Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Revisiting Gary Smulyan

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

What with recent postings about Rik van den Berg, the late Bob Gordon and Ronnie Cuber, some readers of the blog would think that I'm in a baritone saxophone bag these days.

They would be right.

I've been trying to concentrate individual postings about an artist into one feature for ease of researching in the blog archives. 

One of these efforts which is still very much a work-in-progress has to do with consolidating my previous 5-part feature on Gerry Mulligan. When done, the Jeru profile will run about 100 pages of manuscript which will make it almost a small book on Gerry and his music.

Sadly, there remains no single, book length study on Gerry in publication, one of the most significant Jazz musicians of the 20th century. Perhaps my efforts at compilation may suffice in the meantime.

Another of these all-in-one-place efforts has to do with baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan who at the time of my original posting on him in July, 2010 was largely known to me through his early recordings for Gerry Teekens' Criss Cross Jazz and Mark Feldman at Reservoir Records.

I have since broadened our awareness of Gary travels in the world of Jazz to include several other sources, two of which I have done subsequent postings on: [1] his work with Mark Masters at the American Jazz Institute and [2] his recent work on Tom Burns' Capri label.

You'll find both of these recent looks at Gary's work appended at the end of this revisit along with a video playlist of his music.

Gary plays with fire in the sense of verve, vigor and vitality.

He plays with, fire, too, in the sense that he is a risk-taker. Gary tries to play what he hears in his head and feels in his heart, not always an easy thing to do when you have to take a deep breath and blow it through the equivalent of a compressed central plumbing system to make music.

But that's the nature of Jazz: overcoming the technical problems of playing an instrument while at the same time creating interesting melodies on the spot.

You can't take anything back that you've just put out there. There's is no safety net.

The Act of Creation is rarely seen for what it really is - An Act of Courage.

And no one on today's Jazz scene has more sang-froid than Gary Smulyan.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I can’t remember the first time I heard Gary Smulyan play the baritone saxophone.

But whenever it was, I haven’t forgotten it since and I look forward to every new opportunity to hear it again.

Of course, anyone familiar with the sound of the late Pepper Adams on the instrument immediately recognizes his influence on Gary.  If one isn’t familiar with the relationship, the photo on the front of this Criss Cross album and its title says it all.

Phil Woods once described Pepper as “… a bebopper down to his socks.” Well, if that's the case, Gary Smulyan must wear a similar style of socks.  Like Pepper, Gary has a growl-like, almost raspy sound on the baritone saxophone and he forms every solo with a “take-no-prisoners” attitude.

But it would be grossly unfair to Gary to imply that he is little more than a Pepper Adams sound-alike, because while Pepper is certainly a point of departure for him, Smulyan has moved well-beyond Adams’ influence and has established his own style on the instrument, one that also displays a considerable and very advanced technique.

If truth be told, as much as I enjoy Gary Smulyan’s playing, I have to “take it in small doses” as he puts so many ideas into his improvisations and swings so hard all the time that he [figuratively] wears me out.  The marvel is that he doesn’t wear himself out!

Quite the contrary, it seems, as each in-person performance or recording is better than the previous one. Gary’s work continually grows in stature and complexity; signs of a mature artist at work.

Listening to Gary, one is reminded of how long and hard a Jazz musician must labor to master the technical requirements of an instrument so that they might then leave the mind free to explore how to create and express musical improvisations.

Gary sounds as though he has progressed to a point in which he now takes for granted the technical aspects of playing the baritone saxophone – at best an unwieldy instrument that’s almost as tall as he is – while he spins one fascinating and absorbing chorus after another from his inventive mind.

There appears to be no limits to his artistic creativeness; he’s a veritable musical fountain from which well-constructed phrases and lines come bubbling forth to form chorus-upon-chorus of interesting solos.

All this imaginative energy no doubt stems from his passion for playing Jazz, a zeal that apparently knows no bounds.

To better acquaint its readers with Gary Smulyan and his music, the JazzProfiles editorial staff has developed three YouTubes featuring audio tracks from Gary’s recordings and embed them throughout this feature along with reprints of the inserts notes from Gary’s five [5] Criss Cross Records CD’s.

The first of these YouTube’s is a tribute to the album cover art of David Stone Martin using Gary’s version of trumpeter Don Byrd’s Omicron as the audio track.

Omicron is a 32-bar AABA tune based on the melody and chord changes to Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody ‘N You. Both tunes have an improvised bridge ["B" section or release] and on Omicron, Billy Drummond takes it as a drum solo. Joining Gary and Billy on this album is bassist Christian McBride.

On OmicronGary makes use of one of the late baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams’ favorite improvising formats: that of  interspersing his solos around drum breaks.

Aside from the fact that the flow of his solo is constantly being interrupted, this is not an easy thing to do because Gary has to build his solo around his own ideas and those being rhythmically generated by the drummer, rather than from an accompaniment by another “melody” instrument such as a piano, guitar or vibraphone.

Billy Drummond begins his eight-bar breaks with Gary at 0:52 seconds, his four-bar brakes at minute 2:28 and his “two’s” at minute 3:31.

Beginning at 4:00, Christian McBride’s solo shows why he is considered to be one of the best of the current crop of Jazz bassists before Gary re-states the “line” [melody] at 5:41 and takes the tune out.

Gary recorded The Lure of Beauty [1049], the first Criss Cross album under his own name in December, 1990. Arnold Jay Smith wrote the following insert notes for the CD:

© -Arnold Jay Smith, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gary Smulyan cooks! No kidding. The guy was a chef. It was 1986 and he was with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra playing Monday nights at New York's Village Vanguard. It was a slow time with few extra gigs, "So I decided I had to do something to make some extra bread," Gary said. (Pun excused.) He graduated from the New York Restaurant School and began slaving in hot kitchens for 12 hours at a clip. "After that, four-hour bar mitzvahs and weddings looked pretty good." So he went back to club dates.

