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Jay Thomas / Gary Smulyan: Lowdown Hoedown

Paul Rauch By

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Sometimes the most joyous and satisfying things in life occur in the light of pure happenstance. Such was the case when New York based baritone saxophone master Gary Smulyan ventured west in the 90's to perform and teach at the Jazz Port Townsend Festival in Washington state, in those days directed by veteran saxman, Bud Shank. There he met an unusually remarkable and versatile musician, Jay Thomas, a Seattle native and resident, and a friendship was forged that at last has produced a brilliantly modern hard bop recording, Lowdown Hoedown, on the Japanese CUG label. In a musical environment in which both Thomas and Smulyan thrive, Lowdown Hoedown seamlessly rollicks between hard driving bop, and the beauty of romanticism. It is a meeting between two jazz veterans from opposite coasts, grounded in the low tone mastery of Smulyan, and the fertile musical mind of Thomas.

Indeed, happenstance is what led Thomas to his relationship with CUG, and the enthusiastic jazz audience in Japan. There, in the city of Nagoya, Thomas met Atsushi Ikeda and Kohama Yasuhiro at the Star Eyes club. Indeed, Thomas was exploring the city, "looking for a good flute," when this chance encounter joined these three musicians, Ikeda and Kohama fascinated to meet an American musician that had recently played with greats Cedar Walton, and Billy Higgins. Thus began a creative journey that has resulted in several albums, a rigorous touring relationship, a beautiful joining of hands across the Pacific in the fellowship of this uniquely American art form.

Seven time Grammy winning baritone master Gary Smulyan is a musical giant even among his fellow titans of the low tone, Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams, but indeed, it is perhaps more relevant to compare him to the mentors of his inner playing style steeped in the traditions and mechanisms of Charlie Parker, or his alto hero growing up on Long Island, Phil Woods. Again, by pure happenstance, Smulyan, a young lion of the alto, took up the baritone to land a spot in Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, and never looked back, leading him to become one of today's most in-demand jazz performers, educators, and recording artists. "You have to be ready for anything because your life can change with one phone call," says Smulyan, "Don't be afraid to go for it. I had no idea where this would go," but over the next two years, he made a name for himself. "I was convinced that I would be fine, because I passed Woody's test," he states emphatically.

Jay Thomas began playing trumpet growing up in Seattle, and became fascinated with flute as "sort of a hippie thing in the late sixties," beginning his odd fascination with both brass and woodwind instruments. This would eventually, a few year later, lead him to the tenor saxophone as well, making Thomas a unique quantity in the jazz world-a master of reeds, and brass, much like under appreciated, under recorded Seattle jazz icon, Floyd Standifer. Thomas' father ran the fabled Parnell's club in Seattle's Pioneer Square in the early '80s, leading to Thomas making friends with some of the true giants of the realm, including Zoot Sims and Sal Nistico. His first two CD's, Easy Does It (Discovery, 1989), and Blues For McVouty (Stash, 1993), featured Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins. His sublime creativity, and ability to express it on a variety of instruments has lifted Thomas to an important place in the history of west coast jazz, and engagements with masters such as Herb Ellis, Harold Land, Jessica Williams and George Cables.

In the spring of 2015, Smulyan headed to Seattle to play a concert with Cables, teach some master classes and perform with his old friend Thomas at Seattle's iconic Tula's Jazz Club. The trip was capped off by five hours in the studio, that produced this recording that comes off as an inspired live set between long time musical acquaintances, backed by a top shelf rhythm section from Seattle.

The opening salvo, an edgy, hard bop version of Curt Berg's "Lowdown Hoedown,"states emphatically what we are in for throughout this CD-a swingin,' no holds barred jaunt down a very familiar bop lined avenue, with repose in a romantic Strayhorn classic that is worth the price of admission in itself. Smulyan's immediately recognizable tonality, and unbelievable chops drenched in the bop tradition stand out in concert with the warmth, and thoughtful approach of Thomas on flugelhorn, his brass of choice throughout this recording. Smulyan, whose known preference is playing in combos without piano, free of chordal harmony, is well supported by the sparse comping, and beautifully melodic soloing of pianist John Hansen. Hansen, an underappreciated, and underrated commodity on the Seattle jazz scene, works in perfect concert with bassist Michael Glynn, and drummer Adam Kessler. For those familiar with jazz nightlife in Seattle, these are musicians well in demand for many of the top players in the city, and touring musicians alike. Here, they provide a harmonic template from which springs the exquisite work of Smulyan, one of the true giants of the baritone, and the versatile, creative exploits of Thomas, one of the most historic figures in Seattle's prodigious jazz legacy.

