Gary Smulyan with Dominic Chianese
Jazz At Kitano
New York, NY
April 5, 2014

Shortly before this show began, on a beautiful Saturday evening that truly marked the start of spring, a small crew of musicians and concert-goers, including this writer, were seated around the bar at Jazz At Kitano. The mood in the room was one of relaxation, with a low hum of conversation and laughter hanging in the air. The intelligently irrepressible Matt Wilson, who took to the drums once the show began, was playing ringleader for an impromptu game where participants try to come up with three musicians that would make for an incongruous and intriguing trio. Everybody involved in the exercise was aware that none of the players who came to mind would probably ever join forces, but nobody can really be certain of anything these days. The audience was, after all, there to hear the unlikely-and-charming combination of baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan and vocalist Dominic Chianese.

Gary Smulyan, the long-reigning baron of the bari, was already known for trying different things before this partnership came to pass. Projects like Gary Smulyan With Strings (Criss Cross, 1997) and the organ-centric Smul’s Paradise (Capri Records, 2012) stand tall in his discography, marking him as one who always looks for a different angle with each release, but both of those projects are variations on oft-explored themes. Bella Napoli (Capri Records, 2013), on the other hand, is not. Plenty of saxophonists have done a horn-plus-strings date or worked with an organ combo, but how many have married jazz tradition to Canzone Napoletana? It’s doubtful that anybody did it before Smulyan.

Smulyan and Chianese, the actor-cum-singer best known as “Uncle Junior” on HBO’s The Sopranos, took to this Park Avenue spot for two nights to celebrate the release of the aforementioned collection of jazz-tweaked Italian tunes artfully arranged by Jeff Lederer. The first set on the second night of this stand found this group charting a course through more than half of the songs on the album. These shows marked the first live performances of this material, but hopefully not the last.

The first set took off with the album-opening instrumental take on “Funiculi Funicula.” Pianist Gary Versace delivered the most engaging solo here, creating cascading runs that gave way to choppier thoughts when the groove shifted from swing to Latin. Chianese made his first appearance of the night on “Anema E Core,” the first of several love songs that he sang. Versace, now on accordion, and Joseph Brent, with mandolin in hand, provided the stamp of Italian authenticity that the music needed here and elsewhere. “Dicitencello Vuie!,” which also featured Chianese, started off in haunting fashion with Martin Wind’s arco bass work and Versace’s accordion setting the stage. As the song progressed, Wilson’s spang-a-lang stick work stoked the flames within Smulyan; the saxophonist caught fire in a big way during this particular solo spot.

Chianese departed the stage when it was tarantella time, leaving Smulyan and company to deliver the up-tempo, raucous-and-spirited “O Saracino.” Smulyan’s sprints got a great reaction, Wilson’s melodic tom exploits were a treat to behold, and Versace covered the whole baroque-to-bop spectrum when it was his turn to shine. Chianese returned for a trip through “O Sole Mio,” which had a gentle bounce thanks to Wilson’s Vernell Fournier-esque groove, but he departed when Lederer grabbed his clarinet to join in on the odd-metered “Tre Veglia E Sonno.” Lederer spent part of the evening providing subtle cues and conducting, serving as the connective tissue between the band and Chianese, but he made the most of his lone instrumental appearance during this zany, bleary-eyed mazurka. His reconstructive antics had him playing sans clarinet bell at one point, and then he upped the ante by removing the upper joint of his clarinet and attaching the mouthpiece to the lower joint.

The final performance of the set-the Cuban-inflected “Marechiare”-brought Chianese back to the stage, and it brought his voice into close contact with Smulyan’s burly horn. These two men certainly make for an odd pair, but it’s important to make the distinction between odd and incompatible; they absolutely do not mean the same thing. Smulyan and Chianese clearly figured out a way to marry their respective talents, creating something special in the process. That much was obvious during this particular performance.

Dan Bilawsky – All About Jazz

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Bella Napoli
Gary Smulyan/Dominic Chianese

January 2014

If you’ve ever been to an Italian wedding, or a real red sauce Italian-American restaurant, the music here will be familiar. The repertoire is Canzone Napoletana, songs popular in Naples in the late 19th and early 20th Century and often played at Italian-American weddings and social clubs to this day. Half of the band tracks feature the highly emotive yet mellow tenor voice of Dominic Chianese, best known as Uncle Junior from the TV series The Sopranos. He also closes the CD with an a cappella version of “Santa Lucia Lontana”.

