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After the workshop. Jerry Bergonzi talks

John Robert Brown

Jerry Bergonzi has much patience and a ready wit. He's kind to the students who have turned up for his workshop. Now it's question time. Tenor saxophone in hand, baseball cap on head, Bergonzi relaxes on a speaker cabinet. Chatting in a soft voice, he makes long pauses after each answer, to give those present time to gain courage to interrogate him. The questions are varied.

"What sort of things do you practise for a good sense of time?" "For intonation?" "How much of what you do is improvised?" "What's your view of Jamie Cullum?" "Do you have a record deal?" "Will you play us something modal?" "What's that cap you are wearing?" "Do you think it's important to try to compose?" "Where do you think jazz is heading?" "Do you ever play completely free?"

He answers each question fully and seriously, illustrates some of the points by playing his saxophone, or walks over to the piano buffet to illustrate a point of harmony. His humour bubbles up constantly. Jerry Bergonzi would have made a good stand-up comic. Obviously, he's a good teacher.

He tells the students that he used to teach astrology, that he used to meditate. He wishes he had practised less when at college (Berklee) and had spent more of the time chasing girls, recommends that they read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, and says that yes, composition is an important thing to do - but don't try to make the perfect piece. That's impossible. Just do it, he says. The discourse touches on George Bush, Kenny G, the National Endowment for the Arts, the merits of curved soprano saxophones, the current unhappy state of jazz record sales - and the changes he used on the modal blues just now.

Later, when we chat privately, he comments on the ubiquity of the questions.

"The thirst for knowledge about this music is all over the planet," he says. "No matter where we go, the questions are the same, the interest is the same. The people listen to the same records, they know the same music. It's incredible.

They have new heroes today. When I was growing up I had my current heroes, but I made it a point to go back to hear the people who came before them. I'm sure they'll do the same."

I ask him about his own saxophonic influences.

"Well, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter..." He rattles them off fluently, without having to think. "...Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Stitt, Bird...I could go on...Cannonball, Lester Young, Lee Konitz, Wayne Marsh, Charlie Mariano... I didn't meet all of them, but I got a chance to hear a lot of them.

"I played with Paul Desmond, I played with Gerry Mulligan, I played with Charlie Mariano, I played with Bill Evans the piano player, with Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes...

"Paul Desmond - he was such a great guy, you just couldn't wait for him to say something. He had such a dry wit. One day I got off the bandstand and he said, 'Man, where did you get all those chops?' At a young age Desmond realized that he didn't like to practice, so had to invent a style that didn't need any chops!

Bergonzi has a new CD on sale today, which he's keen to mention.

"That was recorded live at the Duc de Lombard in Paris. It captures what we do live, it really does. We play a few standards and some originals. It's got a lot of twists and turns, and great energy. You can hear the crowd getting involved. It's really a lot of fun. We did two nights; we couldn't use the first night at all, because of sound problems. The second night was the better night anyway, and we got two CDs out of it.

"Paris is great. I just love being there. And of course the Selmer saxophone people, Patrick and Jerome Selmer, have been so wonderful to me. We just spent the day there with them. They are so fantastic, they way they work with saxophones.

"I did a duet concert last night with Philippe Geiss, two saxophones, at the Selmer showroom in Paris. Boy, that was just a blast. Philippe played bass saxophone, tenor, alto, soprano, sopranino. I just sat there with the tenor and played a little soprano. But it was a lot of fun.

"Selmers get feedback, in a small way. They get many players and say, 'What do you think about our horn?' We give them the feedback that we can. They listen to us, and they pool all the information. Of course, designing a saxophone is slow work. 'Okay, we're going to try to enlarge the neck here.' Or, 'We'll make the bore a little larger.' They'll try it, and they'll let a whole group of other people play it. Then they ask, 'What do you think of that, compared to the last?' It's like that. It's not done with computers, it's by players playing the horn.

"After this? I fly home to Boston, then I pick up the pieces of what I have to do there - emails, faxes, phone calls. I have a ten year old daughter and a thirteen year old son, a lovely wife, and I teach at New England Conservatory, so I got a whole plate at home.

"The New England Conservatory people like me to go on the road. They like me to keep a professional profile in the music business.

"I have a recording project with Harri Ihanus from Sweden. He's coming into Boston. These guys are also doing a play-along CD for my new book. It's my seventh volume, for Advance Music, on hexatonics [six-note scales]. 'If you're not feeling that well, have a hexatonic,' he says, in a mock radio-commercial voice, then laughs.

"I haven't been to England since 1981, when I was with Dave Brubeck. It's that long ago; it seems like yesterday. We played the Royal Festival Hall and Alexandra Palace. We had ten days for one stay. I can remember going out every day to a museum."

Does he manage to maintain a schedule of daily practice?

"Since March, I practice the drums for a couple of hours - this is when I have the time. Then I just take a little break, have lunch, and practice the tenor for two hours. That's an average day. I've played the drums all my life, but now I'm going nuts. I just got these new Zildjian cymbals, and I'm having the time of my life. I'm like a little kid. I can't wait to go practice again. It helps me play the saxophone. Maybe it uses the same part of the brain? I'm learning new things. That helps me. Keeps me young."

First published in Jazz Review. Used by permission.
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