Concert Preview: Cliff Brucker’s Full Circle Sextet featuring Leo Russo @ The Linda, Jan. 26
ALBANY – When Cliff Brucker leads his Full Circle Sextet featuring Leo Russo on Thursday, Jan. 26 at WAMC’s The Linda, the word “featuring” tells the tale.
The show celebrates a musical friendship four decades deep between Brucker, an active drummer, pianist, bandleader, and sideman; and elder-statesman saxophonist Russo.
It all began with a homecoming, as Brucker recently recounted.
“When I first moved back to Schenectady in ’82 after being on the road and finishing college (Onondaga Community College, then the Crane School of Music), I heard about these two great (area) sax players, Nick Brignola and Leo Russo,” Brucker recalled.
Seeking a saxophone player for his projects, Brucker recognized that Brignola “had been an international player with many records under his belt,” but also that “Leo was a family man and just played locally.” So, when Brucker formed his own trio around 1986, he reached out to Russo.
Russo was in. “We became good friends and musical comrades over the years,” said Brucker. “I have learned so much from Leo, just being on the bandstand and hearing him play night after night. He has a sound and a sense of musicality that he alone possesses.” Brucker said, “No one plays like him. As soon as he starts to play you know it’s Leo!”
A musical generation older than Brucker, Russo personifies the truism that taste takes time, that restraint brings elegance. With a mellow warm tone and relaxed, easy swing in moving from note to note, Russo knows when not to play, how to leave space.
Years ago, Art Neville told me the Neville Brothers’ “secret groove,” as he called it, was knowing when not to play. The New Orleans HBO series “Treme” shows the late, great producer, pianist and bandleader Allen Toussaint leading a recording session. He singles out a player, noting, “That thing you played there?” Expecting praise, the player instead is told, “Don’t play that.” But I digress.
Brucker and Russo have often played together over the years, in Brucker’s bands, Russo’s Big Band and on his debut album “Leo Russo Plays.”
When Russo turned 80, Brucker built a band “with the idea of ‘getting him on wax.’” After teaching at the College of St. Rose in Albany, Brucker had joined the faculty at the former Schenectady County Community College (now SUNY Schenectady) where Dean William Meckley had led an ambitious expansion of its music program with new facilities, including a recording studio, and faculty, including Brucker.
To record there with Russo, Brucker said, “ I put together some musicians that have worked with him over the years including myself (playing drums), bassist Otto Gardner and Leo’s longtime friend, Mike Novakowski on guitar.” Brucker also recruited fellow Crane grad pianist Larry Ham whose credits include the pioneering jazz/R&B saxophonist Illinois Jacquet (1922-2004), and the young (now 30) trumpeter Dylan Canterbury alongside Russo in the band’s frontline. (Canterbury also teaches at SUNY Schenectady.) Brucker said, “The combination of the youth and fiery playing of Dylan against the mature and cool sound of Leo made for a fascinating pairing!”
Gardner and Novakowski are Brucker contemporaries and his frequent band-mates.
“As rhythm section players, Otto and I fit together like hand in glove,” said Brucker of the versatile bassist. “I don’t have to worry or even think about time and groove, it’s just there!”
Brucker said Novakowski “plays tasty lines and swings in the tradition of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Mike and I play together in a Jazz Organ Trio called WeeB3.” Novakowski also plays with the Empire Jazz Orchestra and violinist-singer Teresa Broadwell’s band, which featured Russo as guest last September at Albany Riverside Jazz Festival.
Keyboardist Pete Levin (of the Hudson Valley-based Levin Brothers with bassist Tony) sometimes subs in for Ham.
The 80th birthday session produced a highly praised album “Cliff Brucker Full Circle featuring Leo Russo” (2016) – 10 songs including jazz chestnuts, both famed and obscure, and a Brucker love-song original affectionately dedicated to his wife Denise.
