Gary Smulyan Goes Where Nobody Else Has Since About 1970
Isn’t it funny how the Hammond B3 organ and the baritone sax have complemented each other so well in funk music and ska for decades…yet hardly ever in jazz? For that matter has there EVER been a B3 jazz groove record featuring baritone sax? According to the liner notes for Gary Smulyan’s new album Smul’s Paradise (just out on Capri Records), the answer is yes: bari player Ronnie Cuber did several sessions with Lonnie Smith in the 60s, and is featured on Smith’s 1970 Live at Club Mozambique album. But in the past four decades? There doesn’t appear to be anything else! So this new album is especially welcome, an animated, warmly congenial, wee-hours collection of brilliant obscurities and originals originally conceived as a tribute to underrated 60s organist Don Patterson that quickly took on a life of its own.
Smulyan gets props everywhere, most recently as a winner of the 2011 DownBeat critics poll. This album is typical, in that it features his methodically aggressive, frequently wry, witty attack and smoky tone: Smulyan knows that there’s always a potential for humor in his instrument, and he’s not afraid to go there. Organist Mike LeDonne and guitarist Peter Bernstein have a comfortable rapport that stems from their long-running collaboration as the core of the house band at Harlem’s Smoke Jazz Club. Kenny Washington – Smulyan’s favorite drummer, and a lot of other peoples’ – propels this unit with his usual blend of scholarly erudition and counterintuitive verve.
The opening track is a radically reinvented version Bobby Hebb’s 60s pop hit Sunny- is this a staggered bolero? A jazz waltz? Either way, it’s a long launching pad for methodical, steady 8th-note runs by Smulyan and Bernstein. Patterson’s Up in Betty’s Room is a ridiculously catchy stripper theme of sorts, Smulyan in confidently deadpan mode, LeDonne enhancing the vintage soul/blues vibe with his bubbly, animated lines. Pistaccio, by another unfairly neglected 60s organ talent, Rhoda Scott, sails along on Washington’s blissfully subtle bossa-tinged groove. Similarly, Washington shakes up the shuffle on the catchy title track, capped off by a high-spirited round of call-and-response, everyone getting a word in with the drums.
George Coleman’s Little Miss Half Steps gets a bright, unselfconsciously fun treatment with some artful syncopation from Smulyan, organ and guitar again interspersed between the drum breaks (many of the tracks here were completed in a single take; this sounds like one of them). The most memorable number here is Patterson and Sonny Stitt’s soul song Aires, Bernstein channeling vintage George Benson, LeDonne’s lush washes of chords taking it up several notches. The album closes with the swinging, insistent Blues for D.P., a Patterson homage by Smulyan, and Heavenly Hours, a mashup of Seven Steps to Heaven and My Shining Hour. Amusingly (and maybe intentionally), the hook sounds like Diablo’s Dance (which incidentally is the opening cut on the highly anticipated new album of early Wes Montgomery recordings out soon on Resonance). As party music, this is awfully hard to beat: it’s the perfect soundtrack to 4 AM get-togethers when nobody cares anymore whether the people down the hall are awake or not.
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