Chianese sings the songs straight, as he might at a family gathering, but the band, featuring baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, brings them gently into jazz territory. The core quartet is Smulyan and three members of drummer Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts: bassist Martin Wind, pianist/accordionist Gary Versace and Wilson himself. Arrangements are courtesy of another Wilson associate, saxophonist Jeff Lederer. Adding to the Neapolitan atmosphere on most tracks is the mandolin and violin of Joseph Brent.

For the band, this is a departure from the usual advanced postbop harmonies and driving rhythms they are accustomed to playing. The emphasis here is on melody, whether the context is slow ballads or faster waltzes, two-steps or triple meters. Smulyan can be evocatively lyrical, as on Chianese’s first appearance, “Anema e Core”, breathily intoning the introduction over piano. Chianese sings, in Neapolitan dialect, the verse with just a touch of trembling vibrato then launches into the familiar melody over an undulating, rumba-like rhythm, joined by baritone and billowing mandolin chords. Accordion and mandolin blend with arco bass under the vocal on “Dicitencello Vuie!”, sung semi-rubato until a gentle swing 4/4 kicks in for baritone and mandolin solos. The instrumental tracks invoke the Neapolitan spirit as convincingly as the vocal ones, but add creative flourishes, especially from Wilson.

George Kanzler – The New York City Jazz Record

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Gary Smulyan/Dominic Chianese
Bella Napoli ****

Subjects for jazz tribute albums have exploded the last two decades. Almost everything that inventive improvisers get their hands on – from Joni Mitchell weepies to Sly Stone anthems – seem to become a viable vehicle for group excursions. So don’t bother to raise an eyebrow at this quizzical collaboration between New York’s most astute and agile bari player and the octogenarian actor best known as Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos.” As they roam around the Canzone Napoletana songbook, their insightful dedication to variety and their animated playing make this nod to Italian culture one of the more engaging “tribute” discs to come along in a while.

Music director Jeff Lederer can take a bow right at the top. His inspired design sense gives the program an enviable flow. Interspersing tracks featuring Chianese’s heartfelt tenor with instrumental romps led by Smulyan’s forthright horn, the action is focused and fluid.

The band is culled from the circle of players that surround Matt Wilson, and a few of the pieces are infused with the drummer’s trademark whimsy. Their spin on “Tre Veglia e Sonno” starts tight and then lets a bit of deconstruction in the door – the looser it gets, the jazzier it feels. “O Saracino” doesn’t have that kind of wobble, but its élan comes across just as plainly, and with bassist Martin Wind driving the action, the band gives both Smulyan and Gary Versace (on accordion) plenty of oomph for inspired solos. Chianese fits in nicely because his approach tilts toward the folky side. “O Solo Mio” is taken seriously, but nonchalance guides the vocal. As Smulyan’s basso lines weave in and out of Chianese’s plaint, the performance becomes more irresistible. There’s bravura to their bromance on this unique album, but it’s invitation is warm from start to finish.

Jim Macnie – DownBeat

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Gary Smulyan & Dominic Chianese: Bella Napoli (2013)

Some concepts that seem far out, turn out to be right on. That is the case of the unlikely musical combination which comes together in the entertaining CD Bella Napoli—a salute to popular Italian song classics. Two greats pull this all together: acclaimed poll winner Gary Smulyan on baritone sax and actor-singer Dominic Chianese, well known as Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos,” the Emmy-winning HBO TV series.

And, as it turns out, Chianese is also a respected singer with a fine tenor voice. This is Chianese’s second album

For Smulyan, this is the jazz veteran’s 11th album as leader during his very active career, beginning in the late seventies.

What brought the two together was love of the old Neopolitan “canzones.” A first-rate backup group—Gary Versace on piano and accordion, Martin Wind on bass, Matt Wilson on drums, Joe Brent on mandolin and violin— was brought together ans is indispensable in successfully combining this mixture of traditional and modern tunes. It’s all “estremamente piacevole” or, in the Neapolitan vernacular.

Half the numbers here are vocals; half instrumentals. These Italian classics have come into American culture, as well. Most have heard them on recordings and radio or TV (often with lyrics translated into English. In addition, they create ambiance in ristorantes and trattorias.

