album, Tour De Force.

Nick Brignola was the real deal: a jazz legend in our underappreciative midst; a brilliant musician who could shift on a dime from take-no-prisoners bop to heart-crushing ballads; a devoted husband and loving father; an unassuming, gregarious, witty, no-frills joe who could get just as excited about going out for a plate of gnocci as about appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Nick was loved by many, and his recorded legacy will continue to find new admirers for years and years to come. We’re all very lucky to have known him.

ROUGH MIX

TWANG TIME: The nominations are out for this year’s NorthEast Country Music Association Awards, which will be handed out on April 14 at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady. It looks like it could be a big year for area twangsters the Back 40 Band, who are represented in almost all of the major categories, and longtime NorthEast CMA faves Aged in the Hills also are all over the nominations.

Nominees for Entertainer of the Year include the Back 40 Band, Aged in the Hills, Don Gaylord, North 40 and Sweet Cider, and contenders in the Best Vocalist categories include Kathy Bain, Kathi Brooks, Valerie DeLaCruz, Lorie Green, Melissa Groves and Laura Patterson on the distaff side, with Gaylord, Chuck Ayers, John Karl, Chuck Lobdell and Walt Yanis
representing the Y-chromosome set. Contenders in another big category, Vocal Group of the Year, are the Back 40 Band, Aged in the Hills, North 40, Sweet Cider and John Karl and Railway.

Finally, the tunes up for Song of the Year are “Double or Nothing,” written by Tony Perrino and recorded by the Back 40 Band; “Fool That I Am,” written and recorded by DeLaCruz; “One in a Lifetime,” written by Yannis and recorded by Sweet Cider; “This Heart,” written by Perrino and Brian Bowes and recorded by the Back 40 Band; and “Trail of Broken Hearts,” written by Marguerite DeLuca and recorded by Aged in the Hills.

The April 14 show at Proctor’s will include live performances by the Back 40 Band, Aged in the Hills, North 40, John Karl and Railway, Sweet Cider and DeLaCruz; more info on the show can be obtained by calling co-organizer Marie Gaylord at 346-9221.

FOR THE RECORD: Glens Falls act Phillips Head’s latest effort is a three-song acoustic disc called Unscrewed, which the group are making available two ways: The disc can be purchased in stores, online and at shows, and free MP3s of the tunes can be downloaded from www.mp3.com/phillipshead. The songs were recorded last November at Cool Canine Studios in Queensbury, with the band producing and Matt D’Ambrosio doing the engineering. If that’s not enough info for you, hit www.phillips-head.com.

• The latest slab o’ sound from former Capital Region resident (and occasional Metroland contributor) Peter Hutchison is No Cure for Life, the second album released under the banner of Hutchison’s band Lucas Shine, which also includes ex-Miracle Legion member Ray Neal. Hutchison, formerly of Subduing Mara, penned all 11 tunes on the disc, including “Wear It So Well,” which was featured in last year’s Bruce Willis flick Bandits. For more information, surf over to www.lucasshine.com.

• New York City concern We Put Out Records just issued a vinyl single featuring “Too Much,” by indie act übuerjerk, on the A-side, and “When We Were Small,” by the Capital Region’s own knotworking, on the flip side. Info on the disc, titled überjerk melts into knotworking: two bands sleeping in the snow, can be found at www.weputout.com.

ET CETERA: To mark the passing of local great Nick Brignola, who died on Feb. 8, public-TV station WMHT (Channel 17) will rebroadcast a concert the station originally taped in 1996. The show, which will run from 10 PM to 11:30 PM on Saturday (Feb. 23), features Brignola and sidemen performing Brignola compositions and standards. . . . Hard-music specialists Great Day for Up are holed up in a Clarksville studio cutting a 12-song CD with Scott Verner engineering; Verner previously handled the same chores for discs by Queer for Astroboy and Arc, among others. The band’s Mike Vitali reports that the disc should be out in May. . . . Congrats to area rock quartet Wag, who spent last weekend in Harrisburg, Pa., where they played a showcase set at the Sixth Annual Millennium Music Conference. The event was attended by major-label reps, booking agents and managers. . . . Finally, momentum is gathering for local electronic rockers Wetwerks, whose techno-savvy CDs and elaborate light shows have turned heads locally and elsewhere. The band recently inked a deal with a Los Angeles-based manager named Gary Nuell, who is escorting the group through a slew of New York City showcase gigs. Wetwerks apparently are starting to generate some major-label interest, so there could be big news about this outfit in the not-too-distant future. . . . Send Rough Mix items to phanson@metroland.net or call 463-2500 ext. 144.

—Peter Hanson

 

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