Rein de Graaff 75

HURRAY – Pianist Rein de Graaff turns 75 years old today on October 24. During a career of 55 years, De Graaff has recorded more than 40 albums. Although the pianist recorded his share of outstanding avant-leaning jazz during the seventies and early eighties with the Rein de Graaff/Dick Vennik Quartet, he’s basically a champion of bebop and hardbop, playing in a style close to Barry Harris, Hampton Hawes, Horace Silver and Sonny Clark. With his Rein de Graaff Trio, the winner of the Boy Edgar Prize and Bird Award accompanied countless American legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and Johnny Griffin. Many Dutch jazz fans fondly remember De Graaff’s Stoomcursus and Vervolgcursus Bebop from 1986 till 2012. As ‘Professor Bop’, De Graaff organized performances of American legends and unsung heroes as well as contemporary musicians all over The Netherlands, lecturing about the history of bebop and hardbop along the way. Musicians included Teddy Edwards, Lee Konitz, Al Cohn, Jimmy Raney, Charles McPherson, Houston Person, Harold Land, Clifford Jordan, Webster Young, Buck Hill, James Clay, Rene Thomas, Pete Christlieb, Eric Alexander, Vincent Herring, Jarmo Hoogendijk, Benjamin Herman and many, many others.

It’s not for nothing that the American legends and unsung heroes liked the accompaniment of Rein de Graaff. His comprehension of their language is unmatched and he adds typically fluent, sax-like phrasing, laid-back timing and responsive rhythmic variation. Besides, De Graaff is a thorough professional and organizer, which stands him in good stead during cooperations with contemporary colleagues to this day. A talent that might be explained by the fact that, for a big part of his career, De Graaff was also a businessman, running an electro ware wholesale company during the day.

De Graaff holds strong views about his beloved art form, dubbed ‘real’ jazz as opposed to ‘impro’, which may bear beautiful fruit but has nothing to do with the blues-drenched, swinging music that was created by black artists for black audiences, under dubious circumstances that somehow ring through. Circumstances De Graaff has been all too familiar with, sharing the stage of dingy NYC clubs with Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Elvin Jones as early as 1967 or sitting in with trumpeter Louis Smith in a rowdy all-black club in Detroit in the early eighties. In the view of the passionate torchbearer of mainstream jazz, this has become an endangered species, virtually extinct, yet the pianist remains on the look out for young lions whose playing retains a sense of the tradition and occasionally performs with the pool of talent still available in The Netherlands. Perhaps the ‘incurable romantic’, in the words of Lee Konitz, secretly hopes ‘real’ jazz will live to see the 22nd century.

Rein de Graaff: ‘Swing has become a dirty word.’ (Flophouse Magazine)

Rein de Graaff: ‘I approach the piano as if it’s a horn.’ (Jazz Journal UK)

Rein de Graaff: ‘The music I play comes from the smoke-filled clubs, where sex often was cheap, and the blues was heard…’ (Flophouse Magazine)

Rein de Graaff: ‘Oscar Peterson is the greatest pianist in the world, but he’s too bloody perfect for me. Boring.’ (Jazz Bulletin)

Rein de Graaff: ‘Evelyn Blakey asked me to open the door. My heart burst out of my chest. There was Hank Mobley. ‘Hi, I’m Hank,’ he said.’ (Flophouse Magazine)

See YouTube footage of Rein de Graaf below:

On fire with Clark Terry in 1975 also including Rogier Vanhaverbeke and Freddie Rottier here.

Boppin’ and burnin’ with his household friend, the bop poet and songwriter Babs Gonzalez in Paris in 1979 here.

Appearing on the Dutch tv show Gedane Zaken with Teddy Edwards in 1986 including Harry Emmery and Eric Ineke here.

An unforgettable performance of Charles McPherson in 1990 also including bassist Koos Serierse and drummer Eric Ineke here.

THE Dutch bop trio accompanying the great clarinet and saxophone player Eddie Daniels in Vrije Geluiden in 1995 here.

Playing Blue Bossa with David “Fathead” Newman and Houston Person in 1998 here.

Rein, Marius Beets, Eric Ineke and Grant Stewart do the wonderful ballad You Go To My Head in 2010 here.