Likewise, they were sung by past tenors, from Luchino Pavarotti and Mario Lanza, back to Enrico Caruso. Smulyan likens these stand-bys to master works from our Great American Songbook. He says the quintet at hand tries to capture the deeply soulful, funky quality inherent in this music.

In most of the instrumentals, the group introduces the familiar melody which provides fodder for fine solos from Smulyan et al. The accordion, mandolin and violin add rich Italian flavor to the mix.

Two big numbers grab attention. The opener, “Funiculi Funicula,” with its jaunty tune and irresistible beat, is given new life by the Bari sax. Following, the mood changes with the mellow voice of Chianese caressing the plaintive “Aneme e Core,” made even dreamier by the band’s soft, subdued backing.

Another boisterous cut, “O Saracino” is introduced by the drums, erupting with Vesuvian force, firing up Smulyan for a breakneck solo.

As might be expected, Chianese impresses with his soulful “O Sole Mio,” his voice lamenting (in thetranslation): “There’s no tomorrow, only tonight.” This brings the listener irresistibly into what follows, “A Vucchella,” Chianese’s rendering of this lovely lullaby, aptly transitions into the heart-rendering unaccompanied “Santa Lucia Lontana,”a cherished Neapolitaan song about leaving Italy. This is dedicated to his father’s immigration to America.

Bringing to fruition this artistic project, hopefully, will set the stage for similar cross-genre recordings.

Larry Taylor – All ABout Jazz

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Gary Smulyan/Dominic Chianese: Bella Napoli

Is anyone noticing that bari saxist Gary Smulyan is putting out some of the greatest music the past few years? Last year he did a cooker of a tribute to Ellington’s sax section, and now, well, it’s a different type of cooking! Pizza Napolitano, as he, Matt Wilson, Gary Versace, Martin Wind, Joseph Brent and Jeff Lederer team up with Italian folk crooner Dominic Chianese for a full meal of sumptuous Italian fare.

Mixing the freedom of jazz with the passion of traditional Italian pieces such as “Funiculi Funicula” and “O Sole Mio,” Chainese and Smulyan sound like compadres serenading each other in Piazza Navona. As far as Smulyan’s bop chops go, get a load of his triple meter work on “Tre Veglia e Sonno” to get your head spinning. As far as the old school flavors go, you can almost feel the mist of the fountains sparkling behind the violins and accordions on “Fenestra Che Lucive” and Chainese’s voice is as old school as fried Scarmortza cheese. Lyricism and melody take the day here, and when Chianese goes a cappella on the closing “Santa Lucia Lontana,” there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Bravo ragazzo!

George W. Harris – Jazz Weekly

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Gary Smulyan & Dominic Chianese – Bella Napoli

Capri records seems to be committed to promoting meetings between actor-singers and jazz heavies. First came the pairing of Wilford Brimley and drummer Jeff Hamilton’s trio in September of 2013. Now, right on the heels of that release comes a meeting between Dominic Chianese—best known as Uncle Junior on HBO’s The Sopranos—and baritone saxophone ace Gary Smulyan. Together, they bridge the gap between Canzone Napoletana and jazz.

Smulyan, the long-reigning king of the baritone saxophone, has a knack for birthing unique and/or interesting projects. The man, after all, put out the reeds-heavy Saxophone Mosaic (Criss Cross, 1993), ambitious Blue Suite (Criss Cross, 2000), one-of-a-kind High Noon: The Jazz Soul Of Frankie Laine (Reservoir/City Hall, 2009) and organ-meets-bari Smul’s Paradise (Capri, 2012), so it should come as no shock that he was interested in trying something new with Chianese.

Chianese made his first on-record splash as a vocalist with Hits (Madacy 2 Label Group, 2001), but that was hardly his first stab at singing. He began to explore musical theater in his youth and he entered the ranks of the professionals when he was hired as a chorus member in a touring company of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore in the early ’50s. He even logged time in the folk trenches in the ’60s, singing and playing his guitar and serving as MC at Gerde’s Folk City. Unfortunately, singing went on the back burner for a bit when his acting career took off, but it became a primary pursuit again in later years. Hits and Ungrateful Heart (Grandstand Entertainment, 2003) introduced his vocal talents to a wider audience, and now, ten years after his last record, the octogenarian returns with this tasty Italian dish.

