Nick BRIGNOLA 1996

Nick Brignola, an internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist and Rensselaer County resident, died Friday (February 2002) at Albany Medical Center Hospital after a yearlong illness. He was 65. The Troy native was one of the world's most accomplished players of the baritone sax, an instrument he picked up at age 20 after being loaned a baritone while his alto was being fixed. Though he was largely self-taught and employed an unorthodox playing style and fingering techniques, Brignola received the first scholarship ever given to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Over the 4 decades of his career, he played as a sideman and bandleader with most of the best-known jazz luminaries. A repeated winner of Jazz Times and Down Beat magazines' critics and readers polls, Brignola also earned a Grammy nomination for his 1979 album "L.A. Bound.''
After living in the late 1950s and early 1960s in New York City and on the West Coast, where he played with Woody Herman's orchestra, among others, Brignola moved back to Troy in 1964. Unlike some of the jazz greats with whom he performed -Chick Corea, Doc Severinsen, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk- Brignola never became a household name. But fellow musicians describe him as universally liked and respected by the jazz world, and he enjoyed a busy career as a much-sought-after soloist. As his reputation as the pre-eminent baritone saxophonist solidified over the past dozen years, Brignola would fly off for U.S. college clinics, international jazz festivals, a weekend in Europe or a week in Asia, and return to his home in Eagle Mills in time for his monthly gig at Justin's restaurant in Albany. "We were very fortunate to have a musician of his ability, his talents and creativity living right here'' Dave Calarco of Schodack, Brignola's drummer for the past 27 years, said Friday. "There are maybe a handful of people on the planet who could do what Nick could as a player'' said Calarco.
Schooled in and inspired by bebop, Brignola was known for fiery playing and explosive solos that matched his intense personality. A fellow bari-sax player once said admiringly of him, "Nick doesn't just blow into his horn -he screams into it'.' His horn, a physically imposing, gleaming brass beast, could produce an awe-inspiring noise as Brignola explored -and pushed- the traditionally accepted limits of the instrument. A typical Brignola solo was melodic, fast, driving, full of ideas; he could fit more notes than seemed possible in very small spaces. But Brignola also had an extraordinary way with gentler, moodier music. "He played beautiful, beautiful ballads'' said jazz pianist Lee Shaw, who met Brignola when she moved the Capital Region in 1971 and played with him many times over the years. "Nick could squeeze all the sentiment out of a ballad".
Over the course of more than 21 albums as a bandleader and scores more as a sideman -he was an accomplished player of most members of the woodwind family- Brignola recorded many jazz standards. In recent years, his albums featured more and more of his own compositions. "He was a very, very good composer'' Shaw said. "His 'Flight of the Eagle" -the title track of a 1996 album- "is one of the most beautiful (songs) I've ever heard".


Nick BRIGNOLA bs, Kenny BARRON p, Rufus REID b, Victor LEWIS dr,

Brignola was also cherished for his sense of humor. Jazz trombonist Doug Sertl, a Clifton Park native whose big band featured Brignola, recalls a bus trip the band took across the Midwest in the late 1980s during which the haggard players stopped at a small-town diner. "We were looking pretty ratty'' Sertl said. "The guy behind the counter ... asks us, 'Are you fellas a professional baseball team?' and Nick, who looks the furthest thing from a baseball player, doesn't miss a beat. He says, 'As a matter of fact we are'. I think we kept that ruse up for an hour and a half. ... They probably still have our picture hanging on the wall". Sertl, like Calarco, described Brignola as both friend and mentor. The trombonist, who now lives in New Paltz, was 19 when he met Brignola; they played together often and recorded a half-dozen albums together over the next 24 years. "I got a real, irreplaceable education from him without ever taking a lesson, by watching him, playing with him" Sertl said. "He was tough -the first 10 years playing with him was terrifying- but he really helped me develop as a player''. In addition to the practical lessons Brignola passed on to younger players onstage and in rehearsals, he taught formally in the Capital Region, including at the University at Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the College of Saint Rose and Union College. Brignola is survived by his wife, Yvonne; three children, Jillian Haggerty, Kristin Walker and Nicholas Brignola; and one granddaughter.
The "flight of the eagle" is now complete, he leaves behind a wealth of inspiration.

By STEVE BARNES, First published: Saturday, February 9, 2002

To be continued...

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