The Rein de Graaff Trio with Gary Smulyan, John Marshall and Benjamin Herman, Charlie Parker’s Ornitology in 2017 here.

For Rein de Graaff’s interview with Flophouse Magazine, go here.

They Got Rhythm

REIN DE GRAAFF TRIO & GIDEON TAZELAAR IN CONCERT – Throughout the 50s and 60s, Haarlem in The Netherlands boasted one of the liveliest jazz scenes in the Dutch jazz landscape, churning out distinctive mainstream jazz players as Cees Smal, Harry Verbeke, Ruud Brink, Fred Leeflang, Ray and Dick Kaart. Drummer Eric Ineke, albeit a prototypical The Hague-ian hardbop cat for decades now, was born and raised in the city that gave its name to the famous cradle of jazz on the north side of Manhattan, New York. Authentic jazz gradually left the grounds of Haarlem, but now the Philharmonie strives to breathe life into the patient, organizing a series of diverse performances at the prestigious hall nearby the Grote Markt in the center of Haarlem. The monicker: Jazz At The Phil. The producer: saxophonist Yuri Honing.

The Rein de Graaff Trio plus a young lion on tenor saxophone, the 21-year old Gideon Tazelaar, kickstart the season into gear. During the season, Yuri Honing will provide short interviews on stage, but the highly acclaimed saxophonist is touring abroad so instead recorded the interview with De Graaff shortly before the event to be shown on the video screen that lights up the venue with a giant portrait of Rein de Graaff and the evening’s theme of ‘Boppin’ And Burnin’. Classy view! Unfortunately, bad sound quality prevents the audience from hearing the bulk of the interview.

No worries, pianist De Graaff, who turns 75 this month, is a seasoned master of ceremonies who introduces each tune in his own sweet, informative and level-headed way: the respectful way a jazz musician should treat its audience. De Graaff, elder European statesman of mainstream jazz who played with myriad legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Edwards, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon, and his two companions, including the equally distinguished Eric Ineke, are crackerjack providers of their customary recipe of ‘bebop, ballads and blues’.

This is the way it goes: beforehand De Graaff and the other gentlemen take a quarter of an hour to pick the tunes they feel inclined to play, easy does it, since the American Songbook has been in their bones for ages, and then some. A deceptively nonchalant method that makes a night of the Rein de Graaff Trio not so much a preservation of the jazz tradition, but more a passing on to the next generation, provided it’s receptive for the challenge. Innovative? Not really, but world-class and always blues-based and swinging. Besides, as De Graaff mentions during one of the audible fragments of the interview, how are you going to develop avant-leaning playing without a secure knowledge of the roots?

It’s the details that reveal the band’s cachet. So then you notice the melodic Q&A’s of Eric Ineke with De Graaff’s long-lined, Hampton Hawes-type story of My Melancholy Baby. And Ineke’s appreciative nods in response to Tazelaar’s high register, edgy wail and quote of Coltrane’s Blue Train during Dexter Gordon’s blues tune Stanley The Steamer. You realize that tenor, bass drum and toms are like brothers and sisters, share a frequency that tonight renders the usual second horn in the classic hard bop format obsolete.

There’s bassist Marius Beets to pay attention to. The successor to Henk Haverhoek and the recently deceased Koos Serierse for almost two decades now, a groover who strives, and most of the time succeeds, to find the right notes to play, the asset that one of his heroes, Ray Brown, is so famous for. And there’s the combined, hard-swinging effort from note one during the opening tune Topsy that must be a warm bath for the young Tazelaar. De Graaff’s poised statements, spiced by risky twists and turns high up the keys, cannot leave Tazelaar unperturbed. Oh, you hear him think, it’s gonna be such a night!

Tazelaar, the outstanding, rapidly developing talent who is currently studying at Juillard in New York City, charms the audience with a full-bodied, smoky sound and an alluring, slightly-behind-the-beat timing, particularly during the quartet’s mellow but driving medium-tempo groove of I Thought About You. He’s been turning into a mature structural improviser and sets fire to Cotton Tail, eating up the I Got Rhythm-changes, unfazed, perhaps stimulated, by the fact that, in 1940, Ben Webster graced the Duke Ellington tune with a stellar, genre-defining solo. Tazelaar’s relaxed posture and sly grin are infectious.