That wasn't the first time this baritone saxophonist tried a road more traveled. "I once chucked the horn under my bed to play rock on electric bass guitar," he admitted. It was at a time when you could be a hero amongst your peers if you were an athlete... or a rock musician. Of course, there were those who would risk being ostracized rather than switch from "the truth." Gary soon returned to the fold.

The first anyone heard from Gary Smulyan was as the anchor for the reed section of Woody Herman's Thundering Herds of 1978-80. "Woody was such a giant of a man. I was playing alto when I heard he was looking for a baritone sax-player. I bought one and Woody never let on that it wasn't my main ax. He had to know, but he stuck with me." To this day Gary does not double on anything. Some of the Thad Jones arrangements in the Lewis Orchestra's book calls for bass clarinet, "but I just transpose and play them on baritone."

It is with Mel Lewis that Gary has come into his own. The first time we heard him we thought his a refreshing new voice on a neglected instrument and told him so. There had been only one other bottom reed in that Orchestra for all its decades, one of Gary's mentors, Pepper Adams. (Gary has a dream band he tentatively calls "The Pepper Project" bumping bottoms with Nick Brignola and Ronnie Cuber plus rhythm.)

Which leads us directly to Jimmy Knepper, one of the true hidden lights of this great music. Trombonist Knepper played with Adams - the "Pepper/Knepper Quintet" was an album they did together - and he has been a major performer with Charles Mingus and virtually every band, including a charter membership in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. And he has been doing it for thirty plus years. His appearance on this album nods in the direction of the Adams chronicle in its harmonies and invention. Gary met Knepper whilst Jimmy was in the Lee Konitz Nonet, a small band with tightly written lines, but ample room for stretching by the soloists. The meeting took place at The Someday Lounge on Long IslandGary was 16 at the time and still on alto. "When I got the call to record this album, he was my first choice."

As for the rhythm section: There was a time when you could pick up an LP and read these notes as a guide to the purchase of the album. Now you are reading them after you have hack-sawed your way through the CD package, which prevents your browsing through other bins to check them out. You would find these three appearing, individually and collectively, on dozens of CD's. In addition, they are draws in clubs and concerts as a unit.

Pianist, Mulgrew Miller, one of the graduates of the Art Blakey College, Jazz Messengers U., can be fleetingly single-lined, or powerfully two-fisted. Ray Drummond succeeded Rufus Reid in the bass chair with Thad and Mel subsequently has had quite a busy work schedule. Kenny Washington was one of three drummers picked by Lewis to replace him in the band when Mel realized he wouldn't be able to make all the gigs due to the debilitating illness which eventually claimed him. But then, Kenny is the drummer of choice these days, period.

Of the selections, four may be considered standards. "Lost April is one of those lesser-known ballads that I love to play," Gary explained. "I had not heard the Nat 'King' Cole version (nor the Dinah Washington) until Kenny hipped me to it." Nonetheless, if you are paying attention, the lyrics are there, however subtly, as the melody unfolds from the hands of this Romantic musician.

Boo's Bloos is a Quincy Jones line (first recorded on the album "This Is How I Feel About Jazz" long before super-star-Q.) "I think I bought it for 35 cents in a cutout bin," Gary remembered. … "The only time I heard Kiss and Run was by Sonny Rollins (On "Sonny Rollins Plus Four") and I just liked it." (Rollins, another Romantic, is also partial to standards.)

You Go To My Head is the least obscure popular tune on the album having been recorded by most of the ballad singers of certain age. The beauty part of these
standards is the personal stamp placed upon them by Gary and the quintet without trying to be different.

Of his own contributions, Gary feels The Lure of Beauty is his singular best effort of this collection. "I'm a better interpreter rather than a great composer," he admitted. To hone his skills in that department, he is studying with Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam at a BMI workshop.

Canto Fiesta's Latin flavor gets the feeling of its title, 'party song.' A Minor Conundrum (conundrum=puzzle), according to the composer, is a deceptively simple line, but it is not such an easy tune to get around on; hence the title. Moonlight On the Nile is a pretty ballad in the tradition of the standard ballads for which Gary has a penchant.

Off to The Races is one of those tunes that is so up it's almost impossible to pat your foot to. Setting such a pace, Gary goes on to show his facility for sailing around the big horn. Knepper played on the first studio run-through, but decided to lay out on the second, which is included here with Gary and rhythm only.

Gary recently finished atop an impressive list of 1990 finishers in the JazzTimes Critics Poll of "Emerging Talent." He has appeared most recently on pianist Mike LeDonne's recording, "The Feeling of Jazz" (Criss Cross), as well as on all the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra recordings. (He celebrates his 11th anniversary with the Orchestra as we write this.) He has done the "Phillip Morris Super Band" and the "Charles Mingus Epitaph" tours where his soli, though few and fleeting, always manage to generate spontaneous cherers.

But it is here in his premier leadership role, that his persona emerges. He is a creative element on an instrument which has had its champions.

To the names of Carney, Mulligan, Chaloff and Adams, we may add Smulyan.

New York, February, 1991”

Next up for Gary on Criss Cross [1068] was the aforementioned Homage to his idol, the late baritone saxophonist, Pepper Adams.

Gary Carner wrote the following, explanatory insert notes for this album.

