Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Ronnie Cuber/Gary Smulyan - Tough Baritones

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The title of this CD is a take-off on the 1960 Tough Tenors Jazzland LP recorded by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin.

A new recording by Ronnie is always full of surprises and Tough Baritones [Steeplechase SCCD 31903] is no less so.

To begin with, he’s brought along fellow baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan and - not to look a gift horse in the mouth - one can only ask what took so long?

Another “surprise” of sorts is that this outing finds Gary Versace at the piano instead of at his more usual place with the accordion.

When he’s not offering his unique approach to piano solos, Gary combines with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jason Tiemann to basically lay down the rhythm and stay out of the way. While Gary, Jay and Jason are all musicians of the highest quality on their respective instruments, they come together as a unit to propel the music forward in a manner that’s almost unobtrusive by today’s standards.

Given the facility and fluency of both Ronnie and Gary, the reserved quality of the rhythm section allows the listener to hear the full expression of ideas generated by these baritone saxophone powerhouses. Instead of a barrage of clatter in the background, we get chords, riffs and phrases fed by Gary, framed by Jay and punctuated by Jason.

Song and tune selection are always another source of surprise on Ronnie’s albums. I mean, where else can you find two baritone Jazz Masters wailing  away on Red Prysock’s Rhythm and Blues classic - That’s The Groovy Thing?

In a way, the unexpected appearance of such a tune on a Jazz recording fits with Ronnie’s approach to all of his recordings, at least, from the standpoint of how I perceive them.

Ronnie in effect throws a recording party by inviting four of the best musicians on the New York Jazz scene to join him and improvise on four Jazz classics by Horace Silver, and one each by Thelonious Monk and Freddie Hubbard. And for added spice, he’s written two originals for the date one of which is a rollicking blues, included a standard from the Great American songbook and the previously mentioned Prysock R&B evergreen.

I mean we're talking about ingredients for the making of a Jazz bash of the first order.

Whenever I listen to Ronnie and Gary, there are always moments when my head whips around and my mind says: “What! Did they really lay that phrase or line down so fluidly and effortlessly on that big horn?” I’m used to finding such amazing moments in their playing, respectively, but never before have I had the chance to hear them combined. 

But the combination makes something else apparent and that is although Ronnie and Gary play the same horn, their approach to phrasing is utterly distinctive and personal [Interestingly, too, each came to the big horn from another member of the saxophone family: Ronnie from tenor and Gary from alto].

Front lines made up of the same instrument are always a challenge because of the danger of too much of the same sonority creating an alikeness of sound.

But Ronnie and Gary’s strong individuality, the variety of compositions played at differing tempos with different beats and the ability of the rhythm section to make its presence felt without being overpowering gives the music by this group a pronounced and lasting appeal.

In his insert notes to the recording Neil Tesser comments on other groups with same instruments front lines that went on to make their mark in Jazz lore by working the club, concert and festival circuit and through their now, legacy recordings.

Times have changed and it may be awhile before in-performance Jazz venues are available once again, but I certainly hope that, in the meantime, there will be more recordings forthcoming from these two, tough baritones, because the first one by Ronnie and Gary is certainly magical.

And speaking of the sleeve notes for the recording by Neil Tesser, an experienced and knowledgeable observer of the Jazz scene both past and present, we asked Neil if we could share his annotations with you as part of this blog feature and he graciously consented. 

© Copyright ® Neil Tesser, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“Old school - but not old-fashioned, Tough Baritones is the sort of album, and even the kind of title, you might have encountered fifty or sixty years ago. Back then, saxophone pairings were in their heyday, and frequent sparring partners carried their own cache. You had "boss tenors'' whom jazz fans instantly recognized from such abbreviated billboards as "Griff & Jaws" Johnny Griffin and Eddie. "Lockjaw Davis'', or "Al & Zoot" (Cohn & Sims), or "Jug & Stitt" (Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt). John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins engaged in only one such bout, but the title  - Rollins' Tenor Madness  - became an enduring image for the whole sport. On alto saxophones, "Phil & Quill'' (Phil Woods and Gene Quill) engaged in their own friendly saxophone "conflicts." But you didn't see many Baritone Battles - largely because the hard-bop scene didn't teem with speedy bari-sax virtuosos of the sort who gravitated to tenor and alto.

By the 1970s, though, we had a deeper bench. The masterly veteran Pepper Adams - who had carved his reputation as the preeminent hard-bop baritonist, first in small groups of the 50s, and then through his work with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra - set the standard. Then Ronnie Cuber and Nick Brignola showed up, followed by Howard Johnson. From their example and influence emerged Gary Smulyan in the mid-80s - the latest in that line of big-horn royalty - who would soon be generally regarded as the outstanding player of his generation. Take them all together as a group - a group now augmented by guys like David Schumacher and Glenn Wilson, and such younger baritonists as Brian Landrus and Lauren Sevian - and the premise behind an album like Tough Baritones gains a lot more credence.

