Boston, a city touted for its beans, revolutionary tea party, the Kennedys and assorted sports heroes, should be better known in the world at-large for its great jazz musicians. I’m not referring to the notable legends who grew up there, but those who play by night and teach by day at the Berklee College of Music, the New England Conservatory and/or privately. While making excellent music themselves at home in Beantown or while touring the world, they are also committed to educating new generations of players.
Shut Wide Open showcases the strength and vitality of three such Boston musicians. Bassist Bruce Gertz, trumpeter Ken Cervenka and tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi have worked together in various settings since the 1970s. Their rhythm section on this session is completed by pianist Bruce Barth and drummer Jorge Rossy. Both players spent time at Berklee in the 1980s and have maintained important connections on the Boston jazz scene while developing their careers in New York and beyond.
Gertz, who has developed award-winning skills as a composer as well as a solid player with a long list of credits, has three previous excellent quintet albums under his belt (Blueprint on the Evidence label, Third Eye and Discovery Zone for RAM). All included Bergonzi, a spirited modernist whose New York credits included several years in Dave Brubeck’s quartet. Other better known tenor greats, including Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker, consider him a role model. “Jerry’s playing is full of spirit. He has a remarkable sense of time and rhythm. He plays some of the most interesting articulations and phrases that I’ve ever heard,” Gertz says. “He’s at the top of his game. He is constantly practicing, constantly growing and improving. He is always reaching for new things, and is helping me to do the same.” One of Jerry's groups features the likes of Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum recorded on the Double-Time Records label, Just Within DTRCD-127 and Lost In The Shuffle.
As he put together this new quintet, Gertz asked the under-recorded Cervenka to be his co-leader. These longtime friends met on their first day of school at Berklee in 1972. Cervenka has taught full-time at Berklee since 1980, offering private lessons as well as courses on improvisation and the music of Miles Davis. “I’ve always loved Ken’s playing,” Gertz explains. “He is so good and really hasn’t been heard much beyond Boston. I wanted more people to hear his playing and his music.”
Barth spent several years on the road with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. He is coming into his own as a bandleader with several fine recordings. Barth's release, Don't Blame Me DTRCD-129, is also on the Double-Time Records label where he is featured in a trio setting with Ed Howard and Billy Drummond. Rossy’s musical associations include work with David Sanchez, Brad Mehldau, and Seamus Blake’s band, the Bloomdaddies.
Four of the players brought music to the studio for this session and it blends well. Gertz, for one, said writing and arranging for the harmonic interplay between Bergonzi’s tenor and Cervenka’s trumpet “makes for a beautiful sonority. I think of my music as modern, but there is no doubt that I am rooted in the old Coltrane, Miles, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus records.” The depth, the spirit and the melodic and harmonic inventiveness in this music may remind some listeners of trumpeter and composer Tom Harrell’s music. Any Harrell fans out there will understand this compliment. This quintet’s talent and material strives for the same level of excellence.
Gertz’s opening tune, “Letter From Ghana,” is based on Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.” He imposed the melody’s first three notes over a different rhythm, then harmonically stretched and expanded the pattern over many measures to create a fresh improvisational framework. Bergonzi brought in “Toots,” a lyrical tribute that captures the spirit of harmonica player Toots Thielemans’ playing.
Cervenka’s title track “Shut Wide Open,” offers a fresh slant on the chord changes of “I’ve Got Rhythm.” While “Rhythm changes” are the framework for many jazz adaptations - including “Dexterity,” “Lester Leaps In,” “Anthropology,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” and even the cartoon theme from “The Flintstones”- - Gertz says its possibilities are far from exhausted. “Most people use the same bridge but Ken’s is slightly different. It goes down a whole step then works its way up chromatically to a substitute dominant chord. Ken and Jerry’s solo exchanges leading into Jorge’s drum solo are really excellent. It’s a multiple improvisation of contemporary rhythms, lines and harmonies.”
Gertz original, was inspired by his visit in 1996 with a Berklee faculty
quintet to the Spanish-held Atlantic isle, which is famous for its black
sand beaches. “It was so beautiful, I had to write a song for it.” Gertz
Cervenka’s bossa-flavored “Booga Chacha Lu” provides a solid groove for some of the session’s most heated solos. Gertz decided to revisit “Blueprint,” one of his oldest compositions which was the award-winning title track of his 1991 debut recording. He added a second horn part and voiced the intervals in sixths to take full advantage of the trumpet/tenor harmony.
Barth hadn’t finished his lone written contribution to the project when he arrived for the session. But during every break, he was busy writing. During lunch on the second day, he wrote out the parts and handed his bandmates the music to “The Revolving Door.” It turned out to be one of the session’s all-around highlights. “We nailed it within a couple of tries,” Gertz said. “It is like an epic piece with interesting sections. I love the climaxes of the melody, the way it builds. It seems to swell in places like waves of sound. Jerry blisters through the chord changes. And Jorge and I are locked into some hip rhythmic patterns. The harmony has lots of chromatic motion. It gives you that feeling of lifting up and letting down - not only in the melody, but in the harmony as well.”
The way these players masterfully jumped into the material and found ways to make it their own, speaks to the caliber of talent and the essence of improvisation. “The aspect of seeing a tune for the first time and playing it down, is as fresh an improvisation as you’ll get,” Cervenka says. “When you don’t know a tune and don’t have expectations, it can make for some nice solos.” In other words, when they put it down on paper, they have a plan, a goal. When they join forces with their instruments, their instincts and their solos, they bring it to life.