CD REVIEW: Gary Smulyan – Alternative Contrafacts


Gary Smulyan – Alternative Contrafacts
(Steeplechase SCCD 31844. CD review by Mark McKergow)

Veteran baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan invigorates the ears with this delightful collection of ‘contrafacts’ – tunes based on chord progressions from jazz standards. This is a treat for anyone who enjoys creativity coming from the classic jazz repertoire, as well as being a feast of creative playing from the trio line-up.

Long Island-based Smulyan, now in his seventh decade, is surely the front-runner in the ‘world’s best baritone sax’ field. He took over the baritone sax chair in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (then under the direction of Bob Brookmeyer) in 1980 and still holds the position today with the renamed Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (still playing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard club in New York). He has played and recorded with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie through Ray Charles to Diana Ross, and worked extensively with Joe Lovano and Dave Holland’s larger groups.

Looking at the title of this collection, one might suppose that Smulyan is making a political point.  Maybe or maybe not. These are of course not Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’, but rather a collection of Smulyan’s takes (the ‘alternative’) of a set of tunes known in the jazz trade as ‘contrafacts’ – new melodies based on existing (and well-known) chord sequences from standards.  The bebop crowd of the 1940s were very fond of doing this, with tunes like Charlie Parker’s Anthropology (based on I Got Rhythm), and Miles Davis’ Donna Lee (based on Indiana).  Smulyan eschews these well-trodden paths and explores further into the contrafact universe.

One of my favourite occupations when in London is to wander into the National Portrait Gallery and visit the 20th Century room. Each work is a double-whammy – a portrait of a notable person, painted by another notable person (the artist). So each work is really multi-layered, with much to enjoy and appreciate, in particular the interplay between the artist and sitter. This album is rather like that, except that every tune is a triple-whammy: the work of the standard-composer (for example Jerome Kern with his tune Yesterdays), the contrafact-composer (here Mal Waldron and his tune Vodka) and finally the interpretation by Smulyan and his compact trio with David Wong (double bass) and Rodney Green (drums).

“Just a moment!” I hear you cry… “What’s the point of having yet another version of Yesterdays, if the soloing on Mal Waldron’s Vodka is over the same chords?” Smulyan answers this point in the excellent sleeve notes by Neil Tesser. The theme, he says, is not just a statement but “a springboard for how you improvise on that song. It can become a sort of reference point for the solo.” Smulyan really takes this point on board, taking his cue from the style of the contrafact head. Also, with no chord instrument present the sequences are more implied than baldly played out, which makes trying to tease out the different tunes into an enjoyable game as well as a very satisfying listen.

The nine tunes on offer include eight pre-written contrafacts, including such delights as Jimmy Giuffre’s Deep People (based on A Foggy Day) and Al Cohn’s Cohn Pone which builds on Out Of Nowhere. David Wong, Smulyan’s companion in arms from the Vanguard Orchestra, takes a super arco bass solo on Paul Chamber’s Tale Of The Fingers (on Strike Up The Band). The ninth number, I’ve Changed, is Smulyan’s own take on You’ve Changed from 1941, opening with his own solo.

This collection is enjoyable, witty, educational, as well as being an exhibition of the finest baritone sax playing.

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