© -Gary Carner, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“It's unlikely that any musician has gotten deeper inside the playing of baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams than Gary Smulyan. Surely, Smulyan knows the importance of heating up an improvisation with well-placed climaxes, with exuding a sense of excitement that jazz players refer to as "fire." Similarly, he is aware that one of the best ways to keep the listener captive is to introduce surprise with melodic paraphrase and harmonic deviation. But Smulyan has also personalized Adams's very long, tumbling, double-time melodic lines. And that raw, piercing, bark-line Adams timbre - what Freddie Hubbard once referred to as "sawing logs" - is part of Smulyan's timbre too.

With both feet firmly embedded in the Adams aesthetic, Smulyan has brandished his extraordinary technique and gift for melodic development for most of the '80s with Mel Lewis, and more recently as leader and sideman. One could say that Smulyan "speaks" Adams, as instrumentalists of the 1920s spoke Armstrong or others later spoke Parker or Coltrane. But superior jazz soloists, no matter who the paradigm, ultimately speak with their own voice, and Smulyan, by all counts, is a remarkable soloist. At 36, he is now regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of his instrument, and he is highly sought after for large and small ensembles alike.

Considering his profound debt to Adams, it's understandable that Smulyan would be familiar with, and grow fond of, those compositions that Adams used as vehicles for his own improvisations. Pepper Adams is credited with writing 44 original, idiosyncratic blues, ballads, waltzes, etudes, and Latin tunes, a few nonetheless based on the chord changes to well-known jazz works. The great bulk of Adams's oeuvre is published by D'Accord Music, Thad Jones's publishing company, and by Excerent Music, the entity that Adams established in 1978 after leaving the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Orchestra. Adams's compositional output - and the opportunity to record his work - increased steadily once leaving the band and going out as a "single," picking up rhythm sections from town to town. In fact, Adams wrote twenty (virtually half) of his compositions during the six-year period 1978 - 1983 before illness derailed his career.

There are two basic moods found in Adams's writing. A good number of his themes, such as "Freddie Froo" (1957), "Patrice" (1973), "Dylan's Delight" (1977), "Joy Road" (1982), and "Conjuration" (1983), are joyous, romping structures that facilitate state-of-the-art bebop "blowing." Some are best played uptempo, others medium, but all are hard-swinging tunes, buoyed by interactive drumming. Adams's Latin numbers - "Muezzin" (1957), "Libeccio" (c. 1960), "Bossa Nouveau" (1975), and "Trentino" (1980), among others - also possess this exuberant sensibility, and throughout the years were used by Adams as drum features.

The other side of Adams's writing is the ballads, such as "Civilization and It's Discontents" (1973), "I Carry Your Heart" (1978), "In Love With Night" (1978), "Lovers of Their Time" (1980), and "Now In Our Lives" (1982). Always taken very slowly, and usually under girded by throbbing brushwork, these compositions are tender, brooding, fragile setups for impassioned solos that often conclude with unrestrained, cathartic cadenzas, sometimes over a pedal point. Adams's two compositional subgroups, admittedly simplified for the sake of explanation, are, I think, emblematic of his public and private personae. Together they give some sense of an extraordinarily talented composer and virtuoso soloist coming to terms with grinding poverty and relative obscurity.

For this groundbreaking exploration of Pepper Adams compositions, Gary Smulyan has chosen a representative sample of swingers and ballads written in the 1950s, 70s, and '80s. "My concern," said Smulyan, "was to be as true to the music as possible. I felt that's how I could best pay tribute. I didn't write arrangements, re-harmonize, or change the music in any way. There was absolutely no reason to. It was challenging as it was, without doing anything more!"

There were, nevertheless, no restrictions regarding the length of solos and, for some tunes, their sequence was altered. Moreover, liberties were taken with tempo. "Where the melody felt comfortable for me," Smulyan explained, "that's where I played it." "Bossallegro," for example, "really felt good as a faster samba. We did a slower take, but the faster take was ultimately better."

How did Smulyan choose eight compositions from the 44 that Adams wrote? Smulyan first picked those works whose harmonic architecture was particularly intriguing. Eventually, the most suitable were those that spoke to each other yet established the greatest sense of variety. Many personal favorites were thus passed over, but Smulyan had hoped to include "Jirge" (1975), originally a feature Adams wrote for bassist George Mraz, and "Freddie Froo," which was recorded by the ensemble.

Smulyan's selection of personnel was a far easier task. Since their teenage years in Detroit (during which time they made their first experimental acetate together), pianist Tommy Flanagan and Pepper Adams performed on the same bandstand countless times. Side by side they recorded eleven dates, notably the 1956 collective Jazzmen: Detroit, again on a 1960 session co-led by Adams and Donald Byrd, and thrice on sessions led by Adams (Encounter, 1969; The Master, 1980; and The Adams Effect,1985). All told, Flanagan was on hand for the premiere recording of eleven Adams compositions - "Apothegm" (1956), "Philson" (c.1960), "Libeccio" (c. 1960), "Cindy's Tune" (c. 1968), "In And Out" (c.1968), "Rue Serpente" (1978), "Claudette's Way" (1978), "Binary" (1979), "Enchilada Baby" (1979), "Bossallegro" (1980), and "Lovers of Their Time" (1980) - and it's likely, considering their work over the years, that Flanagan played even more of Adams's "book." Flanagan was Adams's favorite soloist on any instrument and a dear friend. Obviously, he was the perfect choice for this date.

Drummer Kenny Washington worked in Flanagan's trio for much of the 1980s, which gives the rhythm section a rare sense of cohesion. Listen to the way Washington punches accents in "Twelfth and Pingree," behind Smulyan's and Flanagan's solos, while sustaining the groove. Or to the way he builds excitement in "Muezzin" and "Trentino." And observe, in "Bossallegro," how Washington locks onto Flanagan's descending sequential figure in the third chorus of the piano solo. Here's a drummer who listens closely, who accompanies (in the truest sense of the word), who responds to rhythmic and melodic motives that soloists build, while they are building them.

