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Gary Smulyan: Smul’s Paradise

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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.

Originally Published