Topsy, Cotton Tail, Embraceable You. And My Melancholy Baby, which, De Graaff remarks, was already played during the ill-fated trip of the Titanic. The Rein de Graaff Trio and Gideon Tazelaar really went way back this evening. The repertory was boppified and burned expertly.

Rein de Graaff Trio & Gideon Tazelaar

Place and date: Philharmonie, Haarlem, October 14, 2017
Line-up: Gideon Tazelaar (tenor saxophone), Rein de Graaff (piano), Marius Beets (bass), Eric Ineke (drums)
Website: Eric Ineke.
Website: Marius Beets.

This Was Buck Hill

RIP BUCK HILL – Like most of tenor saxophonist Buck Hill’s fine accomplishments, the news of his passing also slipped through the cracks. Hill, born in Washington D.C. on February 13, 1927, passed away on March 20 at the age of 90 in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Roger Wendell “Buck” Hill was active from the late forties and played with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Max Roach. Masters like Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson and Gene Ammons, when visiting D.C., always asked for Hill to share the stage. At the same time, Hill worked at the US Postal Office and often was referred to as ‘the swinging postman’. He also worked as a cabdriver. A focus on taking care of his family and a strong dislike for traveling kept Hill’s career firmly under the radar. Nevertheless, Hill recorded a number of albums for Steeplechase, Muse and other labels from the late seventies to the ’00s. Hill was an acclaimed sideman with Charlie Byrd in the mid and late fifties (featured on the ’58 and ’59 Riverside albums Byrd’s Word and Byrd In The Wind) and singer Shirley Horn in the eighties and nineties.

From left to right, clockwise: This Is Buck Hill (Steeplechase 1978); Scope (Steeplechase 1979) and Capital Hill (Muse 1989)

His initial albums for Steeplechase, This Is Buck Hill (’78) and Scope (’79), are treasured artifacts for serious mainstream jazz aficionados and typical of Hill’s superb musical vision. On these albums, you’ll find a candid tenorist who tops off his fluent bop phrasing, commanding attack and resonant, clear (Clifford Jordan-ish) sound with edgy, post-boppish lines. Drummer Billy Hart, D.C. native, mentored by Hill and present on both recordings, introduced Hill to Steeplechase’s boss Nils Winther. Bassist Buster Williams and pianist Kenny Barron reflect on Hill’s personality and style in the liner notes of Scope. Williams: ‘A timeless phenomenon. His ideas always sound ageless and his sound is so big and warm.’ Kenny Barron: ‘He is a fantastic horn player. His playing is very steeped in tradition and yet very contemporary. His writing is so fresh that it’s hard to play cliches.’

In the early nineties, Dutch pianist Rein de Graaff, who arranged countless gigs with American legends and contemporary players for his legendary bop lectures and performances throughout the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, toured and recorded as ‘Tenor Conclave’ with Teddy Edwards, Von Freeman and Buck Hill. De Graaff remembers a tour in 1992 with this stellar line-up as if it was yesterday. ‘Hill was a very accomplished player. Didn’t miss a note. He was still known as ‘the swinging postman’ which was only partly true. By then, he had a job at the office. Hill was a fanatic vegetarian and was constantly commenting on the tastes of Freeman, whose favorite meal was large portions of T-bone steak and cola. He was very down-to-earth and introverted.’

From left to right, clockwise: Tenor Conclave (Sesjun 1992); Uh Huh! Buck Hill Live At Montpellier (Jazzmont 2000) and Relax (Severn 2006)

Drummer Eric Ineke was part of those swinging proceedings. He also played with Hill in 1981 and 1982, when Hill supported Shirley Horn: ‘Shirley Horn called me in ’81 to replace Billy Hart in Loosdrecht. I was immediately impressed by Hill. He swung like mad, had great timing and a big sound. A year later, I did two nice gigs with Hill again in Loosdrecht, the first with Cees Slinger and Fred Pronk, the second with Shirley Horn, on the same evening. Hill was a very nice guy, no-nonsense.’

In short, a highly recommended player in that already very imposing landscape of tenor saxophonists.

