Baritone saxophonist (and member of the internationally acclaimed Village Vanguard Orchestra) Gary Smulyan is a man of few words from the bandstand, but when he blows his horn, he speaks volumes about jazz history and his newfound place in it. He’s one of the best – if not the best – on that super-sized sax of his.
Once upon a time the magnificent titan Gerry Mulligan ruled the roost. Then Nippertown’s own phenomenal Nick Brignola was at the top of the heap. Now the baton of baritone sax greatness has been passed on and is firmly in the hands of Smulyan.
In the intimate Wolf Road coffeehouse Professor Java’s, Smulyan wrestled with his gigantic horn and produced a kaleidoscope of sounds ranging from pleasantly booming cascades to so-sweet angelic highs. His hands and body embraced the instrument with affection and raw determination. The notes barrelled out and formed dialogues with the spirits of past greats on the horn.
Smulyan’s crack regional rhythm-team of upright bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Joe Barna nailed it down, propelling every jazz standard the bari-sax master counted off. Talk about heavy hitters: these two guys are monsters on their instruments, and with Smulyan at the helm they wandered into uncharted jazz territories with aplomb.
Heads were bobbing and toes were tapping with every beat. Not a word was heard from the audience as the audience (50 or 60 strong) were glued to the music, breathing in every note. Smatterings of applause followed every solo or musical nuance.
This was a new performance turn for Professor Java’s. They hadn’t hosted jazz there before, but with the untimely demise of the Bread & Jam Café in Cohoes, drummer-impresario Barna brought the gig to Colonie coffeehouse. Kudos to him for doing so because there was a standing room only audience. And they knew who was playing and what was at stake that night.
In the cozy club, the distance between performer and audience was only a few feet – not the typical stage and space separating the musical artist from the onlookers. It was like the Paris of yesteryear with its Left Bank out-of-the-way cellar clubs of the 1950s. It was right in your face, and it was personal – way too intimate for any other performance space. You could literally reach out and touch Smulyan at any time.
Hopefully, Professor Java’s will continue this trend because Barna – like no other area resident jazz practitioner – is striving to elevate the scene above the norm. Bringing Gary Smulyan to Nippertown was a super accomplishment.
Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk