Gordon Brisker gets around, and in a variety of musical guises.
A few Tuesdays ago, the fat, jubilant tones of Brisker's tenor sax were giving the great singer Anita O'Day ideas to play off of during a performance before a jampacked Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood.
About a week later, Brisker teamed up with trumpeter Dick Forrest and led a very tasty post-be-bop assemblage at the Club Brasserie, offering crack solos on such bubbling wares as his own "Lester Left Out" to substantial applause.
Shifting the format once again, Brisker will dust off his Big Band book and appear with his 12-piece ensemble Tuesday at the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Sherman Oaks. O'Day, for whom Brisker has served as musical director for about a decade, will offer guest vocals.
And behind the scenes, Brisker, who has lived with his wife, Cindy, a TV director, in North Hollywood for two decades, composes 20th-Century classical and jazz pieces--of the latter, he has concocted 200 such works in his career. And he recently earned a master's degree in composition from Cal State Los Angeles.
All these activities cause Brisker to seek new musical vistas, reach for unheard sounds, he said.
"I like all kinds of music, and as I get older, I want to get more into things that are a stretch," said the musician, 56, a native of Cincinnati. "Jazz is a stretch. Writing 20th-Century legit style--that's a stretch.
"I think about what I want to leave behind," he continued. "Do I want to leave something that's like a Spyro Gyra copy?" he asks rhetorically, referring to the well-known pop-jazz band, "or leave what I can really do?"
What Brisker can really do is play gutsy jazz tenor saxophone, and compose with feeling and verve.
Critic Harvey Siders called Brisker's writing "clean, modern, with a meticulous concern" for the tonal colors that result from the way the sounds of the various instruments are blended. Fellow saxophonist Dave Pozzi, after observing Brisker's inventive, moving improvising at the Club Brasserie, said with a smile, "Gordon's cooking."
Brisker's musical plate has continually been full. He has performed with the Big Bands of Woody Herman, Louie Bellson and Bill Holman, has backed O'Day, and has been part of small groups led by trumpeter Bobby Shew and others.
He's made five albums as a leader, including 1986's "About Charlie," with a quintet featuring trumpet maestro Tom Harrell and renowned pianist Cedar Walton, and "New Beginning," a 1989 date with his Big Band. In addition, Brisker's written a guidebook, "Jazz Improvisation and the Inner Person," to aid novice improvisers.
Like so many Los Angeles area musicians, Brisker takes his work where he can get it. Recent assignments have included everything from doing a jingle for a New Zealand company to some orchestrating for a TV show, from performing with Pat Long's Big Band at a North Hollywood high school to playing a one-night "casual" at a Beverly Hills hotel. This kind of across-the-board employment isn't exactly what Brisker had in mind when he started in music--he simply wanted to be a jazz soloist--but he's not complaining.
"Every week is different, and that makes it fun, and hair-raising, since you're always kind of going on a wing and a prayer," he said. "But, thank God, things are pretty good."
Brisker, who feels he's still evolving as a player and writer, sees his best years as lying ahead of him. He pointed out an aging artist's remark that he felt mirrored his own life: "The man said he had lived a long and successful life because he had picked something to do that he knew he could never accomplish."
Welcoming the challenges of music and finding your place within it can be tricky, Brisker said. "You can't compare yourself with others," he said. "We all want to think we're the next great hope, but as soon as you get past that, you're on your way."
WHERE AND WHEN
What: Gordon Brisker's Big Band, with guest vocalist Anita O'Day, at the Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
Hours: 8 and 10 p.m. Tuesday.
Price: $12 cover, two-drink minimum.
Call: (818) 788-2000.