While many partners-from-different-worlds projects are built on the idea of compromise and a meet-in-the-middle mindset, this one isn’t. The baritone saxophonist and singer of Neapolitan songs don’t give up their respective core performance principles and this project is all the better for it; Chianese charms simply by doing his thing and Smulyan alternately smokes and seduces as usual. This odd-on-the-surface partnership just happens to work well because of the chemistry between the two protagonists, the talents of the musicians involved, and a collection of arrangements—provided by Jeff Lederer—that cater to all parties so well.

Bella Napoli is really two albums in one, as five numbers are instrumentals and six tracks feature vocals. Chianese first turns up on “Anema e Core,” which begins with a marked sense of longing but takes on a lighter feeling with the arrival of a bossa nova groove. From there he moves on to music that’s Cuban-infused and tropically enhanced (“Marechiare”), wistfully romantic (“O Sole Mio”) and gently desirous (“A Vucchella”). He even bares his tortured soul in the name of love (“Dicitencello Vuie”). Chianese’s final stand—an a capella “Santa Lucia Lontana”—comes with a spoken introduction but it doesn’t need one; it goes straight to the heart like all the rest of the songs he sings here.

The instrumentals are no less pleasing, as deep-seated beauty merges with the simple-and-solid (“Fenestra Che Lucive”), gaiety and joy take hold (“O Saracino”), and old world sounds are opened up for the taking (“Peque”). As the program unfolds, serious notions are mixed with more playful ideals (“Tre Veglia e Sonno”), creating a well-rounded picture of where this music can go in the right hands. Gary Versace’s breath-of-Italian-air accordion and Joseph Brent’s calm-as-can-be mandolin tremolos add a stamp of sonic authenticity to this project while the rhythm team of drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind is grounded and creative all at once. Smulyan, perhaps the best at bring out the beefy and the tender in the baritone saxophone, is never short of excellent here. In theory, this project shouldn’t work so well, but theory only goes so far. Bella Napoli proves that point.

Dan Bilawsky – All About Jazz

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Gary Smulyan & Dominic Chianese – Bella Napoli

Throughout its history, jazz has always “borrowed” from other types of music, adopting repertoire, styles and approaches from other idioms and turning them into jazz. With all of the different types of fusions that have taken place, and considering the strong contributions that Italian-Americans have made to jazz through the years, it is surprising that the Neapolitan melodies of the late 1800s have rarely ever been heard in jazz settings.

From the start of jazz’s history, Italian-Americans have been prominent in jazz. Included in any list of major artists would have to be cornetist Nick La Rocca (leader of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band), clarinetists Leon Roppolo (of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings) and Tony Parenti, trumpeter-singer Louis Prima, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang, bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, tenor-saxophonist Flip Phillips, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, Louis Prima, Louis Bellson, Lennie Tristano, Scott LaFaro, Vince Guaraldi, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Pat Martino and Al DiMeola just to name a few. But while some of these and other Italian- American jazz artists have occasionally performed an Italian song or two, Bella Napoli might very well be the first full-length project of this sort.

The co-stars of this CD are baritonist Gary Smulyan and Dominic Chianese on vocals. Smulyan has been one of the major baritonesaxophonists of the past decade 30 years. He has worked with quite a few big bands (including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Dave Holland Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band and Carla Bley) but is at his best in freewheeling combos. His musical role model is Pepper Adams and he has a similar sound and an oftenferocious attack.

Dominic Chianese comes from a completely different world. As an actor he is most famous for being in the Godfather Part II, and The Sopranos. When things got slow in his earlier years, he gained experience singing Italian songs in restaurants and bars. At 82 he still has a strong voice and adds a very authentic quality to this unusual album.

For the set of traditional Neapolitan melodies from the late 1800s and early 20th century, Jeff Lederer wrote arrangements that also utilize Gary Versace on piano and accordion, bassist Martin Wind, drummer Matt Wilson and, as a real asset, Joseph Brent on mandolin and occasional violin. This group proves very capable of playing both swinging jazz and romantic Italian melodies.

The first two songs set the standard for the entire project. The instrumental “Funiculi Funicula” has Smulyan caressing the melody and, after spots for bass and piano, he takes a hardcharging solo that Pepper Adams would have been proud of over modernized chord changes that recall “Giant Steps” in a few spots. “Anema e Core” has a romantic theme that is played first by Smulyan and then sung quite well by Chianese. After piano and baritone solos with very nice mandolin played in the background, there is a second warm vocal.

