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Gary Smulyan: The Real Deal

Why is it that some latter-day beboppers bore the bejeezus out of me, while others make me want to renounce modernity and declare bop the one true faith? I think it’s because too many of those young, ultraproficient young studs know all Bird’s licks in every key but can’t for the life of them fathom the music’s ultimate provenance, which is located way beyond the nexus of mind and body. Sure, intellect and physical aptitude play their part, but if your music isn’t informed by emotion and experience, it’s going to sound fake. Musicians who understand that tend to play compelling music; it doesn’t much matter their chosen style.

Bari saxophonist Gary Smulyan plays bop, and while there’s nothing wildly original about his concept, he plays with enough soul and conviction to convert the most hard-core avant-gardist or smooth jazzer to the church of Bird and Diz. Smulyan comes from the Pepper Adams school of bari playing. He acknowledges as much by opening up with Adams’ “Cindy’s Tune,” a bright, knotty swinger based on Fats Wallers’ “Honeysuckle Rose.” Like Adams, Smulyan is a hard, aggressive player. His rhythmic approach is essentially if not literally Bird-like, with long lines of jaggedly phrased 8th notes and 16th-note triplets. Smulyan’s sidemen are similarly adept. The band (Joe Magnarelli, trumpet; Mike LeDonne, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Kenny Washington, drums) plays well together in typical straightahead fashion. They manage to do the expected without being glib. The set of straightahead originals and little-played standards exudes an air of relaxed, swinging, good-natured intensity.

It may not be earthshaking stuff, but it’s The Real Deal for sure, and pretty hard not to like.

Originally Published