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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 from 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.

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Scott Albin