As you might suspect, not all albums I receive and listen to are wonderful, let alone review worthy. As fate would have it, I recently listened to three separate albums that each, independently, piqued my interest. Curiously they all had the one unifying factor, the gutsy baritone saxophone sound of Gary Smulyan.
Smul's Paradise is Gary Smulyan's most recent album as a leader, and a smoking hot representation of one of my favorite formats, the organ trio. This one has the added twist of including Smulyan's brash baritone as a fourth instrument in this proven format, and it works amazingly well.
When you enter the door to this imaginary lounge, Smul's Paradise, you are entering a smoke-filled world of dimmed lights and red velvet fabric. A world of pleated leather lined booths, dingy, plush carpeting and a compact bandstand stuffed into a corner opposite the shiny mahogany bar where peroxide ladies wait anxiously for the next song or the next prince charming to sweep them off their feet. In this world of late nights and cheap drinks, the classic guitar/organ/drums format ruled and was often the lounge's only redeeming reason for staying in business. In Smul's edition it is comprised of Mike LeDonne on Hammond B3, Peter Bernstein on electric guitar and Kenny Washington on drums, with Gary Smulyan's big, bad baritone shaking the place with his brash soulful sound.
The group starts out with a rip-roaring take of the Bobby Hebb classic "Sunny." Despite the innumerable versions you might have heard of this one, you haven't heard it with Smulyan's throaty baritone leading the way. His facility on this awkwardly sized horn, that seems to be as big as he is, is amazing. He handles its breathy demands like he has learned to harness the gust of a hurricane. Where as players like Pepper Adams, Serge Chaloff, Harry Carney or the large and lanky Gerry Mulligan seem to fit their horn, Smulyan somehow makes the horn fit within his more compact stature.
One unified inspiration for this particular group of musicians is the music of the late and under appreciated organist Don Patterson, and on Patterson's "Up In Betty's Room" we find Smul's aggressive attack on his horn to be the perfect foil for Peter Bernstein's mellow guitar lines. Organist Mike LeDonne and drummer Kenny Washington create a swinging undercurrent that allows Smulyan the perfect canvas on which to create his exploratory dablings. He does this with a palpable exuberance that carries you into the cyclonic swirl of his playing.
On his self-penned "Smul's Paradise," the Pepper Adams connection is apparent. The complex opening is played in tight unison with Peter Bernstein's fluid guitar. Smulyan breaks into a rousing baritone solo, charging in delivery, but with a buoyancy that defies the gravitational pull often associated with the low register that dominates this instrument. The brilliant exchange of ideas between Smulyan's horn and drummer Kenny Washington's brushes is an example of almost telepathic interplay.
On tenor George Coleman's "Little Miss Half-Step," Smulyan starts off in a medium tempo and slowly accelerates to a heart racing double time, pushing his rhythmic partners into a frenzy. The baritone master makes his lumbering instrument sing with exquisite grace and nimbleness. He belts chorus upon chorus of rapidly forming ideas with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy. Some fine interplay between Washington and Bernstein and then Washington and LeDonne complete this multi-layered conversation.
The group revisits Don Patterson's work with his composition "Aries." This evocative ballad is the perfect vehicle for Peter Bernstein's honey toned, semi-hollow bodied guitar work, reminiscent of Kenny Burrell. B3 master Le Donne plays a wonderfully soulful solo that you find yourself shaking your head "yes" to as it unfolds. Smulyan somehow manages to get just the right emotional balance from his horn, part wailing and part yearning and then in a dramatic ending he creates a torrent of musical ideas that envelop you like low-lying fog coming off a distant shore.
On "Blues for DP," a dedication to Don Patterson, the group gains its stride. Bernstein's solo work is particularly tasty and LeDonne seems in his element with his mastery of the nuances of the soulful B3.
"Heavenly Hours" is a Smulyan composition that is a play on "Seven Steps to Heaven" intertwined with he melody from "My Shining Hour." This is perhaps the most impressive display of the intuitive interplay between Washington and Smulyan. The baritone leads the way and the drummer instantly responds in kind creating an extraordinary dialogue that feeds off each others ideas so perfectly it s hard to imagine it was created on the spot.