Washington and bassist Ray Drummond have worked in tandem on several Criss Cross dates, including The Lure of Beauty (1991), Smulyan's first as leader, and Hod O'Brien's Opalesscence (1983), which includes the premiere recording of Adams's composition "Joy Road." "Drummond is a master," says Smulyan. "He's got great time, and a great groove when he walks. He's fun to play with, and play off of." Note the way Drummond shifts from "bounce time" to walking lines during Flanagan's solo in "Ephemera." And in "Twelfth and Pingree," behold his double-stop phrases behind Smulyan, after Flanagan drops out, or his use of pedal point for four bars at the beginning of Flanagan's solo, just after Smulyan's, to affect transition. Drummond's way of enriching and varying the ensemble's texture, his percussive sound and choice of embellishments, and his forceful soloing (listen to his concise improvisation in "Claudette's Way"), are some of the reasons why he is one of the bassists most in demand in New York. (The same stature, of course, holds true for Flanagan and Washington.)

About this Adams project, Smulyan was quite emphatic: "I've wanted to record Pepper's music for quite some time to bring attention to his skill as a composer." Fortunately, this goal has at last been realized. Might Smulyan, in time, treat Thad Jones's oeuvre - a body of work he knows well and which Pepper Adams loved dearly - in a similar fashion?

Montclair, December 1992”

Dr. Herbert Wong, the esteemed Jazz writer and record producer, authored the insert notes to Gary’s third Criss Cross offering – Saxophone Mosaic [1092] which contains among its nine tracks, Gary’s wonderful interpretations of two of my favorite tunes: pianist Russ Freeman’s The Wind and Quincy Jones’ Stockholm Sweetnin’.

© -Dr. Herb Wong, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Strong advocacy is rapidly gaining ground for baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan as the deserving heir to the mantle of the most outstanding player on his instrument in jazz. He is assuredly an eloquent exponent on the scene, his youthfulness notwithstanding. The affirming evidence is readily available in person and on recordings.

Modeled mainly after the superb Pepper Adams whose chair Smulyan inherited when he joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1980, promptly following precisely two years of impressive playing with Woody Herman's band, Smulyan has nurtured the seeds of his own originality producing a powerfully personal stylistic voice and approach. It is not surprising Smulyan's matured style is likened to attributes in common with Adams. Whereas Smulyan began with the alto and was duly touched by Charlie Parker, "it was Pepper's harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity and the ease he showed in handling challenging hurdles that inspired me most of all. He was my idol!"

Smulyan blisters with an enormous, ferocious sound, without vibrato; he articulates notes with uncompromising clarity and facility, giving each note its full value. Also he savors harmonic challenges and translates this into a peculiarly Smulyan harmonic vocabulary. His pin point focus allows him to mediate perfect balance between speed, tone, and accuracy. You won't hear a skein of 16th notes that border on muddiness out of his horn, even when he is down right aggressive-roaring and speeding like a bullet express train. Another asset is his ability to internalize and codify all he hears and retrieve it at will. It's not just uncanny cognitive processing- it's a feat he uses as a musical support system.

It was a providential happenstance that Smulyan arrived at playing the baritone. He describes: "Glenn Drewes and I had a quintet in Long Island and he joined Woody's band and in turn got me on. But I played alto and Woody needed a bari. So I managed to get a bari, but I was scared to death for six months waiting to be fired. Woody was patient and had faith in me." True. Woody Herman told me in 1979 that Gary was among a handful of the best baritonists passing through his bands in the last four decades.

The original root concept of this disc came from the allure of the remarkable sax section in Mel Lewis' band during the days of Joe Lovano, Ralph Lalama, Ted Nash, Dick Oatts and Gary Smulyan. In time, Lovano and Nash were replaced by Rich Perry and Billy Drewes, but the idea remained pregnant and developed into having Smulyan stand in front as the primary soloist, cushioned behind by the saxes. Arranger Bob Belden suggested to Smulyan about doing a sax record on this basis. Admittedly it is not a novel idea as Jimmy Heath had written music for Nat Adderley and the Big Sax Section on "That's Right"-- a 1960 Riverside record featuring the saxes of Heath, Yusef Lateef, Charlie Rouse, Cannonball Adderley, and Tate Houston on baritone with Wynton Kelly, Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb.

"The idea was not having a Supersax thing emphasizing soli but a sax section background of sound enveloping the band, and knowing these guys well, I knew just what they would sound like. These charts were not meant to be tight but to swing and to allow Gary breathing space," explained Belden whose long association with Smulyan began when playing side by side on Herman's Thundering Herd. Smulyan added: "I wanted a rhythm section familiar with everyone's style and who have played together a lot in a variety of bands. It was logical that Mike, Dennis and Kenny were the given choices. So the music jelled quickly; it was like old friends playing in a studio session!"

Regarding his fellow saxophonists, Smulyan noted: "Dick Oatts is the best lead altoist I've ever played under. Musically strong improviser, when he gets up to play he just knocks me out! I've known Billy Drewes since we were kids and we were in Woody's band together. Billy forges a style you can spot after a couple of notes. Ralph Lalama is probably one of the swingin'est tenors around. The groove he plays with is very strong and he'll swing you into bad health. We have a grand time sitting next to each other at the Vanguard. Scott Robinson who is my main sub in the Vanguard band does everything well. There's no instrument he hasn't played. And Richie Perry is a unique player who is creative and really interesting to listen to." Belden adds, "Every phrase Perry plays means something-nothing extraneous, and he's been that way since age 19 when I first heard him."

