Monday, September 24, 2012

The Ubiquitous Bellow of Gary Smulyan's Barritone

 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.

Capri #74113-2

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 man 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 is his appearances on two other albums deserves mention.  On the American Jazz Institute's Ellington Saxophone Encounters  composerarranger 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 is 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.

Motema MTM-97

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.

The week of September 24- 30th  in Manhattan will be celebrated as Pepper Adams Joy Road Celebration  with shows featuring his music at the Village Vanguard, Smoke Jazz Club, Smalls Jazz Club The Red Rooster in Harlem and Birdland. Gary Smulyan will be an integral part of many of these shows so if you haven't seen him yet now is as good a time as any.
      Here is "Sunny" from the new album Smul's Paradise

Young Gary Soloing  on Pepper's "Three and One" with the Village Vanguard Orchestra in Lugano, Switzerland 1985

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Casting for Gravity Donny McCaslin's Adventurous Journey into the Unknown

"Casting for Gravity" GRE=1028

The saxophonist Donny McCaslin has been steadily adding to a body of work that is firmly establishing him as a powerful voice in modern creative music. As a in-demand sideman on such interesting recent efforts like Ryan Truesdale’s Gil Evans Project Centennial , a valued member of trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Quintet and Maria Schneider’s Orchestra, or on his own recent impressive efforts as a leader on albums like Recommended Tools, Declaration and PerpetualMotion,  watching McCaslin mature is  like watching a seedling develop into a mighty oak.  As with any artist who is pushing his boundaries there are moments of brilliance and moments of disappointment, but for the most part McCaslin has consistently moved the bar higher and higher.

If music as art has the higher purpose to move its audience, than certainly McCaslin is a successful artist, as he seems to do so with a force of nature approach to his instrument. His latest offering Castingfor Gravity is a case in point. After dipping his toe in the waters of electro/acoustic music in his last album Perpetual Motion, McCaslin has decided to explore what full integration into electronica can bring to his musical palette. He wants to make music that can utilize, as he says, “…more sonic layers” which he hopes will challenge him into deeper exploratory terrain. It may also be a way for him to expand his following by tapping into more modern musical influences and fusing them with his own brand of artistry. Lord knows jazz needs to expand its musical audience.

He is joined here by the keyboardist Jason Lindner, the electric bassist Tim LeFebvre and the cyclonic drummer Mark Guiliana.  The visionary alto saxophonist and producer David Binney adds a composition, vocals and synthesizers to the mix. These musicians bring their own kind of ionically charged energy to this album.

McCaslin claims influence for some of this album came from Britiish electronica musician Richard D. James, who performs under the pseudonym of Aphex Twin and from the Scottish duo Boards of Canada whose song “Alpha and Omega” he uses as the jumping off point for his own jet fueled excursion.

I am particularly taken by McCaslin and Guiliana together in such pieces like the ever ascending “Stadium Jazz” and the staccato “Tension”. It is as if these two atomic reactors combine in harmonic resonance creating a fusion like implosion of energy.. Lindner’s driving piano and synthesizer and Lefebvre pulsing bass work in lock step to produce the firm rhythmic background that allows these two seemingly unstoppable forces to probe forward into the abyss.
“Losing Track of Daylight” is perhaps the most groove-based of the compositions, with LeFebvre’s pliant bass lines leading the way behind Guiliana’s in-the-pocket playing. Lindner’s expansive keyboard creates an airy, floating sound that dances over cloud like layers of shimmering cymbals and snapping snares. McCaslin honks his way in a playful but penetrating display of horn dynamics.

The multilayered “Alpha and Omega” is a demonstration of “the layered sound” that McCaslin is trying to create. With its repeating saxophone and synthesizer motif setting the landscape for Guiliana’s explosive drum outbursts the mood created is eerily hypnotic.

On Binney’s crescendo building “Praia Grande” the group dynamic is at its most unified and McCaslin’s tenor soars with unrestrained energy and unbridled passion.

The title track “Casting for Gravity” has LeFebvre playing the opening line on his electric bass in a guitar-like riff with Guiliana’s cadenced drum work reminiscent of the early electronica group Portishead.  McCaslin slowly enters with a repeating serpentine saxophone call that pre-dominates the rest of the tune to its coda.

“Henry” is a softer more introspective piece named after McCaslin’s infant son. Sensitively played by Lindner on a electric piano with a distinctively dreamy sound. The group seem to find an inner gentleness on this one that is quite compelling. McCaslin’s warm, probing sound is fluid and emotive; a father’s tender call out to his son. As the group warms up to the increased tempo, the intensity follows but never upstages the underlying love that seems to pour from McCaslin’s horn.

