Thursday, June 2, 2011

Paul and His Pals

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Musicians are often better known through the company they keep and bassist Paul Brusger keeps very good company.

To drop a few names: trumpet players Valery Ponomarev, John Swana, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and pianists Dado Moroni, Hod O’Brien and John Hicks.

All of these fairly well-known Jazz performers have appeared at one time or another on Paul’s recordings along with his constant companions: the startlingly brilliant young tenor saxophonist, George Allgaier and the very dependable drummer, John Jenkins. [“Dependable” in the way that every horn players wants a drummer to be – “felt” more than “heard.”]

Paul’s association with these superb musical “pals” helps give the title of this piece one of its meanings.

The other implication which makes the title into a double entendre is that Paul’s major influence as a bassist was the late, great Paul Chambers.

Of course, to the Jazz cognoscenti, Paul’s Pal  - the basis for the play-on-words in the title - is a Jazz standard penned by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and is named after … you guessed it … bassist Paul Chambers!

This now completes the circle of allusions inherent in the heading.

When combined, all of these references – working with first-rate musicians, being influenced by one of the great Jazz bassist and the compositions of legendary Jazz players - form the larger context for a visit with the music of Paul Brusger.

Put another way, Paul is the sum of all these parts: he plays well, writes well, and associates himself with exceptional musicians who all get to play on some excellent music that he has composed.

When listening to Paul’s CD’s, its almost impossible to separate these, three unifying threads.

Maybe its because the human mind seems to grasp things better when they appear in sets of three: red, green and blue are the basic color palette; according to Zen Masters the entire universe can be described by, and contained in, a circle, a triangle and a square; with Paul Brusger you get to listen to original Jazz compositions played by superb musicians all of which is held together by strong bass playing.

Of course, I could push this analogy even further by explaining that to date, Paul has issued three CD’s under his own name, but I think it would probably be more appropriate to talk specifically about the music itself at this point.

Scott Yanow opens his insert notes to Paul’s 1997 CD You Oughta Know It [Brownstone BRCD-2-002] by observing:

“Paul Brusger will be a new name to many listeners but it is obvious, listening to his particularly strong debut, that he is not just a fine bassist in the tradition of Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins and Oscar Pettiford but an up-and-coming com­poser too.

Of the ten songs, two are standards, two are his own blues and his six other originals have chord changes that are viable vehicles for solos in the hard bop tradition.

‘I'm amazed how fast it came together,’ says the bassist.’ I gave each of the players the charts one day, we rehearsed for three hours and then we went into the studio the next day. Particularly because so many of the songs are original, I was very impressed by how quickly the musicians made the music their own.’”

To give his listeners a basis in familiarity, Paul does include standards such as Do Nothin’ ‘Till You Hear From Me, Love Letters, and Falling in Love With Love on his disc, but, in the main, what’s on offer here is Brusger Bop – Jazz compositions written in the straight-ahead, hard-bop style often associated with Tadd Dameron, Gig Gryce and Sonny Clark, to name only a few.

Joining Paul, George Allgaier and John Jenkins on You Oughta Know It are trumpeter Valery Ponomarev and pianist Dado Moroni.

Because of Valery’s heavily influenced Clifford Brown style of playing and George Allagier’s deep affinity for Sonny Rollins, the front-line soon adopts a trumpet-tenor sound that is very reminiscent of the original Clifford Brown- Max Roach quintet.

But influences and comparisons aside, this is Paul Brusger’s music.  It is new and it is fun to play on.  Paul knows what he’s doing and in doing it he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that he has to create compositional vehicles that make it possible for other musicians to create inspired solos.

Whether it’s the rhythmically challenging Urban Lullaby or the medium tempo blues homage contained in Paul’s Chamber [which appropriately leads off with a bass solo – how often do you hear that happen these days?], or the up-tempo burner, Swing Street, with its finger-poppin’ notations, Paul’s composition just lay so right that you can hear everybody having a ball playing on them.

And although Paul’s originals have a familiarity to them [Swing Street, for example, is closely related to I’ll Remember April], they are structured in such a way as to make it possible for the musicians to take chances.

What comes through is the joy, happiness and excitement – the infectious energy of Jazz being created at the highest musical level.

I can imagine the looks of satisfaction that the musicians exchanged with one another after safely navigating through the complexities of Swing Street’s theme, each having had a few “seafaring adventures” along the way in the form of the solos they created based on the tune’s changes.

More of the same can be found on Paul’s 2006 release Go To Plan B [Consolidated Artists Productions CAP 998]. This time, Paul, George and John are in the company of Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone and John Hicks on piano.

