Baritone saxophone master Gary Smulyan lives his fantasy in tribute to Charlie Parker
One of the most divisive records in the history of jazz has to be Charlie Parker With Strings, originally issued as a 10-inch LP in 1950. Even some committed fans of the innovative saxophonist considered it a betrayal, or at best an uncharacteristic venture into easy-listening terrain; others praised the recording’s lush warmth and how it showcased Parker’s sublime sense of melody.
Gary Smulyan’s in the latter camp. Not only has the veteran saxophonist derived a lifetime’s worth of pleasure from Parker’s string sessions, he also found a template for his own 1996 release, Gary Smulyan With Strings, which he’s about to play live for the first time in 20 years. And, fittingly, he first heard Parker’s orchestral date at the same club where he learned what it meant to be a jazz musician: Sonny’s Place, a fabled dive northeast of Manhattan on Long Island.
“It was a great club,” the 62-year-old Smulyan tells the Straight, on the line from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. “Everybody who played in New York also played at this club, so I got to see Stan Getz and Lee Konitz, and I got to play with Chet Baker once there, as a kid.
“That was a big hangout for me,” he continues, “and one of the most popularly played records on the jukebox was ‘Just Friends’, from Charlie Parker With Strings. I just heard it over and over and over again, and the thing that really attracted me to that recording in particular was just how the strings draw out the lyricism in one’s playing. They make you play different. You just have a different aspect with that cushion of sound around you. So I think maybe deep down at heart I have this fantasy of playing with strings, because when you’re surrounded by this incredible sound, it’s really quite an amazing experience.”
Despite its title, Gary Smulyan With Strings isn’t a straight-up Parker tribute. For one thing, the bebop star was working with off-duty orchestral players, while Smulyan had the luxury of hiring some great improvising violinists, including Regina Carter and Mark Feldman. (In Vancouver, he’ll be joined by a 10-piece string section, plus pianist Tilden Webb, bassist Jodi Proznick, and drummer Jesse Cahill.) And although the saxophonist started out as a Bird-loving alto player, for most of his career he’s specialized in baritone, the light-heavyweight of the saxophone family. Most of all, though, Smulyan’s strings album benefited from the arrangements and overall vision of the late Bob Belden, a virtuoso saxophonist, producer, and jazz historian who died in 2015, at 58.
One way to tell how much Smulyan misses his friend and former bandmate can be heard in the way he frequently refers to Belden in the present tense.
“Sometimes I just have to take a step back and think ‘Oh, yeah: Bob’s gone,’ ” Smulyan admits. “His music is just so rich and so alive, and he was an almost larger-than-life person in a lot of ways, so I guess I still kind of think of him that way. He was so young and there was so much music left in him. I really feel like he was taken away too soon.”
Gary Smulyan plays Pyatt Hall on Friday (April 6).