Opinions from one's peers and colleagues are generally worthy as a result of frequent, long term interactions close-up. Here's a sampling of their insights on Gary and the session.

Bob Belden: "The first night I was with Woody, Gary just nailed everything-just ridiculous! He's a definitive player, and my respect for him is unflagging."

Dick Oatts: "Thank God for all us alto players Gary switched to bari! A wonderful soloist, he's such a support in the section. It's a real treat to put Gary out front with saxes weaving around him. I couldn't believe his stamina at the session. And Bob wrote just great, giving Gary the ball so he could run-beautiful icing on the cake."

Billy Drewes: "Gary was an incredible child prodigy. Coming out of a certain school but taking it to just his place--a place he owns-that is very special! Everyone has his own voice in improvising in the section, and I was just digging playing the part, groovin' on the sound and unity."

Rich Perry: "What charisma! Gary is comfortably amazing."

Ralph Lalama: "Gary stacks chords on top of chords. With a gifted musical mind and a photographic memory, he can play anything he can hear. It was a fun, positive and hip session."

Scott Robinson: "Gary's the torch-bearer. He's the baritone cat! When the saxes solo left to right and then it's Gary's turn-suddenly everything's inventively different."

Mike LeDonne: "Gary's my absolute favorite. He plays the bari like an alto. Wow, the way he gets around that huge horn and really plays the changes fast and clear. He never skirts over them. Gary's harmonic concept puts him in front. On the date the sax section knocked me out, playing the soli on Fingers. I could feel
it on the floor!"

And also from former section mate Joe Lovano: "We've been in some great bands together-Woody's and Mel's bands. Gary is one of my all-time favorite musicians to listen to and to play with. A giant on the baritone, he has total command of it and an amazing comprehension of the music. I love him!"

Belden arranged all of the music except the anchor tune Fingers by Thad Jones. Plainly it was a tall assignment to locate material which met the requisites of a chart for five saxophones.

Smoke Signal is Gigi Gryce's irrepressible tune based on Lover and was recorded in 1956 on "Oscar Pettiford's Orchestra in Hi-Fi, Volume One". Likewise Horace Silver's infectious theme Speculation is from the same record, now reissued on an Impulse CD. Both are virtuoso kinds of tunes; they essentially have a harmonic sound prevalent in the post Charlie Parker era, basically influenced by Parker's harmonic modulations. "These songs are very detailed in themselves so it didn't take much to draw out things. But you can't overwork them or it takes away from the solo efforts," said Belden. "It's a problem when writing for a sax section; there's a tendency to write only solis and ensembles-all the excitement will be in the last 8 bars of the chart or just before the last head, and it should rightfully be the soloists' domain."

Speculation is a bright, effervescent tune and a fine launch for the blues mood even though Silver's melody doesn't sound like a standard 12 bar blues, except for the improvising. I am impressed how it sounds like a band far larger than nine musicians. Significant support and fire come through the inspired drums of Kenny Washington. "I used to listen to Kenny Clarke play it and also Osie Johnson's drums on Oscar Pettiford's records," said Kenny.

Smulyan picked The Wind, pianist Russ Freeman's obscure tune for its particular harmonic content. "It's one of the tunes we concentrated on the sound of woodwinds," Belden commented, "and not the sound of saxophones." Smulyan's warm, private dialect of serenity is simply exquisite.

Dig the arresting solo Smulyan tears off with Nijinsky-like nimbleness on George Coleman's Apache Dance. "I reharmonized it and put some substitute changes for more improvisatory interest," Smulyan said. It features all the saxes, each with their respective styles as they emerge and then retreat into the section, achieving a beautiful blend.

Stockholm Sweetnin', the Quincy Jones classic for trumpeters Art Farmer and Clifford Brown written nearly forty years ago is a lovely melody with great changes to play on. "Gary knows the meaning of the notes he plays and somehow finds the prettiest ones," Belden offered," and the hippest notes that swing." Similarly LeDonne and bassist Dennis Irwin thread tasty notes into the groove.

Belden transcribed the keystone orchestration of Gil Evans' treatment of Johnny Carisi's Springsville, which was included on the Miles Davis 1957 recording "Miles Ahead", reducing it to accommodate the saxophone section. It's not an easy tune, but Smulyan enjoys provocative harmonic progressions.
Fingers is a perfect closer featuring all the players in a sax summit. They know it like the back of their hands, after playing it for years with Thad and Mel. Everyone had a ball with it. Beyond the exemplary soli, all the saxes traded a gigantic storm of solos, and the heroic rhythm section had bottomless drive. These fireworks say it all. What a gas!

Small wonder the demand for Smulyan is kicking dust. In recent times he has been heard in a variety of bands including big bands besides the Vanguard Orchestra-the Philip Morris Superband, Mingus Epitaph Orchestra, Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra and the Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra among others; he has also been playing in a rainbow of small groups, plus he has recorded two prior Criss Cross Jazz discs under his own leadership-The Lure of Beauty (Criss 1049), in 1990, and Homage (Criss 1068), in 1991. And now this powerhouse date adds even more sparkle to his ascent.

"I love playing the baritone and I'm now trying to aim at a deeper musical level to forge a strong individual style that is uniquely mine," Smulyan said with sincerity. Gary Smulyan has indeed arrived as his own sourcebook and architect.

Menlo ParkCalifornia, July 1994”

A more recent example of Gary’s work can be found on the audio track to this tribute to the late, pioneering Jazz photographer William Paul Gottlieb, Jr. on which Smulyan performs Horace Silver’s The Hippest Cat in Hollywood with The Metropole Orchestra [September, 2004].

