Gary Smulyan: Low Man Aims High
In 1995, WBGO, the all-jazz, Newark, N.J.-based NPR station voted Smulyan's Saxophone Mosaic (Criss Cross, 1994) as one of the best 25 CDs of 1995; two years later the Boston Globe selected Gary Smulyan with Strings(Criss Cross, 1997) as one of the 10 best jazz CDs of 1997. While he does not covet nor brag about individual awards, and seems awkward talking about them, he is proud of the accomplishments that they signify, especially the recorded works that the Grammys exemplify. "It's not the awards so much as the recordings that are associated with them. It was fantastic to be associated with those projects."
Perhaps ironically, his most recent album is an instrumental appreciation of singer Frankie Laine's repertoire. A longtime fan, Smulyan says that Laine had "a sensibility that many other pop singers didn't have. A more soulful concept." Laine was also a prolific composer, and wrote the lyrics to "What Am I Here For" and "We'll Be Together Again," the latter being the closing number on the recording, High Noon: The Jazz Soul of Frankie Laine (Reservoir, 2009). Except for the title tune, all the selections were composed by or were collaborations of Laine.
How did this recording come about? After some four years of discussion, the west coast composer/arranger/conductor Mark Masters worked with Smulyan on the project. There was little material extant, and Masters managed to find several lead sheets through the Smithsonian, and the two decided on which numbers to use. They performed the work with a nonet at Claremont McKenna College in California, and Smulyan took the idea to Mark Feldman, a producer at Reservoir Records. Feldman gave the recording project the green light, to the delight of fans and reviewers.
The results apparently pleased the two main collaborators, too, as Smulyan coninues his quest to call additional attention to Masters' work. In fact, he expects his next project to also involve Masters, who cut his teeth as an intern in Stan Kenton's office.
The music that touches Gary Smulyan was written by other jazz masters (sorry), most especially Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, and Thad Jones. With a nod to current composers, Kenny Wheeler is one of his all-time favorites.
But he returns to the subject of Mark Masters. Besides collaborating on High Noon, Smulyan enjoyed working with Masters on a Gary McFarland project, presenting the late composer's work in concert (also at Claremont McKenna College), featuring Steve Kuhn, Milcho Leviev and others, with Masters as arranger and conductor. Another Masters master, in Smulyan's eyes, was a Clifford Brown recording that was orchestrated for six trumpets. "Mark deserves wider recognition, people need to know who he is, they need to know his work. He is an amazing musician."
While big-band fans are most familiar with Smulyan's work with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Woody Herman, John Fedchock, the Mingus Big Band and others of that ilk, and while his High Noon and Dave Holland work is with mid-sized ensembles, his favorite configuration is actually a piano-less trio of baritone saxophone, bass, drums, which, he says, gives the greatest freedom. A recorded example of that setup is Hidden Treasures (Reservoir, 2006), with Christian McBride on bass and drummer Billy Drummond. It features songs written by jazz composers based on standards. With the freedom to improvise, the tunes had "hidden harmonies." That's the hidden part; the tunes themselves were treasures, in Smulyan's eyes. But, "many hadn't been recorded in a long time." The material includes Phil Woods' "House of Chan," based on the changes of "Alone Together." He recently finished a gig with this configuration at the Kitano Hotel in New York.
And, while this small-group configuration may be his favorite setting, his favorite gig is still the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which performs weekly on Mondays at the Manhattan night spot. "Walking down those stairs, I can still feel Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, John Coltrane. Their spirit is still hovering around that room. I still get that feeling."
In the aggregate, Smulyan may spend four-to-six months a year on the road, and in mid-August (2009) was headed for a five-concert whirlwind tour of Russia. His group for the tour includes trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and a Russian rhythm section. Stops include Siberia, Krasnodar, Kazan, Yaroslavl and Moscow. "Russians are passionate about music," and he expects knowledgeable, enthusiastic audiences.