In many ways McCaslin’s journey into electronica is like a journey into the unknown. He is Casting for Gravity when he goes into this realm and it will not be for everyone, but it courageous and a powerful musical statement that has moments of brilliance and maybe prove to be an important  portal for expanding the shrinking jazz audience

Musicians: Donny McCaslin, Tenor Saxophone; Jason Lindner, Electric and Acoustic Pianos, Synthesizers; Tim Lefebvre, Electric Bass; Mark Guiliana Drums, David Binney, vocals and additional sythesizers.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Basking in the Sweet Sounds of Trumpeter Tom Harrell’s latest "Number Five'"

From the opening notes of Tom Harrell’s latest High Note release Number Five you are catapulted into a break neck duet between the smooth as silk trumpeter and his equally cacophonous drummer Johnathan Blake.  “Dizzy Gillespie’s “ Blues N’ Boogie” roars out of the gates of this fine album with a confident swagger and deliberate bravado. The tight interplay belies precision with just the right amount of extemporaneous spontaneity.

Harrell’s beautiful “Right As Rain” takes a distinctively more gentle approach to win you over.  On this sensitive ballad, the front line of Harrell on trumpet and Wayne Escoffery on tenor play a sleepily descending line, creating the aural effect of cascading water over smoothened river rocks. Escoffery’s tone is warm and compliments Harrell’s equally burnished sound. Blake’s cymbal work is subtly effective.

The title track is Harrell’s “No. 5”,  a straight ahead swinger, is the first tune to feature the full quintet. Harrell’s lead is both harmonically rich and tonally resplendent. Escoffery offers a flowing and fiery tenor solo that is as hot and unstoppable as liquid lava in motion. The song also features nice solos by pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and a stirring trap solo by Blake.

Perhaps the most beautiful piece on the album is Harrell’s “Journey to the Stars”,  it is a simple repeating piano motif played lovingly by Grissett over which Harrell plays some gorgeous Flugelhorn explorations. The sparse treatment is extremely effective in creating poignancy, carrying you away to the stars of Harrell’s musical mind.. Harrell overdubs a series of muted trumpet accompaniments that project a sense of majesty to the journey. Grissett offers an emotionally stirring solo demonstrating a tender touch.

It becomes obvious that Harrell’s approach to music is all encompassing with many unexpected twists and turns that keep you always on your feet. From the peaceful galactic travel of “Journey to the Stars” we step right into a free piece titled “GT”, the longest piece of the album at almost nine minutes. Escoffery’s tenor solo is the highlight with a blistering torrent of notes pouring from his horn in an uninterrupted flow of consciousness. Some nice spatial playing by Okegwo and Blake finish this barely structured piece.

Harrell is quite cognizant of the palette of colors he has available to him when creating his music. Here on his penetrating ballad “Present” he utilizes the warm tones of his Flugelhorn mixing nicely with Grissett’s distinctively tinkling Fender Rhodes sound and Blake’s wet cymbal work to create his images. The tight implicit interactions of this ensemble are the fruits of many hours of these musicians working closely together, clearly with Harrell’s vision in mind, creating one of the most exciting and inventive ensembles in jazz today. As a friend of Mr. Harrell’s on Facebook I have seen he often posts pictures of his group as it tours the world. The obvious camaraderie that shows so well in his pictures is equally apparent in his music. This group genuinely enjoys playing together.

Daringly, Harrell interspersed this album with multiple instrument line ups. He offers duets between drums and trumpet or piano and trumpet, the trio format as well as the full quintet with the only unifying factor being Harrell’s ubiquitous presence.

On “Star Eyes” Harrell goes it totally solo. With a lead in from "Night in Tunisa" there is no lack of creativity flowing from this man’s horn as he negotiates the changes in his own unique way. His sense of time is exquisite, but it is his supreme sense of lyricism that is most impressive. “Star Eyes” is a standout solo performance of unfettered spontaneity and a lesson in how expressive  unaccompanied trumpet can be.

The album finishes off with “Preludium” a study in how to change a six bar practice arrangement from Vincent Persichetti’s book on “Harmony, Creative Aspects and Practice’ into a thoughtful exploratory piece of music.

Harrell’s haunting trumpet sound on “The Question” opens this probing piece of music. Grissett again marvels with his deft use of the Fender Rhodes, someone who is growing exponentially. Escoffery’s tone is exceptionally warm and full. 

“Melody in B Flat” is a hard swinging ensemble piece that once again features the entire quintet.  Johnathan Blake’s pulsing trap work drives this train, with Escoffery again playing some inspired tenor.

The album closes out almost introspectively with Harrell’s solo, sotto voce version of Tadd Dameron’s  “ A Bluetime”. Enough said.

Make no mistake, despite some fine individual performances on the album, it is the leader Tom Harrell’s vision that makes NumberFive such a top notch offering. The precise ensemble playing, his fine compositions, deft arrangements and his own imaginative playing, along with his ability to preserve spontaneity makes this one a must have for any serious jazz lover.

Here is a videos of the Tom Harrell Qunitet and their wonderful music.