Last time Gary Smulyan led a trio on a set of contrafacts (the name for new melodies built on chord progressions of well-known compositions), the bari sax master drew from existing pieces written 60 years ago or so. That was then, on 2018’s Alternative Contrafacts. This time, Smulyan again brings bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green along, but all the tunes are new and penned by the disc’s players. It’s an invigorating jaunt through familiar-feeling music opened up with inventive themes and uniformly superb playing.
The most playful creation, appropriately enough, is Smulyan’s cleverly named “Tritonious Monk,” over “I Got Rhythm” changes but played in 3/4 time; the spiraling head is followed by Wong’s remarkably conversant solo, one of many occasions revealing an impressive musical sync-up between the bassist and the drummer. The leader also contributes “Miles Tones,” a stairstepping nod to Miles’ 1947 “Milestones,” graced by one of the saxophonist’s most ambitious, agile solo turns; “Homebody,” inspired by “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and featuring Wong’s speedy bowed work; a crunchy, bluesy “Sourpuss,” built on “Sweet and Lovely”; and two other tracks.
Green’s “Quarter Blues,” the opener, offers a catchy, barking melody over a percolating groove and an expansive bass solo; he also contributes the breezy bossa “It Happens,” based on Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens.” Wong’s twisty “How Deep” is built on “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and the ballad “What’s Her Name,” featuring a gorgeous, unaccompanied intro by the bassist, takes its cues from “My Old Flame.” The music throughout benefits from an open, airy feel, and the lack of chordal instruments lets listeners savor Smulyan’s big, gritty tone and agile improvisations. A real treat.