Arranger Bob Belden was back with Gary on his next project for Criss Cross [1129] – Gary Smulyan with Strings. Stanley Crouch, the noted Jazz author and critic, prepared the following insert notes for the album which was recorded in 1996.

© -Stanley Crouch, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Word from down below

With this recording, Gary Smulyan continues the signal jazz tradition of refreshing our ears. In Smulyan's hands, the baritone saxophone provides a lesson to those who may have forgotten or who may have never known: that burly, industrial-looking piece of brass, pearl buttons, mouthpiece, and cane reed is capable of doing more with its froggy bottom register then we might expect. Throughout these performances, we are encouraged to recall that there can be something quite romantic about the lower dimensions of sound. In a time when we hear so many complain about the various ways in which human feeling has been cheapened by the sensationalist and the trite, we can listen to the alternative of a baritone saxophone delivering lyric melodies and inventions with the same grace brought to the snappier pieces.

Back in the day when the saxophone itself was an instrument almost inevitable given the clown part in sound, no one would have imagined a recording for Smulyan's instrument and strings. Then the baritone and bass saxophones were used for effects that replicated the sound of stomach and gas troubles. It began to make itself felt another way as Duke Ellington wrote more and more beautiful features for Harry Carney, liberating that horn from the background in a way that was as important as Ellington's liberation of the bass fiddle to the position of an occasional solo voice. Carney became the first lyric master of this instrument and the first baritone saxo­phonist to record an album with strings, which showcased his heroic tone as if he were a Billy Eckstine of the reeds. As with all things American, there is a connection between the aesthetic expansion of the role of the baritone saxophone and the themes of our popular entertainment, where profound ideas are just as handily passed on to kids as the endless, simple-minded variations on Punch and Judy. I say that because much of the subject under question is addressed in the puppetoon about Tubby the Tuba, who wants to play the melody in the symphony orchestra, not just fill out the bottom notes of chords. The point of the puppetoon may have been to create democratic consciousness in children rather then musical appreciation, but it fits right into the history of the lower voices in American music. Eventually, Tubby is given his chance and we learn that a beautiful series of lyric tones can arrive from any register. But the baritone, for all its potential grace, still remains in the shadows.

From Coleman Hawkins forward, there have been many husky-toned tenor saxophonists who draw audiences and received public recognition, but the only baritone saxophonist to ever become popular was Gerry Mulligan, who arrived during the bebop era of the forties, when Serge Chaloff and Leo Parker were trying to smooth or wrestle the language of Lester Young and Charlie Parker onto the expressive palettes of their baritones. In the early fifties, Mulligan caught the ear of the public and sold records, filled clubs, and traveled the world. He was so good that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote a piece for Mulligan and Carney in 1958. Mulligan was, by far, the superior improviser, and playfully put the stoic Carney through the shredder. But things might have been quite different had Mulligan met toe to toe with Pepper Adams, who is clearly Smulyan's basic inspiration.

Adams made a name for himself in the late fifties as one of those brashly scientific beboppers from the Detroit School who came to New York and opened up a recognizable path. Adams was inspired partially in tone by Carney and completely in line, harmony, and rhythm by Charlie Parker, which meant that he had the heat, the weight, and the fluidity of the horn under his command. His sound was clear but expressive and he understood the guts of the bottom, all the goody entrails that Mulligan had avoided in favor of a lighter touch. 

Those are the qualities that Gary Smulyan traffics in when he picks up his baritone. Smulyan has developed a tone that has a bright, metallic, and sorrowful color at one end of its spectrum and a dark, seductively vocal set of characteristics at the other. Between those extremes one can discern a witty texture that peeks out now and again or rushes up front with full force when the flag of swing is raised. As with every player given to precise detail in the interest of self-expression, Smulyan will mix all of those colors together, sometimes for dramatic contrasts, sometimes to clarify the emotional complexity which determines the arrival of passion in layers rather then straight lines. The close listener will notice that Smulyan is also able to layer his tone by surrounding a brusque, reedy texture with something softer and more inky. All masters of their horns know this technique and use it at will. Smulyan is one of those: he knows the baritone just about as well as anybody has ever known it.

It is that command of his instrument and the clarity of his feeling that allow Smulyan to take advantage of the strength and character of his instrument within the context of strings and a first class rhythm section of Michael LeDonne, piano; Peter Washington, bass; and Kenny Washington, drums. 
The strings are so well written for by Bob Belden that they give something far more involved than a soft texture to the environment. One notices the shrewd ways in which Belden uses the strings to accentuate the register of Smulyan's horn, sometimes, as on Bill Lee's Don't Follow the Crowd, moving them higher and higher until they exist in an almost Olympian relationship to the baritone. Another good thing is that Belden never writes too much and he doesn't waste time trying to make strings swing by imitating horns. He tends to use them for clouds of chords or long-toned counter-melodies, which means that the saxophone and the rhythm section determine the forward motion. In the rhythm section, Smulyan has three of the finest younger musicians in Manhattan, each of them having chosen an imposing model and found his identity there - Michael LeDonne's man is Cedar Walton; Peter Washington's Paul Chambers; and Philly Joe Jones is surely Kenny Washington's fundamental inspiration.

In conclusion, I think Gary Smulyan says it:

"What I wanted to do was make a record that could be pretty. I wanted to put the baritone down front in an unexpected way. After all, musicians have been playing this horn for a long time. Harry Carney made a record with strings in 1954, but even after all these years, people never pay much attention to the baritone. I wanted to help change that, if I could, by doing something that showed off the real beauty of the instrument. I did my best and so did everybody else. I think we achieved something people will enjoy listening to."