Find Hill’s informative obit in The Washington Post here.

Eric Ineke Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter: Eric Ineke Meets The Tenor Players (Daybreak/Challenge 2017)

Crisp and alert drumming on Eric Ineke’s latest Challenge release, Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter: Eric Ineke Meets The Tenor Players. The album brings to life performances of the now seventy year old Ineke with legends like Dexter Gordon and Lucky Thompson, and contemporary colleagues like David Liebman and Grant Stewart.

Eric Ineke - Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter: Eric Ineke Meets The Tenor Players

Personnel

Track 1: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Rein de Graaff, Koos Serierse, Eric Ineke; Track 2: Dexter Gordon, Rob Agerbeek, Henk Haverhoek, Eric Ineke; Track 3: Johnny Griffin, Rein de Graaff, Koos Serierse, Eric Ineke; Track 4: Grant Stewart, Rob van Bavel, Marius Beets, Eric Ineke; Track 5: David Liebman, John Ruocco, Marius Beets, Eric Ineke; Track 6: Clifford Jordan, Rein de Graaff, Koos Serierse, Eric Ineke; Track 7: Lucky Thompson, Rob Madna, Ruud Jacobs, Eric Ineke; Track 8: George Coleman, Rob Agerbeek, Rob Langereis, Eric Ineke

Recorded

Recorded on October 24, 1984 at De Spieghel, Groningen (track 1); November 2, 1972 at De Haagse Jazzclub, The Hague (track 2); September 16, 1990 at De Brouwershoek, Leeuwarden (track 3); May 17, 2014 at Bimhuis, Amsterdam (track 4); November 20, 2014 at De Singer, Rijkevorsel, Belgium (track 5); October 12, 1983 at NCRV Studio, Hilversum (track 6); November 22, 1968 at B14, Rotterdam (track 7) and April 18, 1974 at Hot House, Leiden (track 8)

Released

as DBCHR 75226 in 2017

Track listing

Body And Soul
Stablemates
Wee
Bye Bye Blackbird
Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter
Prayer To The People
Lady Bird
Walkin’


It is an intriguing and a rewarding project, the combination of so many different styles of tenor playing. In his book co-written with Dave Liebman, The Ultimate Sideman, Ineke, premier European modern jazz drummer who played with numerous legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley and Freddie Hubbard, ruminates on the intrinsic bond between the tenor saxophone and drums: “The tenor saxophone is one of the instruments that is really made for jazz music, much like the trap drums. They are quite similar in that respect. It blends very well with the drums, particularly with the cymbal and with the tom tom sounds.” Ineke swings equally hard with tenorists, altoists or baritone players, yet the conversations of the drummer with Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, et. al. eloquently prove his point. These conversations also are evidence of Ineke’s flexible approach to the manifold ways of phrasing and timing from the classic heroes and contemporary stunners of jazz.

A lot of crackerjack tenorism on Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter. George Coleman, a monster on tenor and perhaps still undervalued, sets fire to the Hothouse in Leiden with Walkin’. A tune that, incidentally, was so influentially performed in 1954 by Coleman’s band leader of 1963/64, Miles Davis, a session that included Lucky Thompson. On this version, Ineke acts accordingly, ‘bombing’ generously and answering Coleman’s staccato, recurring figures equally furiously. Fire and brimstone!

Dexter Gordon’s typically ‘lazy’ but forceful statements on Stablemates, taken from the sought-after LP All Souls: The Rob Agerbeek Trio Featuring Dexter Gordon, are kept in check by Ineke’s steady beat. Gordon wails one of his great solo’s of the seventies. Pushed to the max, another giant of tenor, Johnny Griffin, is flying home at breakneck speed on the bop standard by Denzil Best, Wee. It’s a propulsive high point of the Rein de Graaff Trio, which included bass player Koos Serierse and is marked by high-level bop drumming with a leading role of the ride cymbal. Rein de Graaff’s Bud Powell-influenced solo is ferocious, masterful, the tension is heightened by bold lines up and down the keys. Johnny Griffin is having serious fun. At the end, the Little Giant sardonically and playfully comments on the prolonged Ineke coda: “Shut up! You drummers playin’ so loud. Jazzzzzz music! Where am I, Leeuwarden? Dankjewel.”