Of the 11 songs, six have appearances by Dominic Chianese including his unaccompanied vocal on the closing “Santa Lucia.” Smulyan gets plenty of solos including on a rollicking Afro-Cuban version of “Marechiare” and the uptempo “O Saracino.” The latter song has some fine accordion playing by Versace as does the eccentric “Tre Veglia e Sonno.” Throughout the set, the mandolin solos of Joseph Brent give the music a period flavor.

This unique effort deserves a few listens.

Scott Yanow – Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside

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Live Concert at the Blue Whale – March 22, 2013 — L.A. Weekly

‘…..the only current baritone saxophonist better known than Gary Smulyan is cartoon character Lisa Simpson. Says Simpson of Smulyan, ” I have tremendous respect for Gary,and I love his recordings, especially that Frankie Laine tribute album, High Noon. But I’ve been playing Bari for millions of viewers for 23 years! I hope people stop discounting my talent just because I’m not a real person.’

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The Bellowing Baritone Saxophone of Gary Smulyan

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.

Ralph A. Miriello – The Huffington Post

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Ellington Saxophone Encounters — Mark Masters Ensemble featuring Gary Smulyan

Ellington Saxophone Encounters features twelve pieces associated with Ellington, including two well-known known gems by the Maestro (Jeep’s Blues and Rockin’ in Rhythm) along with tunes by Jimmy Hamilton, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves. All of these provide effective vehicles for extensive blowing excursions for this top-flight West Coast sax ensemble. This group was organised and led by Mark Masters (who also serves the community as President of the American Jazz Institute), who also did the arrangements, which give a nod to Duke without ever attempt to emulate or recreate him, settings which allow this bevy of capable soloists to shine.

These soloists include veteran LA reedsmen Dick Spencer, Pete Christlieb, and Don Shelton as well as the crack rhythm team of pianist Bill Cunliffe (ex-Buddy Rich), former Tonight Show bassman Tom Warrington and drummer, Joe LaBarbera, who has sidemanned with everyone from Chuck Mangione, Bill Evans and Tony Bennett.

It’s a line-up about which you might say: that’s not a bad start at all. But the real star of the show, and the only non-West Coaster on the date is New Yorker Gary Smulyan on baritone sax. Soloing on virtually every track, he tenders heartfelt readings of Harry Carney’s We’re In Love Again as well as a provocative Jimmy Hamilton ditty Ultra Blue, a loping swinger full of chromatic chord sequences that provide so much delight and shade for the soloist to bask in. Gary rises to the challenge with aplomb. Arguably the top modern baritonist in jazz today, Smulyan completely owns a contemporary melodic vocabulary enhanced by a flawless technique but offset by possessing a full and glowing tone that embraces the listener in its warmth and burnished quality.

Other highlights include a lesser known Ben Webster composition, Loves Away, (originally recorded by Ben with Teddy Wilson, Ray Brown and Jo Jones in 1954) given an updated reading by the wistful yet occasionally blustery tenor of Pete Christlieb. Let us also not overlook the essential role of the Dukian clarinet, handled more than deftly by Don Shelton throughout the date. His three refreshing choruses on Hamilton’s Get Ready as well as his obligatto work throughout Peaches go a long way to exemplifying this.

A super disc from start to finish, Ellington Saxophone Encounters evokes the best of Ellington and Smulyan in a unique and successful collaboration.

Frank Griffith – LondonJazz

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Ellington Saxophone Encounters — Mark Masters Ensemble featuring Gary Smulyan

Arranger Mark Masters and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan have an empathy that makes magic. It was evident on Smulyan’s “High Noon” CD, and here’s that spark again on ‘Ellington Saxophone Encounters’ in which Master has assembled a section of wonderful sax players, Gary Foster, Don Shelton, Pete Christlieb, Gene Cipriano plus Gary Smulyan stoked along by the enthusiastic rhythm section of pianist Bill Cunliff, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe La Barbera. This is an Ellington tribute like no other. Master’s mainly uses his own voicing of the sax section rather than just cloning Ellington’s sound except for the nod on “Rockin’ In Rhythm. The tribute is in the choice of tunes, some Ellington others by Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton and Ben Webster, then there’s the energy and the love of Duke’s music itself. Twelve passionate tracks filled with sculptured solos including Cunliff who often drops in a sly reference to Ellingtonia. With Smulyan playing on fully charged batteries, this is another contender for my CD of the year. Info on

