King of the Tenor
Among his peers, Jerry Bergonzi is one of Boston's most respected musicians. Drummer George Schuller, leader of the excellent big band Orange Then Blue, noted: "Jerry's an incredibly fluid saxiphonist. He's always someone I've enjoyed playing with because of his power and time. As a drummer I really appreciate focused playing; I can identify with it and it lets me know what I have to do."
But being a musician's musician in Boston hasn't attracted a lot of national attention for the tenorist. He may be more widely known in Europe and Japan than in the United States, as he regularly plays foreign venues. Indeed, he'll spend most of his summer in Europe. "Peek a Boo," a New Evidence release is Bergonzi's only in print American CD.
He has also appeared on recent RAM Albums by Bruce Gertz and Miles Donohue, a longtime Bergonzi friend. Perhaps these efforts will increase the American awareness of his great skill and musicality.
Though he attended Lowel State College, Bergonzi picked up much valuable information informally. "My teachers were my friends," he said. "When I tried to get teachers, people would tell me to just listen to records and learn tunes." Bergonzi now maintains a music studio in Allston. His knowledge of instrumental technique and theory is comprehensive.
The National Endowment for the Arts recognized Bergonzi's abilities with two recording grants, one of which resulted in "Peek a Boo." On this international all-star session with Bergonzi are Japanese trumpeter Tiger Okoshi (who's lived in Boston since 1972), German pianist Joachim Kuhn, and Swiss drummer Danial Humair. The bassist Dave Santoro, heads the Jazz Department at the Hartford Cameratta Conservatory.
Bergonzi, in his late 40's seems to have come of age musically around 1965-70. Some of the attractive, airy compositions here (he wrote seven of the eight original pieces) are reminiscent of the ones with the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter recoreded in 1965-67. Particularly varied and interesting from a rhythmic standpoint is the bluesy "Zonian Mode."
No matter how difficult the piece or quick the tempo, Bergonzi can tear through it. But he also uses rests and multinote passages effectively, and sometimes plays simple, pretty phrases. His style, drawn mainly from John Coltrane, seems influenced by Shorter as well. Like these artists, Bergonzi varies the color and texture of his tone skillfully.
In his powerful solos, Okoshi has synthesized the approaches of Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. He's a hot, agressive improviser, but articulates cleanly, exhibiting a nice sense of structure. Kuhn combines elements from McCoy Tyner and Hancock intelligently and plays with inspiration.
Bergonzi's efforts impress and sometimes amaze other musicians. "His abilities are overwhelming," Donohue said. Michael Brecker was asked how he felt to be the king of the tenor players, and he said: "I don't know. You'll have to ask Jerry Bergonzi."