New York, April 1997”

More of Gary’s unique baritone stylings can be heard on the audio track to the following YouTube tribute to him. The tune is Tadd Dameron’s Jahbero which is based on the changes [chord progressions] to Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are.  William Zinsser once referred to this tune as: “…the most perfectly constructed of all popular standards....”  Gary is once again joined by bassist Christian McBride and Billy Drummond on drums.

In 1999, Gary was back in the studios for Criss Cross to record his last album for that label – Blue Suite [1189]. The recording gets its name from “… seven interconnected Ellington-Strayhorn-inspired pieces…” that were written and arranged by Bob Belden.

More details about the background to Blue Suite and how Gary approached this music can be found in the following insert notes by Ted Panken:

© -Ted Panken, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Their friendship began in 1979, when they were neophyte sax section partners in the Woody Herman Orchestra, and through various personal and performing situations over the ensuing two decades, Gary Smulyan and Bob Belden have developed a synergy. Criss Cross listeners first heard their simpatico on Saxophone Mosaic from 1993 (Criss 1092). Belden contributed spot-on orchestrations of less-traveled hardbop originals for Smulyan's fellow saxophonists in the Vanguard Orchestra that were ideal frames for the baritonist's muscular sound and harmonic agility. As the sole soloist over Belden-conjured string cushions on the lyric With Strings, from 1996 (Criss 1129), Smulyan gracefully retextured nine obscure tunes (and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life"), extracting every ounce of romantic timbre from the elephantine horn on an excursion into Harry Carney territory.

With Blue Suite, which comprises seven interconnected Ellington-Strayhorn-inspired pieces that Belden wrote in 1990 and first performed with his big band, Smulyan unites the Carney tonal matrix with the raw, fiery, Charlie Parker inspired sound of Pepper Adams, who, as the 44-year Long Island native recently put it, "is my main influence and strongest influence."

"Pepper's sound was incredible," remarks Smulyan, who inherited Adams' chair when he joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1980 and recorded a program of 9 Adams compositions on Homage (Criss 1068 from 1991). "So was his time, sense of humor, and harmonic ingenuity. To me he was the premier baritone player ever. I love Gerry Mulligan, but to me, Mulligan's strong point was his writing. Pepper's improvising was on a different level, and he never really got the due that he deserved. He was a quiet guy with an incredible sense of humor and very well-read, but he wasn't in the public's face as Gerry was."

The son of a dancer who gave up performing after her children were born and ran a ballet school in Wantagh, near Long Island's Jones Beach, Smulyan began his musical life as an alto saxophonist when he was 8 in the school band, and started getting interested in jazz as a teenager. He met Joe Dixon, an alto saxophonist and clarinetist who had played with Bunny Berrigan and Artie Shaw, who led a Neophonic Youth Jazz Band on Long Island which Smulyan joined at 15. "He was a mentor to me," Smulyan recalls. "He had a great record collection, and was totally into the music -- not just of his generation, but the music in general. I loved and to this day I love Frank Strozier. I was listening to Phil Woods and Cannonball and Bird, exploring everything at that point.

"I grew up in a situation where there were a lot of places to play. I got to hear Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and Chet Baker and people like that. Also there was a good community of players. There were older musicians like Billy Mitchell and Dave Burns, and I grew up with Gary Dial, Gerard DiAngelo, Glenn Drewes and Billy Drewes, Ken Werner and Jeff Hirschfield."

During 1975-76, Smulyan and Glenn Drewes formed a quintet, which disbanded when Drewes got called to join the Herman Orchestra band in 1977. "I had no desire or interest or even a possibility of playing the baritone," Smulyan laughs. "Bruce Johnstone left Woody, which opened up the baritone chair. Glenn gave Woody my name, and they called. I rushed out and bought a baritone that day. It was an opportunity to go on the road and play 50 weeks a year, which I had not had the opportunity to do. Woody hated alto players who played baritone. He definitely could tell the difference; there's something about the sound quality and the way you approach the horn.

But I guess he realized that there was some potential there, and he didn't fire me. It was trial by fire. I was thrust into playing this horn -- which I'd never played before ~ in a serious situation. I had to sit next to Joe Lovano for nine months!"

What are the particular difficulties of the bari? "There's the cumbersomeness," Smulyan begins. "It's also trying to get a rich sound in the overtones. You can get a raspy, shrill sound that doesn't have a center. The hardest thing about switching from another instrument to the baritone is getting inside the sound. The fingering is the same, and through practicing enough you can get over the technical hump. The key to getting a center is playing a lot of long tones, filling up the horn. I listened to a lot of Pablo Casals and tried to emulate that sound, because the baritone and the cello have a similar sound. Harry Carney had almost a cello-like quality, so rich and ringing and fat and full of overtones."

"Gary was an incredible player then and he's an incredible player now," Belden offers. "He didn't make any mistakes, and he had the book --which was huge -- memorized in a couple of weeks." Despite being the recipient of universally similar encomia during his early New York years, Smulyan scuffled during the Reagan Era. "It got frustrating to the point twice where I kind of stopped playing," he recalls. "In 1988 all I was doing was playing bar mitzvahs and music I hated, so I went to a cooking school and became a chef, and didn't play for almost a year. I spent a year working at a very good French restaurant, and saw the level of commitment from the guy who owned the place, who was the head chef. I decided I had to be the same way with music.. It was a turnaround for me. I started playing more, making sessions, trying to do whatever I could, and luckily things got better."

