Jerry Bergonzi Quartet at Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho (12/13 Feb. 2022)

Saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi will be in London next month. It will be the first time he has ventured out of the US since the start of the pandemic. Preview by Charles Rees

Jerry Bergonzi. Publicity photo from Pizza Express live.

Michael Brecker was once asked how it felt to be ‘king of the tenor sax’. He famously responded; “I don’t know, you’d better ask Jerry Bergonzi.”, a quote that has followed the Boston-born saxophonist ever since. When I asked him about it he brushed it off in his typically humble manner, saying “I don’t think much of that quote, […] nobody can be king of the tenor sax.” That is indisputable, with players such as Chris Potter, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman on the scene (all of whom Bergonzi sited as some of the younger players he admires); not to mention the giants of his own generation: Mike Brecker, Bob Berg, Steve Grossman, Bob Mintzer… the list goes on. Even if he is uncomfortable with the quote, Bergonzi, who will be 75 later this year, is held in high esteem by all in the jazz world, not least of all those players, and with good reason.

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Bergonzi first caught international attention in the ’70s and ’80s playing with Dave Brubeck’s band, in many ways becoming Paul Desmond’s ‘replacement’ after his passing in 1977. Brubeck was of course not trying to replace Desmond; in the words of Bergonzi himself, “Nobody could replace Paul.” He instead brought a new, equally enthralling concept to Brubeck’s quartet – just watch the videos of their performances and look at Brubeck’s ear-to-ear smile as Bergonzi works his magic. Bergonzi made several recordings with the group before parting ways with them in 1982. He went on to forge a successful career as leader of his own bands, collaborating with contemporaries from Dick Oatts to Hal Galper, alongside his work as a full-time faculty member at New England Conservatory.

I first heard his music on the album Lineage, recorded live in 1989 with Mulgrew Miller on piano, Adam Nussbaum on drums, and bassist Dave Santoro. It exemplifies the typical Bergonzi set, bringing to the table three of his original compositions: “Red’s Blues”, “Jones” and “On the Brink”, a contrafact of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”, but with a latin feel and equally challenging melody. In addition he gives a nod to one of his musical heroes, performing a masterful rendition of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge”, and the ballad, “Everything Happens to Me”. He normally includes a ballad from the American songbook in his live performances. As he says: “I love playing ballads, it’s my favourite tempo because I feel freest. I can play slow, I can go across the time, there’s plenty of space.” His ballad playing is indeed something special, to look forward to every time.

What can we expect to hear at his upcoming appearances in the UK? “I might do a couple of reharms that I’ve done before, like “Witchcraft”; I might play a Monk tune, like “Pannonica”; and I might play a couple of contrafacts.”

His forthcoming London visit will be his first appearance outside of the US since the start of the pandemic. He will perform four sets over the course of his two-night residency at PizzaExpress Jazz Club, joined by Jason Rebello on piano, and Mark Hodgson on bass, who, together with drummer Stephen Keogh form part of an established quartet that Jerry co-leads with pianist Bruce Barth. How is playing with Stephen Keogh? “It’s awesome! He’s a fantastic player; really listens; he’s a gentleman… I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about him.”

Keogh has worked to bring many top American players to Europe, with greats from Bobby Watson and Eddie Henderson to Charles McPherson and Jeremy Pelt. In a time where players like Joe Lovano are seemingly missing the UK out of their tours, Keogh is doing something of immense value in bringing Jerry Bergonzi here. This rare appearance is not to be missed.

LINKS: Pizza Express bookings

Jerry Bergonzi’s website and instructional content

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