In Boston student circles, tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi is known as “The Gonz.” Old habits die hard, so one former Berklee student told me last night at the Vortex. Even after many years, when you hear that the Gonz is in town, you dust yourself down, you get yourself out, you go listen.
Bergonzi’s Boston teaching post is not at Berklee, but a few blocks further down Huntington Avenue, at the New England Conservatory. Bergonzi is revered as educator, but there’s also a slight air of mystique, a distance from the fray about him. His official website biography is peppered with words like command” and “integrity.” And his full, seven-part series “Inside Improvisation,” which will set you back over £200, is strictly for the very determined indeed.
And as a a player? He has a big, full, individual sound, and a ferocious technique, with access to a full-toned altissimo register and multiphonics, all under super-human control. Both the Coltrane/ Brecker and the Sonny Rollins legacies have been thoroughly internalized. The physical playing stance on tenor is a very straight posture, eyes either closed or staring into the middle distance. He also found himself regularly comping over bass solos at the piano, pursuing both floaty modal stuff and voice-led changes with equal seriousness of purpose.
Bergonzi is a natural for the Vortex, and he drew a near-capacity crowd with a lot of devotees, aficionados, students, and quite a few awesome saxophonists gathered in reverent awe at the back.
Last night was the final gig in a long European tour with Bergonzi’s regular trio, bassist Dave Santoro and Parisian Italian Andrea Michelutti on drums. The free improvisational language at the beginning was complex, but also fleeting, evanescent, hard to get hold of. I found greater simplicity and with it more eloquence for the first time in the fade-outro to the first number La Cucarach. And the ideas started to build and to connect more into paragraphs in the third number Splurge. Tadd Dameron’s Soul Trane was a hushed delight. I also enjoyed Michelutti’s solo soft-mallet soundscape opening to Stoffy, and, later in the same number, the sophisticated interplay of complex melodic ideas between Bergonzi and Santoro.
A gig like this is a feather in the cap for the Vortex, whose consistently adventurous core programming run on a shoe-string should by now have delivered them Arts Council regularly funded status. They also have Craig Taborn on Monday.
There may be post-festival fatigue around, but the idea that there is, as some Twitterers have been putting around, any kind of “hole” in London’s jazz life after the London Jazz Festival can be dealt with swiftly thus: it’s absolutely wrong.