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Gary Smulyan

w/ Brian Patneaude & Jack Fragomeni

North Pointe Cultural Arts Center
Kinderhook, NY

JUNE 4, 2005

by J Hunter

Nick Brignola was a fact of life in the Capital Region. Then cancer ended his life three years ago. But his influence lives on, both globally and locally. “It's hard to play the saxophone in this town and not look up to Nick's legacy,” tenorman Brian Patneaude told the capacity crowd at North Pointe Cultural Center.

Gary Smulyan echoed Patneaude's sentiment later that night. “Anyone who even looks at a baritone saxophone can't help but be influenced by Nick Brignola,” said Smulyan, an alto sax player who picked up the baritone when he got his first job with Woody Herman - which is interesting, since according to Smulyan, one of Herman's pet peeves was “alto players who played baritone.”

Smulyan's sense of range and texture (both this night and on disc, as a leader and with the Dave Holland Big Band) showed why he was a perfect fit for Saturday's tribute. The diminutive man in black negotiated the staggering jumps of Monk's “Evidence” without a hitch, and tore through a brilliant solo deconstruction of “Body and Soul”, eyes squeezed tight as he reached for both notes and breath. Pianist Pete Malinverni had his deconstruction hat on, too, giving us a playful, dancing solo rendition of “Just One Of Those Things”. Deconstruction wasn't all that was on his mind, as he showed with a wistful “Autumn In New York”, which Malinverni said, “will always be different for me after September 11th.”

Malinverni evokes images of an organist accompanying a gospel choir. He bobs and shakes and shimmies, his left foot keeping time like an old-time stride piano player. He gets his head so close to the keys, you wonder if he thinks he'll hear the notes better that way. It's almost comical until you realize how much delight he derives from his music, and this is how it manifests itself. The spirituality, in Malinverni and his music, is both palpable and impressive, and he gives as much joy as he takes. You may think joy is inappropriate for a memorial, but given the enjoyment Nick Brignola gave us throughout his life, then joy is not just appropriate; it is necessary. By the end of the night, the capacity crowd was whooping, laughing, clapping wildly as Smulyan & Malinverni drove each other higher and higher.

Patneaude & Fragomeni's set showed that the quality Brignola brought to the local scene has not dimmed. The only thing I love more than Patneaude's writing is his passion. His solos are in the same vein as Stan Getz - romantic but not sentimental - and his ease with the duo format is more proof of his chameleon-like flexibility. Fragomeni's solos seemed stark when Patneaude dropped out, and had me wishing for a bass player early on. But Fragomeni's intricate finger picking never let the music lose focus, and his solos and fills had both color and bounce.

My favorite moment came at the end of the evening. Smulyan & Fragomeni had held an education session for 15 high-school students earlier in the day. Three of those students - altoists Tom Finn & Austin Becker, and bassist Jonah Jonathan - joined the two professionals for a spirited rendition of Sonny Rollins' “Oleo”. That the students more than held their own is no surprise: Jonathan has taken lessons from Rufus Reid, Becker will be studying in Manhattan this summer, and Finn is the son (and occasional sideman) of local jazz-guitar mainstay Joe Finn.

While the rest of the evening showed the spirit of Nick Brignola's music lives in this generation of musicians, the encore showed the next generation is eager to carry it forward. And that's something to celebrate.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.