On another side of the spectrum Ineke delicately accompanies Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, whose sensuously masculine, breathy take of Body And Soul is most arresting. There’s the clean, round and honestly emotional tone of Clifford Jordan, who plays his original composition Prayer For The People. Lucky Thompson also possessed a lithe, mesmerizing tone on the tenor saxophone. Thompson, an essential link between swing and bop, is heard on Lady Bird on a radio recording at club B14 in Rotterdam in 1968. 1968… where have all the flowers gone: the period in which the professional career of Eric Ineke, who celebrated his 70th birthday recently at The Bimhuis, really took off.

Also from that venerable venue in Amsterdam stems Ineke’s recording (including regulars from his hard bop outfit Eric Ineke’s JazzXpress, pianist Rob van Bavel and bassist Marius Beets, who also took excellent care of this album’s mixing and mastering) with Grant Stewart. His story of Bye Bye Blackbird is relaxed but driving, motivated by Ineke’s lilting rhythm. At forty-six, the Canadian Stewart is the youngest tenor player on the album. Considering Eric Ineke’s supportive attitude towards young Dutch hard bop guys as well as international students on the Conservatory Of The Hague, where he teaches, it would’ve been the cherry on top if a collaboration with a young lion could’ve been included.

On the title song, Ineke cooperates with long-time collaborator Dave Liebman and John Ruocco. During a rendition of the pretty Kurt Weill composition that alludes to the intrinsic Dixie-feel of early Ornette Coleman tunes, Liebman and Ruocco travel a similar avant-leaning path, Liebman with exuberant tinges, Ruocco more introspective. The beat seems to have time-traveled from Baby Dodds to Ed Blackwell to Eric Ineke. A noteworthy excursion to the woods from the hard bop aficionado, who, lest we forget, periodically traveled to modal landscapes with Rein de Graaff and far-out territory with Free Fair in the mid and late seventies.

Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter is a thoroughly enjoyable reminder of the swing and expertise that Eric Ineke has always brought to his gigs with incoming Americans. And I’m sure it will be a revelation for jazz fans who have heretofore been dependant on hearsay.

Find Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter: Eric Ineke Meets The Tenor Players here.

Knight Rider

ERIC INEKE – A lack of taste and decency from the officials may have prevented the Ajax stadium being christened Johan Cruijff Stadium a year after the passing of Holland’s soccer genius, they sure know how to treat their jazz luminaries. On his 70th birthday on Saturday, April 1, which was celebrated with a concert at The Bimhuis, drummer Eric Ineke, who during a fulfilling career of almost fifty years cooperated with legends like Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin and Dizzy Gillespie, was knighted as Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau for his outstanding contributions to the Dutch jazz realm by the deputy mayor Simone Kukenheim. An otherwise less formal evening, hosted by Cees Schrama and Frank Jochemsen, was divided into a series of concise sets by Dutch powerhouse line-ups including Tineke Postma, Rein de Graaff, Marius and Peter Beets, driven by Ineke’s trademark propulsive style in the tradition of Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones. Ineke’s regular hard bop quintet Eric Ineke’s JazzXpress performed twice and during the second set was supplemented with alto saxophonist Tineke Postma. De Graaff and Ineke, buddies-in-soul since the late sixties, played freely around the beat in standards like How Deep Is The Ocean, tight-knit as usual. Ineke also responded enthusiastically to Postma, answering her adventurous structural improvisations with like-minded, horn-like phrases on snare and tom. Horns-a-plenty: tenor saxophonists Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and Simon Rigter provided mature and tasteful tenor tales. The young trumpeter Gidon Nunes Vaz is a rapidly developing musician with a beautiful tone and a style best likened to forebears as Kenny Dorham. Pianist Peter Beets, just back in town from a concert of Paul McCartney compositions with Roger Kellaway in New York, clearly relishes fiery, Oscar Peterson-type takes on tunes as Con Alma. The trio with Peter Beets also accompanied promising singer and organizer of the show, Jurjen Donkers. While the first set of the JazzXpress focused fluently on Dexter Gordon tunes as Fried Bananas and The Panther, the second set harked back to the glory days of mid-sixties, avant-leaning hard bop that was being made on the Blue Note and Impulse labels. It was an absolute gas, Jarmo Hoogendijk’s Waltz For Woody and Ray Brown’s Lined With A Groove being stunning high points. Pianist Rob van Bavel tapped into his seemingly limitless reservoir of inventive voicings and impressionistic lines. During the final jam on Rhythm-A-Ning, all participants present on stage, Ineke’s hard, alert swing was still in check. The audience was delighted and the knighted 70-year old Ineke was in good spirits.

