Gary Smulyan’s latest album comes with a built-in game sure to please bop-ophiles the world over. Each of the near-to-obscure jazz tunes the baritone saxophonist interprets is based on the harmonies of a preexisting song: the very MO of classic bop. The original songs are even named in the liner notes—it’s up to sharp-eared listeners to place the mother and child together.
Hopefully this parlor game won’t distract anyone from the substantial playing of the leader and his two accompanists, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Billy Drummond. Given the spare setting, “accompanists” might well be replaced by “cohorts.” While Drummond selflessly holds down the rhythm with typically assured nonchalance (cutting loose to great effect on Donald Byrd’s “Omicron”), McBride goes to town throughout. His unerring walking lines take up all the slack of any missing chordal instrument, while his extraordinarily fleet solos, buoyed by his warm tone and precise intonation, give evidence that, when it comes to consistency, McBride remains one of the great success stories of the much-hyped “Young Lion” explosion of the past two decades.
If, for variety’s sake only, a second horn is sometimes missed, Smulyan’s prodigious fluency holds attention fast. Unencumbered by a piano or guitar’s harmonic markers, he tears through Art Farmer’s “Stretch in F,” Jim McNeeley’s “Off the Cuff” and Coltrane’s more familiar “Fifth House.” Smulyan offsets his vigor with an imaginative bent that serves him well, particularly on the medium-tempoed “Wail Bait” by Quincy Jones and Tadd Dameron’s “Jahbero,” the last two tunes obviously based on—well, I won’t spoil the fun.