As good as Smulyan's solo album, Smul's Paradise, are his appearances on two other albums deserves mention. On the American Jazz Institute's Ellington Saxophone Encounters composer, arranger and band leader Mark Masters collaborated with Smulyan to recreate a modern version of some of Ellington's classic big band era songs. Here Smulyan takes over the role of the master swing-era baritone player of the Ellington Band, Harry Carney, another of Smulyan's idols.
The album has a brilliant array of musician's who together recreate a sound that is respectful to the original material but modernistic in its approach. Arranger and producer Mark Masters assembled veteran reed players Gary Foster, Pete Cristlieb, Don Shelton, Gene Cipriani; drummer Joe LaBarbera, pianist Bill Cunliffe and bassist Tom Warrington, along with Smulyan's baritone to recreate some of Duke's most memorable saxophone driven melodies.
On "Esquire Swank," Smulyan transforms the normally biting delivery of his baritone to the full bodied and flowing sound that was Harry Carney's imprimatur on the Ellington legacy. Pete Cristlieb offers his own high powered solo on tenor in deference to Ellington's often featured alto soloist Johnny Hodges. On "The Line Up" this enviable reed section features some beautiful ensemble work that is true to the Ellington tradition yet is surprisingly fresh and contemporary. Smulyan adds a bellowing bari solo that is both explosive and beautiful. On "Lawrence Brown's Blues" Smulyan's entering solo sets the stage for this swinger. His Carney influenced mellifluous sound bursts with his own impressive fusillade of ideas.
Perhaps Smulyan's most poignant work can be heard on Carney's bittersweet "We're in Love Again." Gary plays this with a heartfelt sensitivity of someone who has made his horn an extension of his being. Smuylan's dynamics and tone are evocative of a time when the big bands ruled; part Harry Carney, part Ben Webster. It was a time when saxophonists like these and the altoist Johnny Hodges cooed Ellington crowds with their impassioned saxophone solos. Smulyan makes other important contributions to songs like " Jeep's Blues," Rockin In Rhythm" and especially "The Happening." The album is a veritable powerhouse of big band music at its best with some marvelous performances throughout. A must have for Ellington aficionados.
As if these two representations were not enough to cement Smulyan's reputation, along comes producer and biographer Gary Carner's dedication to baritone great Pepper Adams. The story about how this album and the music came about is a heart rendering testament to Carner's dedication to the spirit of this sometimes neglected but highly respected artist. On Joy Road Sampler Carner has sampled songs from four separate albums he has produced and distributed with Motema Records all featuring the music of Pepper Adams, all with different artists. Who better to feature playing some these songs than Gary Smulyan, perhaps the greatest disciple of the Adams baritone sound.
The album is, on whole, a wonderful display of Adams' music with performances by pianists Jeremy Kahn and Kevin Bales, singer Alexis Cole and baritone saxophonist Frank Basile, as well as Smulyan, who is featured on two selections.
The opening Latin infused cooker, Adams "Enchilada Baby," finds Smulyan pulsing the rollicking melody with his firebrand, textured sound. His effortless movement throughout the range of the horn is impressive and his delivery and biting embouchure is vintage Adams. If there was any doubt who was carrying on Pepper's tradition there is no more. Despite the obvious influence, Gary Smulyan has used his love of Adams work as a point of departure rather than using it as a comfortable home base.
A cooking Pepper Adams tune "Binary," which doesn't feature Smulyan, is skillfully performed by bari-player Frank Basile's Sextet with some biting trumpet work by Joe Magnarelli and a wonderful trombone solo by John Mosca. It is one of the last sessions to feature the late bassist Dennis Irwin and it really burns.
"Julian" is slow, beautifully written ballad that Pepper dedicated to the spirit of altoist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, one of my favorite players. The pianist Jeremy Kahn with his trio mates Rob Asher on bass and George Fludas on drums accompany Smulyan's deeply emotive solo brilliantly. This is perhaps my favorite Smulyan performance as it combines sustained virtuosity with unbridled emotional impact. Smulyan manages to finish the piece with a lyrically powerful cascade of notes, a beautiful coda to a marvelous piece of music.