Gary Smulyan / Dominic Chianese: Bella Napoli
Smulyan, the long-reigning king of the baritone saxophone, has a knack for birthing unique and/or interesting projects. The man, after all, put out the reeds-heavy Saxophone Mosaic (Criss Cross, 1993), ambitious Blue Suite (Criss Cross, 2000), one-of-a-kind High Noon: The Jazz Soul Of Frankie Laine (Reservoir/City Hall, 2009) and organ-meets-bari Smul's Paradise (Capri, 2012), so it should come as no shock that he was interested in trying something new with Chianese.
Chianese made his first on-record splash as a vocalist with Hits (Madacy 2 Label Group, 2001), but that was hardly his first stab at singing. He began to explore musical theater in his youth and he entered the ranks of the professionals when he was hired as a chorus member in a touring company of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore in the early '50s. He even logged time in the folk trenches in the '60s, singing and playing his guitar and serving as MC at Gerde's Folk City. Unfortunately, singing went on the back burner for a bit when his acting career took off, but it became a primary pursuit again in later years. Hits and Ungrateful Heart (Grandstand Entertainment, 2003) introduced his vocal talents to a wider audience, and now, ten years after his last record, the octogenarian returns with this tasty Italian dish.
While many partners-from-different-worlds projects are built on the idea of compromise and a meet-in-the-middle mindset, this one isn't. The baritone saxophonist and singer of Neapolitan songs don't give up their respective core performance principles and this project is all the better for it; Chianese charms simply by doing his thing and Smulyan alternately smokes and seduces as usual. This odd-on-the-surface partnership just happens to work well because of the chemistry between the two protagonists, the talents of the musicians involved, and a collection of arrangementsprovided by Jeff Ledererthat cater to all parties so well.
Bella Napoli is really two albums in one, as five numbers are instrumentals and six tracks feature vocals. Chianese first turns up on "Anema e Core," which begins with a marked sense of longing but takes on a lighter feeling with the arrival of a bossa nova groove. From there he moves on to music that's Cuban-infused and tropically enhanced ("Marechiare"), wistfully romantic ("O Sole Mio") and gently desirous ("A Vucchella"). He even bares his tortured soul in the name of love ("Dicitencello Vuie"). Chianese's final standan a capella "Santa Lucia Lontana"comes with a spoken introduction but it doesn't need one; it goes straight to the heart like all the rest of the songs he sings here.
The instrumentals are no less pleasing, as deep-seated beauty merges with the simple-and-solid ("Fenestra Che Lucive"), gaiety and joy take hold ("O Saracino"), and old world sounds are opened up for the taking ("Peque"). As the program unfolds, serious notions are mixed with more playful ideals ("Tre Veglia e Sonno"), creating a well-rounded picture of where this music can go in the right hands. Gary Versace's breath-of-Italian-air accordion and Joseph Brent's calm-as-can-be mandolin tremolos add a stamp of sonic authenticity to this project while the rhythm team of drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind is grounded and creative all at once. Smulyan, perhaps the best at bring out the beefy and the tender in the baritone saxophone, is never short of excellent here. In theory, this project shouldn't work so well, but theory only goes so far. Bella Napoli proves that point.
Track Listing: Funiculi Funicula; Anema e Core; Fenestra Che Lucive; Marechiare; Peque; O Sole Mio; O Saracino; A Vucchella; Dicitencello Vuie; Tre Veglia e Sonno; Santa Lucia Lontana.
Personnel: Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Dominic Chianese: vocals (2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11); Joseph Brent: Mandolin, violin; Gary Versace: piano, accordion; Martin Wind: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.
Record Label: Capri Records