Two lifetimes of master musicianship, three decades of friendship and fifteen years of one of the country’s finest undersung big bands all converge as bassist/bandleader/educator Chuck Bergeron and his versatile South Florida Jazz Orchestra present a wide-ranging program showcasing the music of saxophone great Rick Margitza. Featuring eight original compositions and a sumptuous arrangement of a timeless standard, Cheap Thrills: The Music of Rick Margitza ( out August 28, 2020 via Summit Records) is a document of warm camaraderie and profound respect, mutual admiration and engaging individuality.
The compositions chosen for Cheap Thrills span Margitza’s remarkable career, one that has included notable collaborations with Miles Davis, Maria Schneider, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, among countless others. The saxophonist’s journey has led him from his beginnings near Detroit to studies at the University of Miami and formative years in New Orleans before a move to New York City led to a fruitful tenure on Blue Note Records. He’s spent most of the last 20 years in Paris, where he’s forged relationships with such European jazz greats as Martial Solal, Jean-Michel Pilc and the Moutin Brothers.
Throughout the years Margitza’s path has crossed multiple times with that of Bergeron, beginning in the bassist’s native New Orleans, where the saxophonist moved in 1984 for a gig at the World’s Fair. It was at Margitza’s urging that Bergeron applied to the University of Miami, where he pursued his graduate studies and has gone on to join the faculty. In between those two stints in Florida, the two both moved to New York, where they roomed and performed together. Bergeron also appears on Margitza’s first outing for Blue Note, two songs recorded for the 1989 compilation New Stars On Blue Note, which announced a bumper crop that included the saxophonist along with labelmates Dianne Reeves, Eliane Elias and the soon-to-be all-star ensemble OTB.
“When I first met Rick, he was just an amazing tenor player from Detroit,” Bergeron recalls, marveling at the distance (actual and metaphorical) both men have traveled over the course of their 30-year friendship. “He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with, the kind of player that raises the level of all the musicians around him. For me, it’s always been a real special treat to get to play music with Rick.”
That individual artistry and collaborative spirit made Margitza the ideal guest to invite for the 15th anniversary of Bergeron’s South Florida Jazz Orchestra. The stellar ensemble brings together the most exceptional players on the South Florida jazz scene, many of them Bergeron’s fellow faculty members at the University of Miami. The band featured on this recording includes pianist Martin Bejerano, guitarist John Hart, drummer John Yarling, and Grammy-winning trumpeters Brian Lynch and John Daversa. The various members share deep roots in big band playing, and came together initially to celebrate that tradition. Modeling themselves on the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (later known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), the SFJO undertook a residency at Miami’s now-defunct Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club, with the full support and occasional collaboration of its namesake trumpeter.
Margitza has his own history with big bands, from his early opportunity touring with Maynard Ferguson to his years playing in the renowned Maria Schneider Orchestra. As he writes in the album’s liner notes, Cheap Thrills thus represents “the culmination of a process that started years ago.” Upon receiving Bergeron’s invite, Margitza sent the bandleader a number of charts to choose from. “To my pleasant surprise,” he recounts, “[Chuck] asked if I would be interested in doing an entire album of my music. Needless to say, I immediately said yes.”
Some of the tunes chosen for the date take on additional meaning given the two men’s history. “Widow’s Walk,” for instance,” was one of the two songs documented for New Stars On Blue Note. “It’s one of the tunes that I most equate with him,” Bergeron says. “To me, it’s signature Margitza. We recorded it with a small band when he was first starting out, so it as very nostalgic and special to revisit it with him and my big band all these years later.”
The simmering “Brace Yourself” is another early tune, originally recorded on Margitza’s Blue Note debut Color. “Sometimes I Have Rhythm” was previously rendered by the Motor City Jazz Octet, while “Walls” dates back to the saxophonist’s 1991 date Hope. The album’s sole standard, “Embraceable You,” is simply a lifelong favorite, here arranged by Dan Gailey. “That’s a tune that Rick always loves to play with small groups,” Bergeron says. “Rick comes from a family of classical musicians, and the way the melody of ‘Embraceable You’ is presented, it’s almost a little violin concerto.”
The album’s biggest challenge came via Margitza’s intricate, nearly 10-minute composition “Premonition.” After rehearsals, Bergeron and producer John Fedchock had decided to divide the challenging piece into three sections in order to master it. As the band recorded, they reached the agreed-upon stopping point – and kept right on going, mastering the song, beginning to end, in a single take. Afterwards, there was complete silence in the room, until Fedchock’s voice whispered, “What did you think about that?” Bergeron’s voice bellowed in response: “I love this f-ing band!”
Born and raised in New Orleans, Chuck Bergeron has been an in-demand bassist for four decades. Chuck studied at Loyola University and the University of Miami before joining the bands of Woody Herman and Buddy Rich. After the breakup of the Buddy Rich Band, Chuck moved to New York and embarked upon a 15-year career as a bassist, performing, recording, and touring worldwide with a host of jazz luminaries, including Stan Getz, Dave Grusin, Randy Brecker, Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Abercrombie, Tom Harrell, James Moody, Matt Wilson, Terell Stafford, Stanley Jordan and Elvis Costello. As a leader, Chuck has released eight albums, four of them at the helm of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. In 2000, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Miami and relocated to South Florida, where he currently runs the Jazz Bass Studio and serves as Director of the Jazz Pedagogy Program at UM’s Frost School of Music.