By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Smul's Paradise
Throughout the big band period, standard reed sections usually consisted of five instruments: two altos saxes, two tenors and a baritone. Many artists could play more than one of those instruments, and also could “double” on clarinet and flute. But artists able to play innovative and swinging solo lines on the “big horn” were few in number.
Gary Smulyan can be added to that list; he’s considered one of today’s major voices on the baritone sax. As a teen, he performed with artists such as Chet Baker and Lee Konitz, and was part of Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd from 1978 to ’80. Smulyan then became a member of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus groups, and subsequently performed and recorded with the jazz world’s entire Who’s Who.
Smulyan currently plays with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and numerous other groups; he also heads several units of his own and is a faculty member at New Jersey’s William Paterson University.
This album features a quartet, consisting of Smulyan, Mike LeDonne on Hammond B3 organ, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and Kenny Washington on drums. Many organ quartets have come and gone over the years, but I can’t remember any that utilized a baritone sax. One might worry that the horn’s huge tone would overwhelm the organ/guitar combination, but that isn’t the case here. Smulyan’s tone is clean, clear and smooth, and he compliments the other instruments wonderfully.
As might be expected, the chosen tunes are delivered at mid- to up-tempo meters. Three selections are tributes to another B3 great, Don Paterson. “Up in Betty’s Room” and “Aries” were composed by Paterson, while Smulyan wrote “D.P. Blues.” He’s also is responsible for “Heavenly Hour” and “Smul’s Paradise.” Of the remaining tracks, the pop hit “Sunny” is noteworthy for its arrangement here as a waltz.
Jazz baritone fans — and I’m one — will enjoy this album. This guy really swings!