For Brucker, work has come ‘Full Circle’

Will lead group Friday at A Place for Jazz
Cliff Brucker, left, and Leo Russo will join the rest of Full Circle in concert Friday night.
Cliff Brucker, left, and Leo Russo will join the rest of Full Circle in concert Friday night.

Categories: Entertainment

Drummer Cliff Brucker has been a jazz mainstay in the Capital Region for more than three decades and is bringing his band Full Circle to A Place for Jazz on Friday. While the venue will be filled with jazz fans, the jazz scene itself has changed mightily over the years.

“There were a lot of places to play back in the ’80s,” Brucker said. “Especially Albany. I could play six nights a week.”

Brucker had already been out of college for a few years, having attended Onondaga Community College before getting his bachelor’s degree from Crane School of Music in Potsdam as well as playing plenty of road gigs. But by the early 1980s, he was back in the area working regularly with a six-piece band, among other groups. 

“We’d work Thursday through Saturday for a month at Justin’s [a jazz club in Albany],” he said.

Like all jazz musicians, though, Brucker knew that to be successful, he had to have other talents. And he did: He could play piano and write short, catchy tunes for jingles that companies would use in advertising.

“I did a lot of jingle work on piano for ad agencies,” Brucker said.

It was that talent that brought him a gig with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. They were doing one of their pops shows with a focus on Frank Sinatra’s tunes, but the pianist they initially hired turned the job down when the music arrived.

“The music was all chord changes,” Brucker said, laughing.

That’s standard fare for any jazz musician, whose sheet of music is a tune and the harmonic or chord changes that a pianist must play under the tune to improvise on. With little rehearsal, Brucker easily did the concert.

“That was a thrill,” he said.

Another opportunity came his way. After he’d played in a recital at The College of Saint Rose, he was offered an assistantship to teach there, which allowed him to receive a master’s degree and to work with the college’s big band. A few years later, he was also made an adjunct professor at SUNY Schenectady County Community College. 

“I was living the life of the adjunct, going between the two jobs, living out of my car and doing studio work,” he said.

After he was made a full professor at SCCC to teach jazz history and a class in the music business, Brucker left St. Rose after 14 years. 

Meanwhile, the local jazz scene had been ebbing. Justin’s, which had been an Albany mainstay, was closed. One Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs was gone. Road work and weddings were more about rock and pop bands and what Brucker calls “party bands,” which no jazz musician wants to play, he said

New York City beckoned, with its avant-garde bands, but by the time expenses were paid, there wasn’t much left over. And 9 Maple in Saratoga Springs was booked two years out.
“It’s tough for the jazz artist,” he said.

So two years ago, Brucker decided he wanted to get old colleagues together and make a recording. He contacted tenor saxophonist Leo Russo, who was 79 then; trumpeter Dylan Canterbury; pianist Larry Ham; bassist Otto Gardner; and guitarist Mike Novakowski. “Full Circle, Vol. 1” has a selection of classic jazz, bop, postbop and a Brucker original.

Reviews were outstanding and gigs came for the Albany Jazz Fest, Music Haven and the Troy Arts Center. The group’s second CD, “Full Circle, Vol. 2,” was recently issued, also strongly praised, and Brucker is hoping to get bookings at jazz festivals, which have started to sprout up locally.

Full Circle

WHERE: A Place for Jazz: Unitarian Universalist Society, 1221 Wendell Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $20; $10 for students;
12 and under, free
MORE INFO: 518-393-4011; www.

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