Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Dark Side Reassessed

A note about last week's post. It was the first time I was ever critical of another player, though it was mostly Pepper's criticism that I was expressing. I was interested in hearing about Brignola, but I did it in the wrong way. Going to the dark side really isn't my thing but I tried it as an experiment. I rarely get any responses so I figured I'd try polemics and see what happens. Personally, I was also having a very tough week. I've gotten enough criticism to not do it again. Thanks to everyone for sharing your feedback. 

I've gotten a pushback once before about sharing Pepper's personal views. That was regarding his dislike of Serge Chaloff's playing. More about last week's post, a friend pointed this out: "Your blog leaves the impression that men like Brignola and Haynes were somehow lame players compared to Adams, when in fact they were merely different players. Pepper comes off as mean-spirited and somewhat petty as a result." That's certainly not my intent. Pepper was a very gracious person who kept his opinions to himself and a select group of friends.

My friend contunes: "Granted that Pepper's approach was the most technical and the most harmonically advanced of all the modern baritone players, but Brignola was much more than just a "licks player." Even if Nick's rhythm patterns were more straight ahead, he certainly swung strongly at all times, no mean accomplishment on that big saxophone. The fact is that ALL jazz artists assemble a number of "licks" that they make their own and then, as is the case with both Nick and Pepper, they make creative use of them as they generate their own unique solo statements. Surely you recognize that Pepper had many of his own "licks," more often ascending and descending patterns of fourths, that other baritone players still quote to this day."

He concludes about Brignola: "His rhythm feel is the best of all the baritone guys, just as Mulligan's ballad playing is in a class by itself, a class that, quite frankly, Pepper never quite achieved, though his ballad work was wonderful. There is enough room in the jazz world for lots of different players contributing their own unique visions. Pepper was the best at what he did and it is only right that you have dedicated your website to celebrate his achievement. But there is no need for any implied belittlement of his competitors."

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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Remember Pepper

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Baritone saxophonist and arranger Kenny Berger is our guest blogger today. He was Pepper Adams' personally anointed sub in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in the early 1970s. Berger has performed and recorded with Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, the Duke Pearson Big Band, the Lee Konitz Nonet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, the Bill Holman Big Band, the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Phil Woods Little Big Band, the Dave Brubeck Big Band and many others. Berger is currently freelancing in New York and teaching at New Jersey City University. See for more information on his life and career.

My introduction to the music of Pepper Adams came as a complete surprise one evening around 1962 or '63 while I was a jazz obsessed high school student in Brooklyn. I began playing alto sax in Fifth Grade but a couple of years later in Junior High I fell in love with the baritone. Since the school owned one and I didn’t would use every spare moment in the school day to sneak into the band room and mess around with it. At that point the only baritone soloist I was familiar with was Gerry Mulligan. I especially dug his playing on the first Concert Jazz Band album, though I longed to take my own playing in a harder-swinging direction. 

There was plenty of jazz on the radio in New York in those days. One evening, while listening to the Alan Grant Show on WABC-FM, I heard a track from a recent Donald Byrd album called The Cat Walk. Following Byrd’s trumpet solo came a baritone solo which approached the instrument in a manner that, until that moment, I had perhaps only dreamed was possible but had never actually heard anyone attempt. The tone was hard-edged but deep and resonant, the ideas poured forth in powerful torrents, the sense of swing was irresistible and it felt as though the player was literally eating up the changes. Here, finally, was someone playing the instrument that was to become my voice--and absolutely tearing it up, backed by a relentless Philly Joe Jones-led rhythm section. The player of course was none other than Park “Pepper Adams.

I don’t recall precisely the first time I heard Pepper play live, but with Manhattan just a subway ride away I had plenty of chances to do so. All the qualities I had admired in his recorded work were of course present in his live playing. But hearing Pepper in person brought out some qualities in his playing that records failed to capture. The very presence of his sound and rhythmic energy right there in the room was something that no recording could fully capture, which is true of all great musicians regardless of style or context. The other outstanding quality was his ability to play extremely long solos that built logically and never let up in terms of invention or rhythmic drive.

After I made the switch to being a full-time baritone player, and as my knowledge and understanding of music increased--I later attended a classical conservatory as a bassoon major, though I remain a proudly self-taught improviser, a dying breed if ever there was one--I began to appreciate other notable qualities in Pepper’s playing. It seemed to me that the playing of almost all the other well known jazz baritone players sounded in some way or other to be an application of ideas and general approaches to the horn that would sound equally appropriate on alto or tenor, whereas Pepper seemed to have developed a distinctive style that I could not imagine being used on any other instrument. Unlike almost all the other influential baritone players, Pepper employed the entire range of the horn, really enjoying all the noise it could make and refused to either dance around or totally avoid the lower register as almost everyone else did. This was no mean feat, as the register the baritone is in scares many players away from employing all but the most basic harmonic and melodic ideas and forces others to approach the horn as though they wished it were a tenor or alto, using only the upper register and/or employing an inappropriately bright and edgy soundPepper’s style was a good deal more harmonically and rhythmically complex than those of his peers while maintaining a true baritone sound. For proof of this, check out my personal favorite of all his recorded solos on Reflectory from the album of the same name on the Muse label. The solo unfolds logically, swings like mad and builds to an intense climax that he plays in the bottom register. Listen to this solo and try to imagine it having the same impact played on any other instrument and you’ll hear what I mean. He used to say that the baritone required more use of articulation than the higher saxes and if you played a complex run on the baritone without slightly tonguing every note it would sound like someone playing a glissando on a piano with the sustain pedal held down. 

As far as the actual musical content of Pepper’s playing, it reflected his intelligence, open-mindedness and diverse listening habits. His harmonic ear, understanding of motivic development and complete command of devices such as diminished scales was on a par with those of the greatest soloists in jazz, period. His concept of sound was rooted in Harry Carney and his harmonic and rhythmic approaches were heavily influenced by Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. In typically unpredictable Adams fashion, his favorite soloist among the Ellingtonians was not Carney but the great cornetist Rex Stewart, whose quirky, idiosyncratic style (a term Pepper used to describe his own style) appealed to Pepper’s sense of humor and appreciation for players who spoke in a personal voice. This may help to explain his affinity for and compatibility with his old Detroit homey Thad Jones, whose only detectable influences to my ears were Rex and Dizzy. Pepper was also quite well versed in Twentieth Century classical music and was especially partial to the symphonies of Arthur Honegger. This, combined with a storehouse of knowledge of older jazz and pop tunes, as well as songs and themes from film scores and all sorts of corny operettas, plus works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich and others, provided Pepper with a huge database to draw on for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical quotes (speaking of lost arts) that allowed his incomparable sense of humor to express itself through his music. More on Pepper Adams the man in Part Two.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Reader Survey

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Today I'm taking a break from supplying content to ask you what it is you'd like to see in this blog? Are there certain things you'd like me to cover? Are there specific question you have about Pepper you'd like me to answer? A blog without happy readers and threads that spur discussion is little more than narcissism so please fire away and let me know how I can upgrade this space.

Gary Carner