Don Albert –

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Ellington Saxophone Encounters — Mark Masters Ensemble featuring Gary Smulyan

One of the truly indisputable evidences for the existence of an all loving God is when he allowed Duke Ellington to form his orchestra, and let baritone saxist Harry Carney anchor the sax section for 50 years. Whether it was the early team with Hodges/as, Hardwick/as, Bigard /cl and Webster/ts, or the two score team of Gonsalves/ts, Hodges/as, Procope/cl and Hamilton/cl, the sound that went from velvety smooth to jungle raw was one of the glories of Western Civilization.

The American Jazz Institute got a bunch of LA’s best musicians and put out this prime release that sounds like one of The Duke’s experimental sessions for a small band. To say that it’s “just a sax section and rhythm team” is like saying the 1927 Yankees were “just a ballclub.” Gary Foster, Don Shelton, Pete Christlieb, Gene Cipriano and Gary Smulyan make up the reeds, while Joe La Barbera/dr, Bill Cunliffe/p and Tom Warrington/b handle the rhythm chores. Special accolades go to La Barbera, who gets the Woodyard/Bellson groove that made Ellington so, well, Ellingtonian, down to perfection. All of the songs picked from the Ellington Canon feature one of the Hall of Famers from the venerable band, such as “Love’s Away” having Pete Christlieb delving into the inner sanctum of Ben Webster, or Cipriano tipping the hat to Johnny Hodges on “The Peaches Are Better Down the Road.” The head honcho of the show, however, is the bari man Smulyan, who’s presence is felt as the anchor of the horn section on juicy pieces like “Esquire Swank,” or on solo spotlights on “We’re In Love Again.”

One of the best things about this collection is that most of the tunes are fairly obscure. Except for “Jeep’s Blues” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” you probably won’t have these melodies embedded in your cerebrum, making the sense of discovery all the more enjoyable, and keeping the music fresh, as opposed to some standard rehash. This music will rejuvenate your love for music, maybe even for life, and maybe even make you get out your Bible and sing praises to God, for “everything good comes from above.”

George W. Harris – Jazz Weekly

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Smul’s Paradise— Gary Smulyan

Of all the things that the best jazz musicians can do that the rest of us can’t, one of the most mysterious is to go into a studio with a new group and nail a record like this one in a few hours.

The tight band that had never played together before, and that never rehearsed, is Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone), Mike LeDonne (Hammond B3), Peter Bernstein (guitar) and Kenny Washington (drums). In the liner notes, Smulyan says that he grew up loving organ combos, but that collaborations between baritone saxophonists and organ trios have been exceedingly rare. Smul’s Paradise proves how, in the right hands, a baritone’s dark granite, a B3’s bright liquidity and a guitar’s linear incisiveness make a beautiful balance.

This tribute to the organ-combo genre contains two tunes by the great neglected B3 master Don Patterson (the shamelessly carnal “Up in Betty’s Room” and the moody ballad “Aires”), the ultra-funky “Pistaccio” (made famous by organist Rhonda Scott) and Smulyan’s heartfelt homage to Patterson, “Blues for D.P.”

Organ combos are about soul and groove, and Smulyan’s band swings, profoundly. But their take on a time-honored format is uniquely sophisticated. They sound like an organ combo gone to graduate school. Smulyan elaborates every tune here with advanced harmonic ingenuity and imaginative melodic ornamentation. The density of his ideas on George Coleman’s “Little Miss Half Steps” and his own “Heavenly Hours” confirms his elevated status among current jazz improvisers. LeDonne is a fleet, graceful, highly musical practitioner of the B3. Bernstein’s main job is to stay home and supervise the groove, yet he takes one concise, elegant solo after another.

Smulyan’s band needs to record again, this time live in an organ joint, where they can hang it all out and get greasy.