During Eric Ineke’s Birthday Jam, the new Challenge Records release Let There Be Life, Love And Laughter: Eric Ineke Meets The Tenor Players was presented. An overview of Ineke’s cooperations over the years with tenor saxophonists like Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Lucky Thompson, George Coleman, Clifford Jordan, Grant Stewart and John Ruocco. Find the album here.

Photography: Map Boon

Just Friends

ERIC INEKE – On Saturday, April 1, drummer Eric Ineke will be celebrating his 70th birthday with a Super Jam at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. There will be performances by Ineke and other Dutch luminaries such as Rein de Graaff, Ruud Jacobs, Peter Beets and Tineke Postma. Find info and tickets here.

During a long and fulfilling career, Ineke, foremost European modern jazz drummer in the tradition of Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins and Louis Hayes, has collaborated with countless American legends like Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Lucky Thompson, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard and Johnny Griffin and sustained long-time associations with Ferdinand Povel, Dick Vennik, Ben van de Dungen & Jarmo Hoogendijk, Benjamin Herman and Dave Liebman. For nearly four decades, Ineke has been playing with the Rein de Graaff Trio. Ineke has been leading his own hard bop quintet, Eric Ineke’s JazzXpress, for eleven years now.

Gary Smulyan

Chasin’ The Bari

A meeting with baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan isn’t complete without a mention of Encounter!, the masterpiece of his all-time bari hero, Pepper Adams. “Pepper is the all-round master. And what a sound!”

Like many fellow Americans that are and have been eagerly doing the freedom jazz dance, Smulyan spends a lot of his work time in Europe. Currently, Smulyan is touring The Netherlands with the trio of pianist Rein de Graaff, a series of gigs billed as Chasin’ The Bird. Smulyan, a congenial gentleman with strong hands and fluent talker with a glance that alludes to a romantic rendezvous between sincerity and good humor, explains: “I have been touring with Rein’s trio about every two years for a long time now. I tell you, we’re flying from note one. These guys really know where it’s at. The venues are lovely and Rein isn’t only a great piano player but an extraordinary organiser as well. It’s a warm bath.”

Chasin’ The Bird, one hell of a job. Or, correction, heavenly duty. “I can’t get enough of Charlie Parker. In fact, I’m still awe-struck. Bird’s a daily treat on the menu. Strangely enough, Parker is regularly taken for granted. From talking to musicians I sometimes get the impression that they only scratched the surface of Parker, didn’t look further than the well-known recordings. But there is a wealth of revealing material, like the bootlegs, some of which luckily have come to the surface legally. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to those amateur recordings Dean Benedetti made of the Bird solos. It’s astonishing! His rhythm, harmony, time, just otherworldly. Sometimes freshmen ask me, ‘what’s the secret, how do you do it?’. Well, there is no secret. Bird is the well you need to drink from. Find your own taste while you’re at it. Lest we forget, of course Bird was influenced significantly by Lester Young, among others, there’s the tradition, there are the bloodlines… However, Bird is The One.”

Starting out in jazz as an alto saxophonist, Smulyan was heavily influenced by Phil Woods, who, it goes without saying, developed a distinctive and brilliant musical personality in the Parker tradition. Born in Bethpage, New York in 1956, growing up in Long Island, the aspiring Smulyan was close to the centre of modern jazz, Manhattan, and as a consequence, Phil Woods. “In the early days, I even dressed like Phil Woods, down to the singular leather cap! At any rate, I played alto until I was twenty-two, hadn’t even touched the baritone. My jazz schooling really gained depth when I acquainted Billy Mitchell, Dave Burns, Joe Dixon, who became my mentors. It’s really important to come across guys that are on a higher level and have more knowledge than you and who, above all, honestly point out your shortcomings. Kind of steer you in directions with integrity, you know. That’s why I’m consciously open minded to youngsters. I’m grateful for meeting my mentors and strive to pass the peas in a worthy manner myself.”