On Mel Lewis' recommendation, Smulyan recorded The Lure of Beauty (Criss 1049) in 1990. He played with the George Coleman Octet, Lionel Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi and a variety of big bands. "That seems to be a bread-and-butter gig for baritone players," he notes. "Not too many small bands use the baritone, even to this day." Smulyan began rectifying that gap a few years ago in a three-baritone band with Ronnie Cuber and Nick Brignola, which continues to work with Howard Johnson in Brignola's place, but as Smulyan puts it, "we work in Europe, we don't work here; so big bands are kind of a staple to this day." The comment is borne out by Smulyan's current employment in various Jon Faddis-led projects, like the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Band and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, in the Mingus Big Band, and in the Vanguard Orchestra; he worked in summer 2000 with Joe Lovano's Nonet, and in the Fall he'll be blasting out the low notes in Johnny Griffin's reconfigured Big Soul Orchestra.

Smulyan states, "My first love is playing in small groups, which I grew up in," and, under Belden's direction, the hand-picked brass ensemble that surrounds him on Blue Suite - primarily drawn from the Vanguard Orchestra -- blends the fluidity of a combo with the sonic density of a big band. "I think Belden can do anything he sets his mind to do," Smulyan says. "His talents are widespread, and his intuitive intelligence is incredible. He knows exactly how to write for me. He knows exactly the kind of changes I like to play on, what kind of backgrounds to write, how the sound of the baritone is going to fit inside the ensemble writing. He writes fast. His behavior in the studio is fantastic. He is totally professional and focused, and gets the workdone efficiently. He knows how to make the music sound great and not too hard. His writing is very clear, so it's very easy to play it down once and record it."

Belden elaborates: "When I was in school, I heard Duke Ellington's Newport, '58, which was almost all blues; Duke and Billy Strayhorn brought the blues from the Delta to Park Avenue. Sometimes in Woody's band, we played just blues for the whole set. The rediscovery of the Ellington canon happened in the late '80s, and I wanted to prove to myself that you don't have to go to Lincoln Center or come from New Orleans to understand what that means. Here I pared it down and adapted it to Smulyan. The guys in this band understand traditional styles; coming from Thad Jones, you understand the Ellington influence in music. John Mosca understood what I meant when I said, 'Do that thing there; you know what I'm saying?' When cats heard it, right away they could lock into what the thing felt like."

The prelude is Belden's arrangement of Interlude, a straight-ahead modal swinger with a trumpet solo by Greg Gisbert. "It's Oliver Nelson's version of ‘Milestones' with a Cannonball bridge," the arranger remarks. "You could also say that it has the Manteca' form, with an extended bridge and a long vamp. The idea was that it starts the record off with a statement, 'this is where Smulyan is' in terms of the characteristic of his sound, 'and now, we're going to show you something else.'"

The suite starts with Blues Culture, a Mingusian slow blues. Belden notes, "The suite shows the blues as a form and as an implication. Blues Culture is essentially a blues feeling that gets to the forecourt, which is all you need to do." John Mosca makes the trombone speak on his solo; the rhythm section holds the tempo with tensile perfection.

The Shorteresque Blues In My Neighborhood is "basically a 24-bar blues, where the dominant (chord) is a major seventh (chord)." Wendholt's soulful trumpet and Mosca's capacious trombone take pungent turns.

Belden describes Charleston Blue, taken at a camel walk tempo and featuring Smulyan all the way, as "essentially a Johnny Hodges kind of thing. It's a blues with a bridge -- 12 bars, 12 bars, 8 bars, 12 bars. 'Traneing In,' Coltrane.  Duke used to do it.  It's a very common form.  It starts with an altered blues progression, and has little stops and starts that are different, but it implies the blues like you wouldn't believe."

The McCoy Tynerish Blues Attitude "combines all modern elements of jazz in the frame of a 16-bar minor blues, much in common with the early Coltrane recordings on Atlantic." Tubist supreme Bob Stewart states the intro, followed by John Clark on french horn, SmulyanBill Charlap and trombonist Jason Jackson.

Blue Speed, based on Thad Jones' "Second Race" and Nat Pierce's arrangement of "Opus de Funk" for Woody Herman, begins with a Christian McBride solo, and features trumpet exchanges between Gisbert and Wendholt. "It gives the cats a chance to play a straight 12-bar blues," Belden says. "They love to do it. A Smulyan tempo. Fast. Hard-Bop."

Belden penned Blues Gentility with Harry Carney in mind.  "It shows that the blues can be a tender love song and still be a blues."

The concluding Blue Stomp is a 12-bar blues.   A tasty Ray Brown-inflected McBride intro resolves into a rhythm section statement of the theme at the kind of tipping tempo with the masterful finesse Criss Cross listeners are used to hearing Kenny Washington provide. "It's one of those pieces you can do at any different tempo, and it swings," Belden says. "It's just stomping. It's got a Basie quality from 'Blues In Hoss' Flat,'but an Ellington approach to the trombone harmony in the beginning."

In its distinctive configuration and substance, Blue Suite has the feel of a classic. The virtuoso once again sets himself apart from the pack, giving his imagination free rein, playing with characteristic inspiration, exploring a range of technical and emotional challenges, and surmounting them.

"You're going to play up to the music," he concludes. "As you mature and get older, your playing reaches a different level of harmonic maturity. The more you play and get inside the music, there is an organic development. I'm sure my playing is more mature than it was 20 years ago. I'm sure my sound has changed. Hopefully everything has developed."

"Smulyan is one of the most purely melodic players on the scene today," Belden summarizes. "His notes are perfect. His lines are like Bach. He can do his stuff in any tempo, any key, whatever. He comes from the Pepper school, which is hit 'em hard. He's amazing."

Ted Panken
Downbeat, Jazziz, WKCR.
New York, June 2000”

1 comment:

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