CD reviews

Ronnie Cuber/Gary Smulyan – ‘Tough Baritones’

Ronnie Cuber/Gary Smulyan – Tough Baritones (Steeplechase SCCD 31903 – CD review by Mark McKergow) These two titans of the baritone saxophone team up for a straight-ahead session with joyful noises and blazing virtuosity to the fore. Ronnie Cuber (b. 1941) and Gary Smulyan (b.1956) have been leading their field for decades, and it seems almost unbelievable that this is their first duet date.  Cuber, now approaching 80 years of age and still playing with huge energy, has recorded with everyone from Slide Hampton to Lee Konitz to Frank Zappa, and was a founding member of the Mingus Big Band.  Gary Smulyan, 15 years Cuber’s junior, seems to have played with all the people that Cuber didn’t, including decades in the baritone chair of the Vanguard Orchestra (formerly the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band), that Monday night fixture of the New York scene.  The cover of this CD shows how physically different they are, with Cuber appearing twice the size of Smulyan as they grin at the camera. This session, recorded in April 2019, is titled Tough Baritones, and the links with the famous Tough Tenors sessions of Johnny Griffin and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis in the 1960s are clear for all to hear; fast tempos, bluesy boppy and bossa-ish, no holds barred and the rhythm section scampering to keep up.  The ten tracks here feature eight (pretty well-known) standards along with a couple of Cuber originals in the same vein.  The opening Horace Silver tune Blowin’ The Blues Away sets the scene – a racing 12-bar with unison theme statement. Cuber solos first, perhaps the slightly bigger tone, with Smulyan maybe the more athletic stylist around his instrument.  The number climaxes with some ‘shout!’ choruses with the baritones leaping about a unison solo line as the rhythm powers along. The blues feel keeps up with Red Prysock’s That’s The Groovy Thing, a more mid-tempo number which definitely had me in mind of the Griffin/Davis line-ups of old.  The rhythm section keep up rather well (of course) with Gary Versace’s piano a fine foil; he takes a neat solo on The Preacher with the horns riffing behind.  Jay Anderson’s bass holds it all together nicely, with solos on Joe Henderson’s Little Sun Flower and the Monk tune Well You Needn’tJason Tiemann ticks along nicely on drums, being let off the leash for a solo on Lover (taken well uptempo, as befits that blowing session), and also on Split Kick, with the horns trying to out-quote each other on some four-bar interchanges. Ronnie Cuber’s compositional contributions to the date fit in well; Damn Right Blues is, damn right, a blues, while Intervals is a more straight-eight feel number which blooze-grooves the album to a close.   This is a tremendous album of top-class performances which satisfies the listener with some familiar styles delivered with power and verve.  Brighten up your lockdown by putting on this album and lightening up your world. The album can be previewed either on Spotify and Apple Music

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