Jerry Bergonzi, Strange Brew Bristol, Wednesday February 9th

Did I imagine it or did the entire audience lean forward and sigh ‘ooo’ with the first breathy, languid phrase from Jerry Bergonzi on Witchcraft ? It may have sounded loose and casually free wheeling, but the band were locked together. Everyone could feel the energy, this was the real deal. The class might have been expected with Steve Keogh on drums, Mark Hodgson on bass, and Jason Rebello at the piano, but the chemistry with the visiting American shouldn’t be taken for granted. Bergonzi’s pedigree had brought a near capacity crowd out to the still new-ish venue in central Bristol, and they were treated to something special.

The two sets, with a light sprinkling of standards amongst the Bergonzi originals, covered a range of moods and styles. The loose medium swing of Witchcraft gave way to a flowing, even quavered groove on Bergonzi’s Freedom From. Ayaz was a modal burn up, elsewhere there was blistering, frenetic swing. Awake had an angular, spiky theme with a rolling pulse, there were ballads with Kenny Dorham’s La Mesha getting a lush reading and Bergonzi’s own Refuge bringing the house down with a spacious, astringent harmony and keening melody.

Whatever the material, it was the playing of course that was gripping. Bergonzi’s sound on tenor has a hoarse, crackling quality, intensely personal and redolent of life and experience. At times he scattered flurries on notes across a twisting sequence. On Freedom From Rebello built on a relaxed groove, first shapely lines, then piling up phrases and chords, Hodgson and Keogh built a seemingly unstoppable momentum in response without seeming to move a muscle, and then Bergonzi took over, weaving melodic lines and spiralling away taking the excitement on. Refuge too evoked beautiful solos, Rebello letting glistening motifs hang, twisting and extending the harmony underneath, Bergonzi responded with sighing, elegiac phrases. Keogh and Hodgson were essential partners. Keogh sometimes adding the merest detail, a ticking cymbal or shimmer of a drum skin, at others a volcanic rumble and groove. Hodgson at times generated such momentum that the unfurling, hectic, sinuous lines from the bass became solos themselves.

By the time the band were playing out on Love Thy Neighbour having been called back to the stand by a rapturous reception, it was clear we’d been served up a feast of contemporary jazz that will be filed in most people’s ‘I was there’ log, to be recounted and savoured.

The evening was courtesy of a combination of a few bits of the vibrant Bristol musical community. Headwind Music an instrument shop in Bristol run by three formidable players have a habit of finding imaginative ways of promoting their love of the sax. Securing Bergonzi on his tour of UK was something of a coup and the master did a master class in the shop in the afternoon. Strange Brew is a new, independent venue in Bristol, in an old showroom, and is proving a great space for all sorts of gigs. Get The Blessing were playing the night after Bergonzi. It may be a large concrete box under a multi-story car park, but the sound was great and the atmosphere just right. And a very nice selection of beers. They’d hired a piano for the evening, which was tuned by local keys/ piano man turned tuner Dale Hambridge. Team Bristol struck gold this week.

Photo Credit: Main image courtesy Headwind Music

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