(Clockwise from left: Charlie Parker; Pepper Adams; Gary Smulyan)

Sitting in with his mentors, and soon, legends like Chet Baker and Lee Konitz, Smulyan and the little horn seemed a perfect pair. Until the big horn came along. In 1978, the phone rang, and the question was if Smulyan would like to play in the big band of Woody Herman. On baritone. “Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out that puzzle. Luckily, I had two weeks to spare. I bought a Yamaha baritone and studied some tunes I knew were in the Herman book. Suddenly, I found myself sitting beside tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who became a life-long friend. That phone call was one of those fortuitous moments that sometimes occur in one’s life. Right place, right time. Initially, it was quite unnerving, a risk. But I strongly believe that it’s important to take a risk, grab that opportunity.”

The association with Herman’s Young Thundering Herd was the start of Smulyan’s career as a baritone saxophonist that has been going on for almost forty years. Among many other endeavors, Smulyan played in the Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and cooperated with Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and George Coleman, and records prolifically as a leader. A regular winner of the Downbeat Reader’s and Critic’s Poll and Grammy Awards, Smulyan is the to-go-to baritone saxophonist on the scene today. First it was Pepper, now Gary Smulyan is the all-round master. Ooh, ooh, ooh, what a little phone call can do to you.

“Like I always say: I didn’t choose the baritone, the baritone chose me.”

“It’s not such a cumbersome instrument as they say. At least, I don’t see any difference with the trombone, tuba, or drums for that matter. It’s in the way that you use it. And how can it be awkward when you do it with love? Furthermore, there are not many baritone players around as opposed to tenor or alto players, so if you’re proficient, there’s a lot of work. The baritone is the underdog. Sometimes I take the horn out of my suitcase and just see those eyes popping out of the head of a spectator! Mulligan is the only baritone saxophonist who is known by the general public. At any rate, if you would’ve told me at age fifteen that I would become a baritone saxophonist, I would’ve said you’re crazy. That’s why I’m still, occasionally, floored by happenings in my life. Such as my cooperation with Tommy Flanagan on my 1991 Homage album of Pepper Adams pieces. Flanagan!”

A number of baritone saxophonists influenced Smulyan, among them the father of the bari, Harry Carney and the modernists Leo Parker and Cecil Payne. However, Smulyan’s main man is Pepper Adams, the little man with the big horn who took the baritone to the next level, displaying the blistering speeds of bebop, rare harmonic ingenuity, a composer’s sense of continuity, agressive rhythm, a bark-like timbre and a huge, imposing sound. “It’s all there on Encounter!, Adams’ 1968 Prestige album with Zoot Sims, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. The epithome of Pepper’s art. I’m still enthralled by his sound on that album! Sound reflects the personality, it’s paramount, it’s your voice. And boy, does Pepper have a marvelous voice. Rhythmically, harmonically, his standard of playing is tremendous. Rudy van Gelder’s production is out of sight, very transparant and spacious. Partly straightforward, partly avant-leaning, the vibe is remarkably free. Also because of Elvin Jones, of course. There are a number of challenging tunes, like Punjab, the Joe Henderson tune. Zoot Sims, a more straightforward swinger and a big favorite of mine, really seizes the opportunity. He’s an interesting partner for Pepper. The tunes are short, I like that. Short is good! Although I like to stretch out, a maximum of allotted solo time isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Enough time in short tunes for harmony as well. It stimulates creativity. Look at Duke Ellington, the enormous wealth of stuff that he put in those 3 or 4 minute tunes. I also love the Pepper Adams album Ephemera, with Mel Lewis, George Mraz and Roland Hanna, for many of the same reasons. 10 To 4 At The Five Spot? Great album. But that piano! Horribly out of tune. It’s hard to listen to. Poor Bobby Timmons.”

