Saturday, February 21, 2015

Strange Bedfellows: Pepper Adams and Nick Brignola

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Pepper Adams performed with Nick Brignola only a handful of times during his career. Other than a 1982 festival concert in Holland, all of the known gigs were produced by Fred Norsworthy. Norsworthy was a huge Adams fan who self-produced Adams' Encounter date that was eventually sold to Prestige. Norsworthy was also responsible for doing A&R work on the Baritone Madness recording on Beehive. Pepper didn't care for Brignola's playing and would've only taken the gigs here and there because of need. He was also hired on Baritone Madness as a sideman and was furious with the way he was manipulated on the date to appear as a co-leader. I doubt he was pleased with how his sound was re-engineered to make Brignola seem the more prominent sounding player.

I interviewed Norsworthy, Adams and Brignola regarding their work together. Much can be learned from their comments in Pepper Adams' Joy Road (pages 340-44 and elsewhere). Although Adams and Brignola were contemporaries, how do they differ? First, other than occasional doubling on clarinet only in a big band setting, Pepper exclusively played baritone sax and would only solo on baritone. Brignola, for his part, was a multi-instrumentalist who favored baritone more and more later in his career because he finally got an offer to record as a leader on baritone. In a JazzTimes article (August 1989, p. 14) Brignola told Jesse Nash, "I play all the saxophones. The soprano, alto and tenor, as well as bass sax, the clarinets and flutes."

Brignola for many years--until Pepper passed away and Brignola slid into his place--taught saxophone whereas Pepper never had students. Phil Woods told me that he wrote the charts for his octet with Pepper in mind and with the expectation that he'd be in the group. Pepper passed away before the group recorded and Brignola took Pepper's place. 

Both Pepper and Brignola had great technical facility and good time but the differences are dramatic. Pepper was a stylist, with an immediately identifiable style. He had a very sophisticated harmonic sensibility, plus an encyclopedic mind that could cite all sorts of arcane musical paraphrases. His time feel had a plasticity to it: he could play way behind the beat or on top of the beat when double-timing. According to Kenny Berger, however, Brignola was a "lick player." That means he didn't have his own style and his approach was an amalgam of licks from his contemporaries. Pepper prized individuality above all else and would've been completely turned off by this kind of superficiality substituting for style. 

Brignola didn't have the flexibility in time feel either. According to my co-author John Vana, "Brignola has the bop thing down on Baritone Madness but it's as though he's trying to upstage Pepper. On the surface he succeeds. Pepper is so much more creative in his lines, always looking for something new and usually finding it. While the bop/on-top-of-the-beat approach certainly works, Brignola's baritone comes across as a big alto. On Donna Lee, Pepper's time is much more flexible and he freely quotes to add a conversational quality to an up-tempo workout. Brignola's turn sounds pre-planned and less of an artistic statement."

For me, when I hear Brignola, his playing sparkles for a few minutes but then gets extremely tiresome. That's because there's no variety of time, no paraphrasing or humor, little in the way of harmonic depth and it's all in-your-face machismo. He's not telling a story and it's technique for technique's sake. I don't care for Brignola's altissimo playing. More of the same. It strikes me as a gratuitous gimmick. Pepper only rarely jumped into that range and only for dramatic effect.

Kenny Berger also said that Brignola wasn't a good reader. That's another reason why Brignola didn't work that widely. Pepper was a great reader and played with everyone imaginable.

Regarding their only known non-Norsworthy twin baritone gig, Bert Vuijsje attended the De Meervaart concert in 1982 with Hank Jones: "I vividly remember the sadness and, to a certain extent, indignation I felt. Pepper Adams did not make a healthy impression, to say the least. His playing lacked its usual strength and already rumors were going around that he had a serious illness. Nick Brignola reacted in a rather tasteless manner by using his ballad feature, Sophisticated Lady, as a kind of show-off, demonstrating his - momentaneous - superiority by (unusually in this song, I thought) going into double-time after a while and then playing chorus after chorus after chorus as a real tour de force. My idea at the time was that here we saw the final moments of a history of rivalry (at least from Nick Brignola's side)." Here's another case of flamboyance masquerading as artistry. I suspect that Pepper probably knew he was being roped into yet another dumb baritone sax combat situation and demurred. It was also a hit-and-run for Pepper. That is, he flew in from New York for the gig and then went back home. He might've been jet-lagged. More than anything, the Baritone Madness recording left a very bad taste in his mouth and he was probably very uninspired and did this gig solely for the money. On the recording, he couldn't stand the way Beehive's owner took advantage of him and he hated Roy Haynes and Derrick Smith's playing. Years later he cited Roy Haynes as an example of a drummer who doesn't listen.

I do agree with Brignola that Baritone Madness helped Pepper's career. That's something that Brignola pointed out in our interview. The date did bring attention to Pepper as a soloist just a half a year after Pepper went out on his own as a single.

About two years ago I exchanged emails with recording engineer Jim Merod. He worked with Brignola and knew him very well. Jim said that Nick was very much aware of Pepper's place as the superior player and the greatest on his instrument. Nick himself told me years before, in our interview, how he respected that Pepper "played with all the cats." He was referring to all the greatest musicians: Monk, Mingus, Elvin, Miles, Trane, Diz, Thad, Mel, Lee Morgan--I could go on forever. I sensed that Brignola knew exactly what that meant in relation to him not having that kind of access.