Thomas Conrad – JazzTimes

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Smul’s Paradise— Gary Smulyan

Gary Smulyan is perhaps best known for his associations over the years with both big bands and large ensembles, such as Woody Herman, the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band, Joe Lovano’s Nonet, and Dave Holland’s Octet and Big Band. Yet one of his unfulfilled desires has been to play in a jazz organ combo. Outside of Ronnie Cuber with Lonnie Smith (and George Benson), one would be hard-pressed to come up with another baritone saxophonist who was part of such a group. With Smul’s Paradise, Smulyan has finally had his wish, as he is joined by organist Mike LeDonne, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Kenny Washington. The CD is partly a tribute to Sonny Stitt’s favorite organist, Don Patterson, with two Patterson tunes and Smulyan’s original, “D.P. Blues,” among the selections. The title Smul’s Paradise, of course, is a play on the name of the famous Harlem nightclub, Small’s Paradise, where Jimmy Smith was among the organ players who entertained the patrons.

Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” is taken at a soulful waltz tempo, with LeDonne cooking brightly on all burners. Smulyan then weaves lines that rise and fall succinctly and authoritatively, funky but without any hackneyed phrases. Bernstein also gets to stretch out appealingly before Smulyan trades with the on-the-money Washington. The drummer and organist make a locked-in and inspiring supporting team. Smulyan’s out chorus is the icing on this delicious nine-minute confection. Patterson’s “Up In Betty’s Room” is remindful of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Dat Dere,” and is just as good a vehicle for preaching improvisation from Bernstein, Smulyan, and LeDonne, with Washington’s pulsating back beat propelling them forward determinedly.

“Pistaccio,” the Pee Wee Ellis tune that expatriate organist Rhoda Scott liked to play, has overtones of “There Will Never Be Another You” in its structure, and Smulyan, Bernstein, and then LeDonne build concise but meaty solos in front of the ever-engaging Washington. At this point it must be said that LeDonne was at his very best on 4-23-11, the date of this session, at times even outshining both Smulyan and Bernstein. The leader’s “Smul’s Paradise” is a streamlined, very hip theme that is a launching pad for Smulyan’s grooving, upbeat solo, his rich, slightly raspy tone only adding to his expressiveness. The dancing lines of Bernstein’s improv are in turn enhanced by his light, floating sound. LeDonne’s statement acknowledges all that preceded him while going its own merry, multi-faceted way. Washington’s exchanges with his confreres are compellingly to the point.

“Little Miss Half Steps,” which Smulyan may have played while a member of composer George Coleman’s Octet, is handled by the baritone saxophonist in a relentlessly driving, brawny manner similar to that of Coleman. Washington is again endlessly inventive in his fruitful conversations with first Bernstein and then LeDonne. “Aires” is a dreamy Patterson-Stitt ballad that Smulyan plays with tender longing, as LeDonne’s organ lays down a luxurious harmonic foundation. Bernstein’s solo combines graceful delicacy with bluesy intonation. LeDonne sermonizes in classic Patterson-like fashion. Smulyan’s narrative is a master lesson in thematic improvisation, complete with declamatory coda.

“Blues for D.P.” is an attractive, logically constructed Smulyan piece. No organ combo set is satisfactory without at least one blues workout, and this one is gratifying thanks to a string of passionate, flowing solos. Smulyan’s clever original, “Heavenly Hours,” borrows liberally form both “Seven Steps to Heaven,” and “My Shining Hour” with winning results. The leader’s extended solo is probably his most adventurous and intricate of the date, with just Washington’s expert commentary along for the ride.

This CD offers yet another firm explanation as to why Smulyan has been named the best baritone saxophonist in the last five DownBeat Critics Polls. Enjoy.

Scott Albin – JazzTimes

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Smul’s Paradise – Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone.

First things first. Ya gotta love the title, a reference to the famous New York jazz bistro, “Small’s Paradise.” Furthermore, I’m convinced that there isn’t much of anything that Smulyan can’t impressively pull off playing that sometimes unforgiving beast, the baritone saxophone. Smulyan has demonstrated over the years a rare versatility among today’s musicians. And this time around, he gathers in a sympathetic Gotham group to produce some hip, swinging, soulful sounds. On board are Mike LeDonne, Hammond B3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; and Kenny Washington, drums. Smulyan is much more a disciple of the Pepper Adams in-your-face style than, say, the more lyrical whimsies of Gerry Mulligan or Serge Chaloff. But you know how I feel about these “organ and guitar” records. Month after month, issue after issue, they’re like the flavor of the month. The only difference here is that Smulyan and his playing mates are so “in the pocket” that this soul-drenched session comes out better than nearly any other. The tunes are mostly blues lines from contributors such as Don Patterson, an admired purveyor of this style from the past, as well as Smulyan’s own intriguing changes on a surprising combination of the changes to “My Shining Hour” and “Seven Steps To Heaven.” That sort of “craziness” is what makes Smulyan such a compelling jazz musician!