(Clockwise from left: Pepper Adams – Encounter!, Prestige 1968; Pepper Adams – Ephemera, Spotlite 1973; Charlie Parker – The Complete Benedetti Recordings Of Charlie Parker, Mosaic 1990)

A lot of Pepper and a lot of pepper, in the guise of a singular type of controlled fury, is evident in the playing of Gary Smulyan. Furthermore, a distinctive voice with his own brand of harmonic finesse, a strong beat, acute wit and a striking penchant for telling a coherent tale rings through. “I’m concerned with the architecture of my lines, with secondary motives, for instance. The kind of structural improvisation that runs through the career of Sonny Rollins. I’m not consciously aware of it, but these things probably lurk somewhere in the back of my mind, while I’m hoping to find beautiful lines. Beautiful lines and beautiful sound is what it’s all about.”

Does middle-to-old age matures the beautiful products of a jazz life, like it does a Bordeaux wine or Ardbeg Scotch? And does it peel off some of the rough edges? Evidently, there’s so much wisdom in the playing of elders like Charles McPherson, Barry Harris, Jimmy Heath. Smulyan chuckles: “Hey, I’m only sixty! Though I feel like I’m fifty-nine. Well, I’m not the same person I was like the twenty year old kid, or the forty year old man. What you go through in music and life is reflected in one’s musical voice, I’m not an exception. However, some sixty year olds might tend to take it easy. Not me. Regardless of my shifting approaches, I still love to play fast!”

Maybe it’s the soul patch sitting, Zen-masterly, under Smulyan’s lips. Or the composed stroll of Smulyan before and after the interview, bringing him to the side walls and show cases of the hotel. Casually dressed in jeans and a sweater, hands folded behind his back, Smulyan bows slightly forward like a collector of Louis XI grandfather clocks on an antique fair, or a monk peeking over the shoulder of a novice at work on a weighty book in the athenaeum. Keen-eyed, curious. Maybe it’s just a hunch that Smulyan’s birds are flyin’ high and dry. Fire down below in the heart, yet a heart at peace with beating evenly. “I’m very pleased about the way things turned out and how I’m doing now.” Chuckling: “The phone keeps ringing and I sometimes succeed in coaxing producers into projects. Most of all, I’m glad to live my life in the jazz realm. Essentially, jazz is a social affair. Nowadays, people have turned inwards more and more, individualism is overbearing. But jazz is communication. From the pals I visited to play and discuss records with day and night as a young aficionado, to the colleagues and friends in the studio and on stage, it’s about doing things together. Until recently, I teached music college students with developmental disabilities at Berkshire Hills. Their accomplishments are amazing. Jazz is a great tool, you know. It’s refreshing to see the bigger picture.”

Gary Smulyan

Gary Smulyan is the most sought-after baritone saxophonist in jazz today. A five-time winner of the Downbeat Critic’s and Reader’s Poll and a six-time winner of the Grammy Award, Smulyan has built a sizable and diverse resume as a leading recording artist and been a long-serving member of The Mel Lewis Orchestra, Mingus Big Band, Dave Holland Octet and Big Band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, as well as the bands of soul and blues giants Ray Charles and B.B. King. Smulyan has cooperated with, among others, Gerald Wilson, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Knepper, George Coleman, Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, Bob Belden, Christian McBride and Mike LeDonne. Smulyan is a faculty member at Amherst College, Massachusetts and teaches at Manhattan School Of Music, NYC.

Selected discography:

As a leader:

Homage, (with Tommy Flanagan, Criss Cross, 1991)
Saxophone Mosaic, (Criss Cross, 1993)
Blue Suite (Criss Cross, 1999)
The Real Deal (Reservoir, 2003)
Smul’s Paradise (Capri, 2012)
Bella Napoli (with Dominic Chianese, Capri, 2013)

As a sideman:

Mike LeDonne, The Feeling Of Jazz (Criss Cross, 1990)
Cedar Walton, Roots (Astor Place, 1997)
Dave Holland Big Band, What Goes Around (ECM, 2002)
Gerald Wilson, In My Time (Mack Avenue, 2005)
Joe Magnarelli, Always There (Criss Cross, 1998)
Mark Masters Ensemble, Ellington Saxophone Encounter (Capri, 2012)

Gary Smulyan’s latest release, Royalty At Le Duc, was released in January 2017 by Sunnyside Records. Find here.

Go to Gary Smulyan’s website here.