Feature/Interview

Woody Herman’s Four Brothers Reunion featuring Frank Tiberi and James Pearson Trio (Pizza Express Jazz Club 12 – 15 Sept)

Why was the sound of the Woody Herman Band’s Four Brothers so special – revolutionary even – and why does it still thrill today? With an exclusive Woody Herman’s Four Brothers Reunion happening at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho in September, Peter Bacon investigates:

The Four Brothers who will be appearing at Pizza Express (Clockwise from left): Frank Tiberi, Mike Brignola, Dave Riekenberg and John Nugent (Publicity picture)

It’s Hollywood the day after Boxing Day in 1947 and Woody Herman And His Orchestra are in the recording studio for Columbia. On the music stands is a piece composed and arranged by Jimmy Giuffre. Saxophonist Herbie Steward has switched his alto horn for the longer, more curvy tenor to match Stan Getz and Zoot Sims sitting along side him. And alongside them is Serge Chaloff, his baritone longer and curvier still. The four saxophones are in at the very beginning, tightly weaving the tune’s theme before taking equally-measured solos, first Sims, then Chaloff, Steward and Getz. The band’s other sections get a little look in with the leader taking a few bars on clarinet and the four saxophones add individual two-bar phrases before locking in to that gripping group sound to see the tune out. The title? Four Brothers. 

What was so different about that sound? We can turn to the late broadcaster, musician and all-round jazz authority Benny Green for enlightenment.

Green considered the Herman recording of Four Brothers as revolutionary. He wrote: “Until Four Brothers most large orchestras had deployed two altos, two tenors and a baritone… Herman introduced an entirely fresh conception based on three tenors and a baritone… But what lent vital interest to the Four Brothers’ sound was not just its composition but its stylistic origin. The choice by Herman of Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Herbie Steward (soon to be replaced by Al Cohn) was the final belated vindication of Lester Young’s one-man revolution of ten years before.”

And what was that revolution? Green goes on:

“In pioneering a dry metallic tone Young, in the 1930s, had very bravely been contradicting the hot breath of (Coleman) Hawkins and the Romantic school. All three of Herman’s young recruits were unmistakeable Young disciples, and the orchestra result was something quite new in saxophone textures.”

Citing the “academic, purer tone”, Green then explains that the Young timbre was ideally suited to the demands of a tightly voiced section. Which is exactly what we get in Four Brothers.

The Woody Herman band in 2000 with Frank Tiberi seated centre and John Nugent and Mike Brignola to his left (Picture supplied)

At this point those italics, denoting a tune title, start to become irrelevant, because so strong and characterful was the sound of the three tenors and a bari, that Herman’s Orchestra (or Second Herd as it was also called) became known as the Four Brothers band. And it’s a sound that has lost none of its appeal in the intervening 70 years. Indeed, it’s a sound that works just as well in a smaller combo, which is how it will be heard in Soho in September.

The four saxophonists at the Pizza Express Jazz Club will be tenorists Frank Tiberi, John Nugent and Dave Riekenberg with Mike Brignola on bari. Behind them will be the James Pearson Trio.

There’s a lot of history in that line-up.

Here’s Frank Tiberi, a spry 90-years-old and the man Woody hand-picked to lead the band and continue on with his famous music in the mid-’80s when Woody took ill: “Being in the band for a period of 20 years under Woody Herman’s leadership, it was incredible to be performing every night and close to his vintage. I was comfortable to be more social with Woody than others. Above all that he accomplished as a player, singer, leader and mostly an editor, I considered him to be most loyal in appreciating great young players and their abilities, giving them an opportunity to nurture their skills.”

And here’s John Nugent’s explanation of the Four Brothers’ appeal: “From the third tenor chair perspective, I think that a big part of what made the Woody Herman sax section sound so appealing were the harmonisations of the melody and soli parts. The meaty sounding texture of the three tenors and baritone sound came about at a time when the alto was the lead voice of the sax section of most of the other orchestras, in particular the Ellington sax section sound (Johnny Hodges). The catchy phrases for Jimmy Giuffre’s tune, the thick harmony and the inevitable hard swinging bop inflected style took the music in a different direction for the audience which in my opinion brought on a wider appeal.“

Joseph Paice, of Pizza Express, added: “John Nugent, who also happens to be the Director of CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival – and a great supporter of British Jazz through the Made in the UK concert series each year – had told me how well Frank Tiberi was still playing into his 90s (I think I’d told him we had Benny Golson coming for his 90th birthday tour).

“John played Dean Street last year, and so we very quickly ended up with the idea of at least costing out bringing Frank over with him, and then Dave and Mike too to make it something really special – a ‘Four Brothers’ reunion. We wanted to use a UK trio, but needed to be sure they were musicians who had big band experience – Matt Skelton was my first call and when he suggested James Pearson and Jeremy Brown, I was obviously overjoyed.

“I’m really excited to be doing this – it’s a world exclusive – and we’re also looking at doing some sort of ‘saxophone section’ workshop with the band while they’re over here.”

So what can the audience expect at the these performances?

John Nugent again: “The audience can of course expect to hear many of the classic Woody Herman Orchestra sax hits such as Four Brothers, Early Autumn, Woody’s Whistle, etc, as well as many hard swinging arrangements voiced in the Four Brothers sound. The Four Brothers Reunion band will also perform modern arrangements penned by the great Frank Tiberi such as Central Park West, The Garz & I, Voyage, Bazoogle Boggled among others. Classic jazz at its finest.” (pp)

Woody Herman’s Four Brothers Reunion featuring Frank Tiberi and James Pearson Trio are at the Pizza Express Jazz Club (Soho) from 12-15 September (six performances).

LINK: Full details and booking

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