The thematic approach to Tough Baritones is about as subtle as a two-by-four upside the head, and listeners are better off for it. For decades, Gary Smulyan and Ronnie Cuber have been among the top handful, if not the top two, baritone saxophonists in jazz. Although they previously recorded together once (a Gerry Mulligan tribute in a three-bari lineup with Nick Brignola), this is their first duet album. Smulyan is 65 this year and Cuber will turn 80 Christmas Day. They have no need for fancy games.
Instead, this is straight-ahead bebop and hard bop with fat dollops of blues, funk, Latin, and gospel baked in, ably abetted by a cantering posse of pianist Gary Versace, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Jason Tiemann. Taking their cue from the Tough Tenors records of Johnny Griffin and Lockjaw Davis, these tough guys don’t play ballads. Indeed, on the title-appropriate opening songs, Horace Silver’s “Blowing the Blues Away” and Red Prysock’s “That’s the Groovy Thing,” you imagine the pair leaning forward in spontaneous sashay during the closing choruses, swinging their huge horns in tandem.
Three more of the album’s 10 numbers—“Nica’s Dream,” “Split Kick,” and “The Preacher”—come from Silver, who tailored his compositions with melodic folds that can open out like pleats on pants. Of the non-Silver material, the lone Songbook standard, Richard Rodgers’ “Lover,” is transformed into a Bird-like workout. Freddie Hubbard’s midtempo “Little Sun Flower” is a relaxed outlier. The quintessential track might be “Well You Needn’t,” as Monk’s taut swing and syncopation make all five bandmembers shine.
Because Cuber and Smulyan share a sensibility, it’s helpful to have the former always on the left side of the stereo spectrum and the latter on the right. Cuber billows a little more to generate dynamics, while Smulyan chars and snaps off his lines a tad more often, but anyone who’s heard them knows that both can conjure whatever the horn has at its disposal. They’re “tough baritones,” after all, bringing treats but no surprises.