A Tribute to Gerry Mulligan at the Jazz Bakery

Jim Santella By

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The prettiest selection of the night was 'Line for Lyons,' which emphasized the band's three-part harmony and their appreciation for a sonorous arrangement of tones.
The Baritone Saxophone Band
The Jazz Bakery
Los Angeles, California
January 9, 2005

Three veteran baritone saxophonists playing harmony on classic Gerry Mulligan pieces at the Jazz Bakery memorialized the notable bebop pioneer and cool school evangelist better than anyone can. While Ronnie Cuber, Howard Johnson and Gary Smulyan soloed frequently with passion and intensity, it was their harmonic teamwork that brought this musical tribute to solid ground.

Mulligan, who passed away early in 1996 at age 68, adhered to a cooler aspect of modern jazz that emphasized pleasant harmony and a loose swing, while maintaining a sincere respect for the freedom that improvised music represents. He brought his brawny baritone saxophone into the spotlight and opened doors for future generations of like-minded artists. With Chet Baker, he fathered a pianoless quartet that eliminated a large sector of the music's chord structure and highlighted specific elements. Cuber, Johnson and Smulyan captured that essence in their Los Angeles performance.

Dreyfus issued the uplifting CD Three Baritone Saxophone Band Plays Mulligan in early 1998 with Cuber, Smulyan and Nick Brignola. See a review in our All About Jazz archives. The album was a pianoless adventure. On it, Cuber led with lyrical, blues-laden lines, while Brignola and Smulyan added opposing aspects to the formula. Together, they painted a complex picture of the artist and his dedication to the art of jazz.

Sunday night, Cuber again led with expression. The blues-laden lyricism, however, went to Johnson, who revealed that side of Gerry Mulligan that was blessed with a love for pure melody. As on the album, Smulyan provided a hearty helping of imaginative bebop ranting. His dips into the gravel pit combined with high shrieks to wring every bit of emotion out of the music.

The prettiest selection of the night was "Line for Lyons," which emphasized the band's three-part harmony and their appreciation for a sonorous arrangement of tones. They eschewed the idea of contributing a slower ballad or two in the program, remaining satisfied with "Five Brothers," "Walkin' Shoes," "Tempus Fugit," "Battery Blues" and "Move." Each selection featured a combination of baritone saxophone harmony and individual stretching. Cuber, Johnson and Smulyan were all in fine form and filled with electric energy. Supporting them this night was one of L.A.'s most in-demand rhythm sections: pianist Jon Mayer, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Joe La Barbera. Each contributed fine solo work as well as providing a firm foundation for the trio's adventures.

The Baritone Saxophone Band gave L.A. audiences quite a thrill in January, and paid a memorable tribute to the memory of Gerry Mulligan. Catch them in your area if you can.

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