Freddie Redd's "Melanie," brings to light the interaction between two saxophones, with Thomas joining in the fun on alto. The solo spotlight is first grasped by the rhythm section, with both Glynn and Hansen setting the stage for what is to follow, stirring, image evoking solos from two different, yet strangely compatible voices, united in the saxophone lexicon.

Two tracks, a hard swinging interpretation of the J.J. Johnson bop classic, "Swing Spring," and "Birdlee," an exploration of the bop form by Atsushi Ikeda, truly brings to the forefront, the prowess and pure genius of Smulyan. While Smulyan is humbled by his association with baritone greats Mulligan, Adams, and the great Harry Carney, his playing here is more a nod to his prior incarnation as a young alto player, his artistic nod to Bird, and his idol, Woods, the foundational bedrock of his unique approach on baritone. Of Mulligan, whom he considers a genius, he states "I like his writing more than his playing." On the performing side, "Pepper Adams epitomized post-bop modern baritone sax playing. He was a great improviser. And stylistically, it's a school that I find more attractive," he states without a hint of doubt. Although he doesn't necessarily sound much like Harry Carney, he is quick to add, "Without Carney, there wouldn't be any of us. He had the most beautiful sound on the baritone that I've ever heard." Smulyan's sound, his beautifully rich tone, is one of a kind, easily recognizable just a few phrases into his torrid solos on "Swing Spring," and "Birdlee," where his mastery of the jazz language, and his unmistakeable voice on the baritone are best accentuated. It indeed harkens back to Smulyan's days as a teenager, growing up on Long Island, and gaining a reputation at a very young age as an alto player to be reckoned with. He had opportunities to play with his jazz heroes, including Zoot Sims, at Sonny's Place, a legendary club in Seaford, NY, just a short distance from from his home. Smulyan has embellished his mastery of the form over the years, and remarkably so, on the baritone. He distinguishes himself on this record as has been his musical constant throughout his storied career. Clearly, he is one of the most distinctive voices in the history of not just the baritone, but the entire saxophone realm.

Interestingly enough, three thousand miles west in Seattle, young Jay Thomas grew up surrounded by the music as well. He managed to sneak into John Coltrane's performance as an under aged teenager at the Penthouse jazz club in Seattle, and witness a historic performance that became the album John Coltrane Live in Seattle (Impulse, 1971). His father Marv Thomas, owned and operated Parnell's jazz club in Seattle between 1980-1982, and since, Jay Thomas has been one of the truly iconic figures in the history of jazz music in Seattle.

Smulyan and Thomas show more than their prodigious musical prowess on their interpretation of the Billy Strayhorn gem, "Lotus Blossom." Indeed, there is a sublime understanding of beauty itself, expressed through the tender baritone tones of Smulyan, and the perfect counterpoint of Thomas' sweet alto interlude. The melody is embellished ever so slightly by Smulyan, with amazing sensitivity, and respect to the master, with Thomas finishing as one mind, finding that same emotional, romantic refuge alluded to in this classic piece.

Gary Smulyan has distinguished himself for many years now as a leader, sideman, and educator, and is acclaimed worldwide. Most jazz fans are familiar with his work, with his storied career. Jay Thomas, is highly respected indeed in the jazz community on a national level and in Japan, but I suspect there are many readers unfamiliar with his unique and diverse talents. Lowdown Hoedown would be an excellent adventure to embark on to discover the beauty and elegance that these two great musicians create on this fine release. Here's to happenstance.

Track Listing: Lowdown Hoedown; Melanie; Star Eyes; Lotus Blossom; Swing Spring; Ayane; Birdlee; Elusive; Hippo Shoes; Ah So

Personnel: Jay Thomas: flugelhorn, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; John Hansen: piano; Adam Kessler: drums; Michael Glynn: bass; Dan Marcus: trombone

Title: Lowdown Hoedown | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: C.u.g. Records


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