Of course, simply matching up Cuber with Smulyan provides all the cred you need. A studio mainstay from the 1960s through the 2000s, Cuber has appeared on literally hundreds of recordings, in virtually every context from Afro-Latin to Zappa). For most of the last half-century, he and Gerry Mulligan essentially defined the baritone sax in mainstream jazz, (although with radically different styles). Now, at the age of 78, he still plays with a combination of ferocity and dexterity that once seemed out of reach for those shouldering this behemoth, with a tone that seems to roar even at a whisper. Smulyan, nearly 15 years his junior, has built on that foundation ever since he switched from the alto sax to the baritone some 40 years ago. He has looked to Pepper Adams, and of course Cuber, for inspiration: he has sanded off the edges but retained the torque, and wrapped it all in a deceptively silky timbre marked by high-def intonation.

After hearing the opening tracks - the infectious, lickety-split Blowing the Blues Away and a marginally more relaxed, in-the-pocket blues by the r-&-b giant Red Prysock - you'll easily recognize one baritonist from the other.

Cuber lakes the first solo in each case, Bui just to keep it simple, Cuber occupies the left channel throughout the recording, with Smulyan on the right.

With those two on hand, employing a rhythm section as fine as this one seems almost greedy. But hey- sometimes the rich get richer. And so we have a dream team of Steeplechase stalwarts lo back up the baritones. Jason Tiemann divides his time between teaching at the University of Hartford's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and performing, mostly in New York, where his sparkling kit sound and effortless propulsion have gained much-deserved admiration. Jay Anderson, the label's bassist for comparison, has lent his keen melodic sense and dusky tone - and no little virtuosity - to too many recordings to easily tote up.

And Gary Versace . . . well, Gary Versace. Few straight-ahead pianists in recent years have managed to leap so convincingly out from the crowd. As usual, his playing here focuses on unhurried lyricism (occasionally interrupted by brilliant éclats and jaw-dropping arpeggios); on inventively voiced comp chords; and on flashes of puckish wit. He also manages to adapt to each context without burying his musical profile - in much the way that a chameleon adapts its coloration to blend in with the surroundings, but still retains its immediately recognizable shape.

For a perfect example of this, go to Nica's Dream, the durable Horace Silver hybrid that alternates between two of hard-bop's favorite grooves. (The "A" section is pure Latin Jazz, while the bridge swoops in with a hard-swinging 4/4 beat.) Versace starts his solo with sparse, single-note lyricism, wherein he does more than nod to the tune's composer; he all but genuflects at the shrine of Silver. But rounding into the second chorus, Versace's own persona gradually seeps through. By the end of the solo, we've had the chance to hear the one dissolve into the other -and, not incidentally, we've gotten an object lesson in how an artist such as Versace can absorb and transmute his influences. (The track also demonstrates the signal strengths of each saxophonist. Cuber launches his improvisation with a full-throated cry that remains throughout his chorus, woven into the repeated figures that conclude the solo; Smulyan locks his own emotionality into sequenced phrases with which he builds to an uber-melodic climax.)

The fact that Tough Baritones sounds so relaxed, brimming with ease and good cheer, comes as little surprise to those who took part in recording it. As Smulyan relates, the session was unlike most of those in which he's participated - a throwback to days when a jazz album didn't necessitate a theme, or detailed arrangements, or even, for that matter, a painstakingly curated set list. Cuber arrived at the studio armed with several Silver tunes and one by Thelonious Monk; into the mix came a valued standard (Lover, taken at hyper-speed) and a jazz classic (Freddie Hubbard's Little Sunflower, with standout solos from Smulyan and Anderson); and a couple blues that Cuber cooked upon the spot- including Damn Right Blues, its provenance enhanced by the rhythm section's channeling Les McCann's soul-jazz groove. In between takes, the musicians luxuriated in old band stories and new banter: just a bunch of guys sitting around and making a lovably hard-blowing record, almost by accident.

Observing such a studio session, you might have thought you'd discovered a time-travel machine. But it would have to be an unusually nuanced such device: a Wayback Machine that could plunk you right into the style and milieu of a previous era, without compromising the substance of the era you'd just left. From its retrofit title to the way it transpired, Tough Baritones epitomizes the Holy Grail for anyone wishing to travel back in time: they get to recapture the fondly remembered past while retaining everything they've learned since. Old school - but with a twist.”

  • Neil Tesser, November 2020

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