The Upstate Beat: Cliff Brucker’s Full Circle to celebrate career of saxophonist Leo Russo

Full Circle with Cliff Brucker, seated, and Leo Russo, right. (photo provided)

Full Circle with Cliff Brucker, seated, and Leo Russo, right. (photo provided)

Jazz fans tend to agree that two of the best saxophone players ever to hail from the Capital Region are Nick Brignola, who passed away in 2002, and the lesser known but equally gifted Leo Russo.

But the two saxophonists could not be more different, explains Cliff Brucker, a longtime jazz drummer, pianist, bandleader and Niskayuna resident who brings his Full Circle Sextet featuring Leo Russo to The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, in Albany on Thursday (Jan. 26).

“Nick was a hard bebop player. He played a lot of notes real fast. Leo is really laid back,” Brucker says. “He has a beautiful tone more in line with the famous Stan Getz, who had a soft, mellow sound.”

Russo’s understated tone, coupled with a low-key personality, allowed him to fly under the radar over the years, but his legacy is no less significant and worth celebrating, says Brucker, who planned the Linda show to honor the career of the 86-year-old saxophonist.

A “local legend,” as Brucker describes him, Russo worked and recorded with jazz heavyweights in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s before returning home to the Capital Region for good to raise a family and teach music at Troy High School.

“Everybody who knows Leo — from his biggest fans to jazz critics and aficionados — considers him to be so special,” Brucker says. “There’s never been anyone like him to come out of this area with his own sound. You know right away it’s Leo. He and Nick are world-class musicians who will always be remembered.”

Tonight’s show at The Linda also celebrates a musical friendship forged over decades between Russo and Brucker, a longtime faculty member at the College of Saint Rose and SUNY Schenectady before his retirement from the latter in 2021.

“I heard him play in the mid-’80s,” Brucker says. “I called him. We clicked and became fast friends. We’ve done hundreds of gigs together over the years. He turned 80 in 2016 when I was teaching at Schenectady County Community College. We had built a state-of-the-art music studio there. I said, ‘Let’s do a recording. We’ve got to get Leo on wax.’ ”

Russo now has two albums recorded with Brucker: “Full Circle” and “Full Circle Vol. 2,” both released to critical acclaim.

The Linda show, which promises to be a masterclass in accessible, swinging jazz, will be another milestone in Russo’s legacy — both a reunion of Full Circle and a celebration of Russo’s career.

In addition to Russo and Brucker, the sextet will feature guitarist Mike Novakowski, fiery young trumpet player Dylan Canterbury and a few illness-related substitutions. Capital Region jazz stalwart Pete Toigo will cover bass for Full Circle member Otto Gardner, while well-known local pianist Pete Levin will sit in for regular pianist Larry Ham.

“Leo will always be known as a local legend with world-class ability who chose to come home and make music here,” Brucker says. “It’s never too late to take a bow.”

The Week Ahead

— With modern arrangements of Nordic folk music and a sound described as both intense and dynamic, the Danish String Quartet comes to Albany on Saturday for an afternoon classical program at SUNY Albany’s downtown Page Hall (135 Western Ave., Albany). 3 p.m.

— Elton John tribute act Philadelphia Freedom promises a realistic and reverential revue of Mr. Captain Fantastic at Frog Alley Brewing Co. (108 State St., Schenectady) on Saturday. 8 p.m.

— The explosive frontman and guitarist Jon Spencer, formerly of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who last played in Albany circa 2013 at Valentine’s Music Hall, returns to the area on Tuesday with a new combo (the HITmakers) and a great opening act (Bloodshot Bill) for one of the most exciting lineups yet of 2023. Lark Hall (351 Hudson Ave., Albany). 8 p.m. 

Reach Kirsten Ferguson at [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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