A Brisker Ride With Song ‘Jockey’ Anita O’Day : Jazz: Saxophonist Gordon Brisker, who leads the veteran artist’s backup rhythm group at Maxwell’s this weekend, tries to go with the flow both on and off the stage.
Anita O’Day has never been accused of timidity--at least not when it comes to music. After 50-plus years in the business, virtually all of it as a prominent jazz singer, she does not tolerate musical sloppiness without raising a big-time fuss.
“Oh, Anita can be blunt, all right,” says saxophonist Gordon Brisker, who will lead the veteran artist’s backup group Friday through Sunday at Maxwell’s in Huntington Beach. “She definitely doesn’t suffer fools too easily.”
Brisker speaks with considerable authority. He has been O’Day’s de facto musical director for the past five or six years; he is well aware of her reputation for calling things as she sees them, with neither guile nor indirectness.
But he feels O’Day may still be taking a bad rap for behavior that is long past.
“Her reputation for being difficult,” Brisker says, “that’s all stuff from a long time ago. And I just don’t think it applies anymore.
“Sometimes, when we’ve been traveling all day, and the pressure’s on, she can have her difficult moments. But don’t forget, she’s been through enough hassles for 10 lifetimes, and she’s one of the last great surviving jazz singers. So maybe she’s entitled to be a little eccentric at times.”
O’Day’s performances in recent years have revealed a surprisingly creative vigor, as well as a sense of swing and enthusiasm that recalls her classic recordings with Gene Krupa in the ‘40s and her superb solo work of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A part of the credit for her musical renewal would seem to trace to the easy, onstage interaction with Brisker.
“Well, I like think she’s come out of her shell a lot since I’ve been hanging with her,” says Brisker, a bit reluctant to overemphasize the importance of his role in their musical relationship.
“But I think the real reason she hired me,” he adds with a laugh, “is that she likes the way I sing the Roy Eldridge duet with her on ‘Let Me Off Uptown.’ Plus she knows she can count on me to get her to the airport and take care of all the little details to get us from one gig to the next.”
Brisker, born 55 years ago in Cincinnati, is a seasoned jazz performer. His resume includes stints with Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Bennett, Bobby Shew and Louie Bellson. He has written music and/or played on the soundtracks for TV shows such as “Hunter,” “MacGyver,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Tonight Show” and has three albums of his own on Discovery Records. He prides himself on the variety of experience he has had in genres from jazz to big band to pop to New Age.
Although he continues to compose for television and film, teach and collaborate on productions with other artists, jazz is the heartbeat that energizes his activities.
“I guess if I had my druthers,” Brisker says, “I’d be making the New York jazz scene the way a guy like Joe Lovano does. I’ve been studying 20th-Century composition lately, and I’ve got a lot of ideas I’d like to adapt for jazz quartet. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the other things I’m doing, because I try to make everything into a creative challenge. But I sure like grooving with a solid rhythm section. There’s just nothing like it.”
Fortunately, O’Day is on precisely the same wavelength. Reluctant to identify herself as a vocalist, she has preferred such descriptions as “song stylist” or, reflecting her fascination with the racetrack, “a jockey of songs.” The subtleties of rhythm have always been vital to her music, and her appearances often are colored by on-the-spot conducting of bass and drum passages.
O’Day’s program at Maxwell’s will be enlivened by a first-rate rhythm team. House bassist Jim De Julio will anchor the section, with the dependable George Gaffney on piano. Jim Paxson--described by Brisker as “one of the finest drummers I’ve heard in a long time"--can be expected to provide the kind of urgent, East Coast-style drive favored by both O’Day and Brisker.
The other predictable element--true of almost any O’Day performance--is guaranteed un predictability. Spontaneity is a way of life for the singer, and Brisker tries to go with the flow, knowing that audiences respond well to O’Day’s unassuming, off-the-cuff stage manner.
“It gets pretty casual,” he says, “generally depending on what night of the week it is, or maybe even what time of night. There’s just never an air of formality with Anita; that’s not her thing. She definitely likes to work in a stream of consciousness--like a real jazz person. Whatever hits her at any given moment, musically, is what we’ll do. Usually it’s as simple as her turning to me and saying ‘Give me an eight-bar intro and we’ll do “Indiana.” ’ People love that kind of spontaneity, and so do I.”
Brisker has also found that his association with O’Day has furnished an unexpected form of music education.
“Anita is a true master at what she does,” he says. “She’s been performing for so long, in so many different circumstances, that she knows exactly how to keep from painting herself into a corner. She has a phrase that she uses--'over-improvising'--which, to her, means that you’re trying too hard, or you’re thinking too hard. And that’s something that horn players, as well as singers, have to keep in mind.
“Another thing she talks about, that I’ve found very useful, is an approach to breathing by stretching out the breath; she describes it as being like casting a fishing line out and rolling it back in gradually.”
“And then,” Brisker adds, “there’s her sense of rhythm. It’s absolutely impeccable. She can elongate a phrase, or shorten a phrase, or turn it around. Sometimes I’ll stand there and think, ‘My God, the time’s turned upside down,’ and then, all of a sudden, she comes right back on the downbeat. Amazing. I’ve really learned some stuff about music from her.
“Yeah, every once in a while I think, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” he says. “And the answer is that working with Anita O’Day is one of the rare authentic jazz gigs one can have these days. I get to play a few tunes with the group every night, and I’m working with a seventy-something lady who is still loaded with enthusiasm for jazz.
“When we’re on the road, and she gets up on the stand and says something like, ‘Wow, we’re in Chicago; this is the real thing!’ That’s inspiring,” Brisker says. “The bottom line is that Anita’s working hard to keep jazz alive, and I’m happy to be a part of the process.”
* Anita O’Day will be joined by saxophonist Gordon Brisker, bassist Jim De Julio, pianist George Gaffney and drummer Jim Paxson at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 4 and 6 p.m. on Sunday at Maxwell’s by the Sea, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. $5, plus $7 food-drink minimum. (714) 536-2555.