George Fendel – Jazz Society of Oregon

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Smul’s Paradise – Gary Smulyan.

Smulyan is one of the top baritone saxophonists in the world, yet he’s under the radar in popularity when he should have the name recognition of a Gerry Mulligan or Pepper Adams. Smulyan can bop with the best of them, as he proves here on the opener, “Sunny,” which clips along to the beats of Kenny Washington and vibrato chords of organist Mike LeDonne. Peter Bernstein adds depth and fine soloing on guitar, but it’s Smulyan who really shines in this setting. The title track, by Smulyan, harkens back to earlier days, when hard bop and soul jazz ruled. But Smulyan can also play a lovely ballad, with a rich, lightly reedy tone, as he tenderly does on “Aires,” while LeDonne’s chords waver under his melody. This disc is a must for fans of straight ahead jazz and those who enjoy melodies done right.

Kyle O’Brien – Jazz Society of Oregon

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A baritone saxophonist leading an organ trio is certainly a rarity; the results of Gary Smulyan’s Smul’s Paradise is, in sixties hip, a “gas.” This slang seems especially appropriate here because the CD pays tribute to an often-overlooked organist, Don Patterson, who came on the scene in that decade. Fronting a quartet behind his big bari, Smulyan contributes his tribute, “Blues for D.P.,” in addition to including two tunes by Patterson in the eight-song set.

Smulyan has said that this format was a favorite from his youth, and that he has wanted to make a recording with an organ group for a long time. He got his professional start in the seventies with Woody Herman’s New Thundering Herds, and currently plays with the celebrated Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. In addition to section work, he leads his own trio, which includes bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Kenny Washington.

Smulyan has been consistently ranked as the number one baritone saxophonist in Downbeat Magazine Readers and Critics polls and cites the influence of the late Pepper Adams. Here, the saxophonist’s sound demonstrates a sonorous quality rarely heard on baritone-more like a tenor-and contributes crisp, punchy solos, with his trio mates also making significant contributions.

Smulyan’s pithy phrasing stands out in Patterson’s up-tempo “Up in Betty’s Room,” layered over Mike LeDonne’s inspired organ work on Hammond B3. Likewise appealing, the melodic Patterson/Sonny Stitt “Aires” features a beautiful bari opening, followed by a beguiling solo from guitarist Peter Bernstein, with LeDonne floating, this time, over the rhythm section.

Another highlight, Smulyan digs in on “Blues for D.P.” after Bernstein’s intro, leading to LeDonne, with all stops pulled out, bringing the tune to a rousing finish. Smulyan is front and center on his closing “Heavenly Hours,” the saxophonist dexterously taking a lengthy run and improvising with abandon.

A logical choice in the midst of an organ trio, hopefully, Smul’s Paradise will open more possibilities for the often-overlooked baritone sax as a lead instrument.

Larry Taylor – All About Jazz

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Jimmy Heath – interviewd by Jazz Inside NY Magazine
“Oh yeah, Smulyan. Gary is great, he is just fabulous. Smulyan is a master. He is a jazz master. Do you know what I call him, Scary Smulyan. Scary ah, ya,ya,ya (shouting) and he jumps up… Scary Smulyan.”

Zan Stewart  Newark Star-Ledger (Jan. 10, 2009):
“In an unusual, very rewarding tribute album, baritone saxophone master Gary Smulyan investigates songs associated with A-1 pop singer Frankie Laine, a hitmaker fr om the 1940s to 1960s. A nine piece band lays out Mark Masters’ dynamic arrangements with aplomb.”

Owen Cordle  Raleigh News & Observrer (Jan. 18, 2009)
“This is the kind of album whose melodies linger after the session is over.”

George Fendel Jazz Society of Oregon (January, 2009)
“ this case, he’s (Smulyan) hit the jackpot with great colleagues and fresh, invigorating arranging.” “Smulyan also struck a chord of genius in hiring Mark Masters to arrange.”