[JPL] The Tenorist, Jerry Bergonzi sets the standard

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Thu Jun 21 19:34:18 EDT 2007

The tenorist

Jerry Bergonzi sets the standard ‹ as player and teacher

The scene is typical for a Boston jazz date: high-profile, at a major club,
but with minimal preparation, because of the multiple obligations of
musicians who are in demand as sidemen and teachers. The ³special guest² is
tenor-saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. Handsome, gray-haired, dressed for
business in a suit jacket and white shirt, Bergonzi glances at the leader,
Aruan Ortiz, behind the piano, then down at the music stand in front of him.
He and Ortiz exchange a few words. If this isn¹t a ³cold² run-through, it¹s
pretty close. The piano kicks off a vamp with bass and drums; then there¹s a
jagged rhythmic theme with harmonic leaps and an Afro-Cuban undercurrent.
Bergonzi¹s tenor enters with a rush of notes, big-toned and strong, slicing
through the material, free, but also adhering to the form ‹ in fact,
bringing it into sharper focus. Like a magnet on a sheet of iron filings,
his tenor shapes the piece around it even as he makes a riveting personal

Bergonzi has long been recognized as a master and a consummate pro ‹ someone
who not only gets the job done but also makes real music in even the most
challenging situations. He emerged in the ¹80s amid a pack of
Coltrane-influenced saxophonists: Davie Liebman, Michael Brecker, Steve
Grossman, Bob Berg. The Coltrane ³sheets of sound² were everywhere ‹ which
may be one reason Bergonzi was best appreciated by fellow musicians. ³It¹s
something saxophonists have known about for more than 25 years,² says Allan
Chase, who teaches with Bergonzi at New England Conservatory. ³He has a
great sound that immediately reaches all kinds of people, but there¹s also a
complexity to what he plays that¹s very intricate and imaginative ‹ and also
mathematically amazing.² Brecker ‹ who before he died this past January was
widely recognized as the most influential of all post-Coltrane saxophonists
‹ was a frequent Bergonzi booster. Asked once whether he still practiced
every day, he replied, ³As long as Jerry Bergonzi is around, no tenor player
can rest on his laurels.²

Bergonzi¹s latest CD as a leader, Tenorist (Savant), is waking more people
up to what all those saxophonists have known. It also supports the point
Chase makes that Bergonzi, despite his early mastery, has never stopped
growing. On his 1990 Blue Note CD, Standard Gonz, you can hear the style
fully formed: the speed, the articulation, the harmonic and rhythmic
facility, and a big, expressive sound. But Tenorist is a departure, even
from Bergonzi¹s previous Savant CD, Tenor of the Times. Here, working with
guitarist John Abercrombie instead of a piano, he¹s created nine hooky,
concise tunes that flow with unprecedented freedom. Bergonzi these days is
leaving more space, changing up his phrasing mid solo to, say, depart from a
string of chord-running eighth notes to a series of descending odd intervals
full of rests and half notes. That ³mathematical² logic that Chase talks
about holds the pieces and the solos together as Bergonzi stretches out.
Standard song forms and chord progressions have been altered and refitted to
create an effect of tantalizing ambiguity ‹ and humor. Bassist Dave Santoro
and drummer Adam Nussbaum swing even as they negotiate Bergonzi¹s odd
rhythmic patterns. Santoro rarely steps into 4/4 walking, but the pulse is
always there, as he hangs back from the beat while Nussbaum pushes forward,
enhancing the elastic rhythms. Bergonzi, meanwhile, seems to be lavishing
more attention on individual notes ‹ the sighs, shouts, and vocal syllables
of each. The CD makes an argument for jazz as a language that¹s constantly
renewing itself. In a New York Times review, Ben Ratliff called Tenorist ³a
casually great jazz record.²

Bergonzi¹s story is a Boston one, and typical of aspiring jazz musicians
post-Coltrane. A native of Endicott Street in the North End, he moved to
Watertown at age five, went to Watertown High, and made trips into Berklee
to study with the esteemed saxophonist and teacher Joe Viola and to play in
John LaPorta¹s Youth Band. Unable to afford Berklee after high school, he
attended Lowell State (now UMass-Lowell) and studied music education. If he
had it to do over again, Bergonzi tells me when we get together at the
Medfield home he shares with his wife, the singer and pianist Jeri DiMarco,
and their two children, ³I wouldn¹t have gone to that school ‹ I wouldn¹t
even have gone to school. I would have just practiced.²

The ³practicing² he¹s talking about was the basis not only for his own
playing but for his teaching, and it¹s part of the story of jazz pedagogy
for the past 25 years. Bergonzi spent hours listening to records,
transcribing solos, studying them, playing along with them, trying to unlock
the secrets of musicians he admired, like Coltrane. ³At my age, nobody
taught jazz, so we had to figure it out for ourselves.² That may sound
surprising when you consider that Berklee has been around since 1945, but as
Chase confirms, for aspiring jazz musicians in the ¹70s, as far as ³how
bebop worked, or anything post-Coltrane, like how to play outside the key
and resolve ‹ that pedagogy didn¹t exist. And we really wanted that

Bergonzi conducted his research in private and through sharing information
with his peers. In 1973, he began playing with the Two Generations of
Brubeck band and then Dave Brubeck¹s quartet. In the meantime, he was giving
private lessons. Phil Scarff, of the jazz world-music ensemble Natraj,
remembers studying with Bergonzi in the ¹80s, slaving over transcriptions,
isolating a portion of a transcribed solo and analyzing the chord structure,
using it as a basis for fresh improvisation. Aside from saxophone, Bergonzi
is adept as a pianist, bassist, and drummer, and Scarff remembers his
emphasis on rhythm, on developing rhythmic patterns and composing melodies
that fit the rhythm. ³At that point in my experience, that was unusual. When
people talk about improvising, they think melodically ‹ what notes you¹re
going to use, the rhythm being secondary. But Jerry turned that around.² In
retrospect, Scarff credits that teaching to his interest in the canonized
rhythmic patterns of South Indian classical music.

Bergonzi recalls as a 16-year-old seeing Dizzy Gillespie on a TV show. Dizzy
was asked how he improvised. ³He said, ŒI think of rhythms and I put notes
to them.¹ That¹s totally different from ŒI think of notes and I put rhythms
to them.¹ ²

These days, Bergonzi limits his local playing as a leader to regular
Wednesday-night gigs at the Acton Jazz Café when he isn¹t touring. As for
teaching, he feels fortunate to have students who come to the Conservatory
³knowing how to play. That makes my job easy.² The most challenging job for
such technically adept players, he said, is ³to be yourself.²

When I ask him about his own growth, and specifically about the beauty of
his articulation on Tenorist, he says, ³I think of notes as vowels. Every
note has a different English on it. I not only try to articulate differently
to start the note, but I also feel that notes should have their own

And what does he think about when he¹s improvising? ³I do the least amount
of thinking possible. I¹m just trying to feel something. When I contact that
feeling, all kinds of ideas come to me ‹ harmonically, melodically,
rhythmically. And I¹m trying to pace myself. If I had any thoughts, it would
be like, ŒMan, I don¹t want to burn on this tune, I just want to be cool.¹
Create a solo, have it develop. I want to be in the moment. I don¹t have any
agenda, I don¹t have any method for it ‹ which I like. And I want to have
fun. I want to have a lot of joy when I play. Otherwise, what the hell are
we doing this for?²

JERRY BERGONZI | Acton Jazz Café, 452 Great Road, Acton | Wednesdays at 8:30
pm | 978.263.6161


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