In bringing the musicians on this album together, Paul noted:

“I love the baritone sax and I thought it would be a nice blend with tenor, a dark and rich ensemble sound particularly since Cuber has a hard sound while George's tone is softer. I have a very good rapport with John Jenkins and George Allgaier, both of whom I knew from Florida. We have a good kinship and camaraderie; they really have a feel for my music."

And Scott Yanow commented:

“Paul Brusger's latest set is a delight for hard bop and modern mainstream jazz fans. On Go To Plan B, he contributed six of the selections, with one original apiece from Cuber and Hicks plus the standard "Love Letters." The musicians were challenged by the new material yet sound quite comfortable, swinging hard and with constant creativity.”

Ronnie Cuber has been the subject of a previous profile on the blog which you can find by going here.

On Paul’s recording he absolutely soars.  In musician parlance, he plays his backside off. I’ve always been impressed with Ronnie’s ability to get around the baritone saxophone, but on this CD he does so with a fleetness and a ready invention of ideas that is breathtaking at times.

On this outing, Paul puts together an unusual and varied program of originals including a chart that is based on the changes of Coltrane’s Giant Steps [Paul’s Don’t Stop Now] as well as one based on these same changes although this time played backwards – Is What It Is. Talk about challenges!

There’s also a beautiful waltz [Waltz for Lady Nancy], a flag-waver based on the changes to Night and Day [Paul’s Listen Today for Tomorrow’s Answer] and an original from pianist John Hicks [Peaceful Moments] and Ronnie Cuber’s [Ponta Grossa].

Special mention needs to be made of tenor saxophonist George Allgaier who comes at the instrument in a way that features ever-changing approaches and styles. And talk about taking chances! George is all over the horn with beautiful and sometimes scarily put together solos.  No wonder Paul records with him whenever possible. George’s improvisational journeys really serve to keep the music alive.

Hicks comps beautifully and does what he does best – creates musical solos that fall so softly on the ears.

With Paul and John Jenkins rock solid on the time, the album is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.

Paul’s continues this old and new friends format on his next CD – Definitely released on Philology [W733.2] in 2008.

Along with tenor saxophonist George Allgaier and drummer John Jenkins, Paul brought along veteran pianist Hod O’Brien and Philadelphia-based trumpeter John Swana to the date.

Philology’s owner, Paolo Piangiarelli offered these reflections on the music and the musicians in his insert notes:

“This beautiful cd is the tangible, even touching evidence, proving that the new generation of US young jazzmen respects and loves the great tradition of modern jazz developed in the legendary forties by their ingenious precursors: Bird, Diz, Bud, Monk... Respect, love, but also a conscious practice getting deep into a music that was - and stays - complex, well-constructed, tough, delicate and powerful, to be handled and checked with the fundamental creativity and technical skills that these guys have.

So here's a quintet of modern beboppers whose overwhelming sensibility and ability allow them to launch into important solos, of the kind that remains impressed in your memory. The band is directed by wonderful bassist Paul Brusger, who draws new melodic lines of charming, intriguing beauty, in which reminiscences of a great past - never to be denied - add new colours and strengthen the impact with the listeners. The musicians' skills can consequently stand out: John Swana's agile and expressive trumpet, George Allgaier's luxuriant and imaginative sound of tenor sax, the piano lesson offered by the mythical Hod O'Brien and the rhythmic subtlety owned by the agile and propelling drummer John Jenkins, the group's engine. …

Paolo Piangiarelli

Once again the listener is treated to a varied program of Paul’s originals all written more or less in the style of hard bop championed by groups such as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

But here again, although the manner of writing has much in common with the modern Jazz of the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, Paul makes the tunes sound fresh through small adjustments to the harmonies, being careful to play them in the right tempos and by creating melodic platforms for today’s young players like John Swana and George Allgaier to express their newer approaches to improvising.

There’s a lot of new music here. With the exception of a repeat of Waltz for Lady Nancy, Paul contributes nine, previously unrecorded tunes to the date; not an easy thing to do while still keeping the music interesting and distinct.

Some guys have a gift for composition and Paul Brusger is one of those guys.

One hears so often these days about Jazz not being what is used to be and that today’s players don’t have anything appealing to offer.

The music on these CDs by Paul Brusger and his pals provide over three hours of Jazz composed and played at the highest levels of professionalism and artistic expression, all of which serve as a living contradiction to such a nonsensical assertion.

If these recordings are any indication, Jazz is in good hands.

It must be nice to have friends, er… pals like Paul’s!

The following video contains a sample track from one of Paul’s CDs.