Gary Smulyan: Alternative Contrafacts (SteepleChase)

Review of album by renowned baritone saxophonist featuring alternatives to bop classics

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Cover of Gary Smulyan album Alternative Contrafacts

When Bird and Diz took the chords of popular songs like “I Got Rhythm” and “Cherokee” and wrote new melodies over them, people called it bebop. Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan opts for the concept’s jazz-education name of “contrafacts.” This trio album brings together eight lesser-known examples of the practice from the late ’40s through the early ’60s—including such “alternatives” to the bop classics as Mal Waldron’s “Vodka,” Ted Curson’s “Ahma See Ya” and Coleman Hawkins’ “Hanid”—along with one of Smulyan’s own contrafacts, “I’ve Changed.”

The erudition displayed in Smulyan’s deep-cut choices is just as clear in his playing. His best solo comes on Gil Fuller and Dave Burns’ “Moodamorphosis,” a sustained feast of brilliantly interconnected ideas. The rhythm section adds special luster to Paul Chambers’ “Tale of the Fingers,” with bassist David Wong giving his bow a workout and drummer Rodney Green trading scintillating eights and fours with Smulyan. Tempos and rhythmic feels don’t vary much from medium swing, but the musicians find new twists where they can. On Jimmy Giuffre’s “Deep People,” for instance, they all leave lots of holes in their parts; each player’s role in relation to the beat—who’s keeping it, who’s playing off it—changes from second to second.

If you’re not familiar with these tunes but still want to try identifying the sources from which they sprang, your harmonic detective work will be complicated by the fact that there’s no chordal instrument present. This makes it harder to tell what changes the musicians are hearing in their heads, and easier for them to veer away from those changes whenever they like. You may as well set your analytical mind on other tasks and just enjoy the buoyant vibes, of which there are plenty.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Alternative Contrafacts by Gary Smulyan on iTunes.

 Read Thomas Conrad’s review of album Smul’s Paradise by Gary Smulyan