“Excitingly propulsive and accessibly melodic Post-Bop sextet,” wrote (recently departed) Tom Pierce in AlbanyJazz.com, while WCDB jazz DJ Bill McCann pronounced it “Tasty, swinging, and right in the pocket.” Now retired SUNY Schenectady Music School Dean Bill Meckley said, “When players of this caliber play great tunes the result is pure magical and undiluted jazz!”
Brucker led his Full Circle band in many area gigs including an album release launch at Stoney’s Irish Grill in Schenectady. When the band went back into the studio to record “Vol. 2,” they had honed their sound. “‘Vol. 2’ was much more polished,” Brucker said, “as we had been doing concerts and shows such as Mona Golub’s Music Haven, Rivers Casino, the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy and A Place for Jazz in the Unitarian church in Schenectady in the fall of 2018.” Russo turned 81 on the last day of recording, and the album earned new kudos for the sextet.
As I reported in the Daily Gazette on March 15, 2018,
Cliff Brucker’s Full Circle featured a sub Sunday at Van Slyck’s in Rivers Casino, celebrating “Full Circle featuring Leo Russo Vol. 2” in an afternoon party. With keyboardist Pete Levin in for Larry Ham (who celebrated Full Circle’s first album at Stoney’s last year), they played from charts…They swung uptempo tunes (which dominated: the place was noisy) with confident muscle and drenched ballads in mellow sweetness.
A beautiful sound mix showed off the balance Brucker has carefully built into the band. At 81, Russo was robust in the bop tunes – “Airegin” had big swagger early – and quietly lyrical in ballads: “Laura” was outstanding, heart-breaking, late. Dylan Canterbury (also a stalwart of Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble) held his own up front with trumpet or flugelhorn. Mike Novakowski’s fat-body guitar echoed Wes Montgomery grace and Kenny Burrell boldness. Rock-steady, right in the pocket bassist Otto Gardner swung tight with Brucker’s drums. Barely raising a stick off the snare, as Gazette colleague Dave Singer, himself a drummer, noted, Brucker brought the thunder when the band hit high gear, and he cozied quietly up to the ballads…Levin’s keyboard gave varied sounds: acoustic or electric piano, or organ. Despite being the new kid, he glued Canterbury’s arrangements together with perfectly placed runs and chords, and soloed as if he’d composed everything.
Another drummer, WAMC jazz DJ and my former Gazette colleague Tim Coakley pronounced the sextet’s second album “Even better than Volume One…’Airegin’ swings like nobody’s business; and the way the great Leo Russo caresses ‘Emily’ will bring a tear to your eye. These guys are so good it’s scary.”
However, the pandemic shut down live performances, robbing the sextet of its momentum, until now.
“We had planed to keep searching out more gigs and planned to do another CD,” said Brucker, adding, “Covid got in our way.”
As the world began to re-open, Brucker co-led the Brucker-Weisse-Canterbury Jazz Orchestra (BWC-JO) big band and Cliff and Friends featuring singer Kaitlyn Fay (also the baritone saxophonist in Keith Prays’ Big Soul Ensemble, and a solo artist) in shows at WAMC’s the Linda. So he contacted its manager Peter Hughes to book the Full Circle Sextet.
(Brucker said the BWC-JO is looking to play again next month or in March and rehearses monthly at Schenectady’s Hibernian Hall. The area’s other big band, Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, last performed in July at the Cock ’N Bull in Galway and may play other shows, down the road. But I digress.)
Speaking of his Full Circle Sextet’s show Jan. 26 at The Linda, Brucker said, “Leo just turned 86, and I thought a reunion concert would be a great way to bring out all of the fans of Leo and jazz lovers of the region.”
Cliff Brucker’s Full Circle Sextet featuring Leo Russo performs Thursday, Jan. 26 at WAMC’s the Linda Performing Arts Studio (339 Central Ave., Albany). 8 p.m. $20. www.thelinda.org/events. 518-465-5233 ext. 158.
Also, Brucker, Russo and Novakowski will appear on WAMC’s the Roundtable morning talk show at 11:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23 in an interview with Joe Donahue to discuss the Jan. 26 concert.