Gary Smulyan: Low Man Aims High

Edward Bride By

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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.

Gary SmulyanThe 2006 album was so well-received that Reservoir followed it in 2007 with More Treasures.

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.

Upon returning from Russia, this Labor Day weekend will find him at the Chicago Jazz Festival with the Dave Holland big band. The next day, he appears with both Holland's octet and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts. Later this fall, his travels will include an October visit to the Pacific Northwest, where he will be artist-in-residence at some high schools in the Seattle area. Returning closer to home, he will play the Blue Note with Jon Faddis, and then go on a five-city European tour with the nonet of fellow Herman alumnus Joe Lovano. Then back home as a guest artist with the U.S. Air Force's big band, the Airmen of Note in the Washington area. The Jazz Cruise with Ken Peplowski takes him to sea.

That's a lot of work, he admits, returning to another familiar refrain: "I feel blessed to be able to play the baritone at this time."

Recent weeks have seen various articles about the future of jazz, and not all of them very optimistic. Terry Teachout's Wall Street Journal piece, asking "Can Jazz Be Saved," comes to mind. Smulyan has a more positive outlook, arguably because he is out there, performing for and talking with audiences about the music.

Gary Smulyan

The Newport Jazz Festival issued a press release noting the increasing crowds for its 55th rendition, and while producer George Wein saw fit to broaden the talent perspective, to the extent of including rapper Mos Def, this doesn't bother Smulyan. "George Wein is trying to present authentic jazz at his festivals. At these day-long events, people will hear some great music. But these are challenging times to be one hundred percent purist," he avers. "Everything is a crossover, anyway. Frankie Laine. Coldplay, you name it. The categories are blurred."

Smulyan says he has first-hand evidence that encourages his optimism. "I travel all over the world, and I see young musicians really passionate about the music. This music will go on forever. It will not pass away into nothing."

To support this view, he offers that Mondays at the Vanguard are packed. In fact, "everywhere I play is packed. As long as the audiences are there, and young musicians are compelled to succeed and play, this music will be here. There will always be doomsayers. Judging by studying, jam sessions, musicians playing on a high and deep level, I don't see much to worry about."

Selected Discography

Gary Smulyan, High Noon: The Jazz Soul of Frankie Laine (Reservoir, 2009)
Gary Smulyan, More Treasures (Reservoir, 2007)
John Fedchock, Up and Running (Reservoir, 2007)
Gary Smulyan, Hidden Treasurers (Reservoir, 2006)
Gary Smulyan, Real Deal (Reservoir, 2003)
Dave Holland Big Band, What Goes Around (ECM Records, 2002)
Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Stars, Things to Come (Telarc, 2002)
Tom Harrell, Art of Rhythm (RCA, 1998)
Conrad Herwig, Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place Records, 1996)
Benny Green, The Place To Be (Blue Note, 1994)
Woody Herman, Woody and Friends at the Monterey Jazz Festival (Concord, 1979)

Photo Credits

All Photos: Hans Speekenbrink

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