Jerry Bergonzi: Shifting Gears

Jerry Bergonzi has spent his career based in Boston, his hometown. But despite only having lived in New York for several years, he is still widely regarded as one of the finest tenor players on the international scene. This album of originals highlights Bergonzi’s penchant for upper extended note clusters, dizzying arpeggios and an airy, quicksilver sound that puts him right alongside the late Michael Brecker for his fluid and sweeping harmonic vision.

A longtime faculty member at New England Conservatory, Bergonzi reunites here with sidemen from the constellation of colleges in the area. Trumpeter Phil Grenadier, brother of bassist Larry Grenadier and an accomplished bandleader in his own right, teaches at Brandeis University; pianist Bruce Barth met Bergonzi while studying at NEC; bassist Dave Santoro teaches at Berklee; and drummer Andrea Michelutti, who lives in Paris, is the wild card.

Bergonzi spent a decade working with Dave Brubeck, and this foundation allows him to seamlessly bend the edges of traditional harmony. A professional-level pianist to boot, Bergonzi elevates jazz theory to a fine art, and it shows in his deconstruction of a tune’s form for improvisation. This wizardry is especially evident on “High Tops,” which repurposes “Speak Low,” and “Between Worlds,” which takes creative license with “How High the Moon.” Both tunes are barely recognizable to the untrained ear, but as with Hemingway’s iceberg principle, the rooting in standard repertoire is keenly felt.

Opener “Flying Red” has a pervasive dissonance married to a lilting melody, an odd contradiction that Bergonzi resolves through improvisatory sleight of hand. He reaches a fever pitch on “Wibble Wobble,” a topsy-turvy tune that serves as a master class on how to build a solo.