Gary Smulyan at Le Duc

There’s nothing quite like a bad-ass baritone saxophone. Baritone saxophonists tend to divide into two camps on the leadership side. There’s the Gerry Mulligan approach, which is muscular and mannered. And there’s the Pepper Adams school, an earthier and more unchained sound that leaps on you like a panther. This low-register, gut-driven attack has its roots in the late 1940s with Leo Parker, Serge Chaloff, Harry Carney and Paul Williams but evolved in the late ’50s in the hands of Pepper Adams. Two examples of the Adams sound can be heard on Lee Morgan’s The Cooker and Donald Byrd’s Byrd in Hand, not to mention many of his Pepper-Byrd albums. Gary Smulyan falls into the latter camp.

As the new Royalty at Le Duc (Groovin’ High) shows, Gary comes at the instrument from a bossy, brash, and forceful place. The album, which came out in January, was recorded live in 2015 at Le Duc Des Lombards in Paris. The Euro trio behind Gary is beautifully supportive and independent: the French Olivier Hutman on piano, French-Italian Michel Rosciglione on bass and Austrian Bernd Reiter on drums. [Photo above and all below courtesy of Gary Smulyan]

The album is positively exceptional and shows off Gary’s chops on hard-bop scorchers and on plaintive ballads. There are plenty of surprises. While Laura is taken nice and slow, Body and Soul becomes a medium-tempo waltz loaded with exciting pot-boiler twists and turns. The flag-wavers also are stunners. Thad Jones’s Elusive and his bouncy Thedia are given high-octane treatments. Adams’s Cindy’s Tune, based on the chord changes to Honeysuckle Rose, features exceptional work by Gary and a terrific lengthy piano solo by Hutman.

Other ballads include Joe Henderson’s Serenity and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Star-Crossed Lovers, which was first recorded by Ellington in 1956. Both have plenty of heat, heart and tenderness.

Once again, Gary has maximized his instrument. He holds nothing back and works hard to show off the baritone’s animal instincts and brooding sensuality. It’s a perfect album. I’d love to hear what Gary would do on an album of Elmo Hope tunes.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Gary Smulyan’s Royalty at Le Duc (Groovin’ High) here.

JazzWax clip: Here’s Thedia, which opens the album…


And here’s the Thad Jones original, featuring Thad Jones (tp), Billy Mitchell (ts), Barry Harris (p), Percy Heath (b) and Max Roach (d)….