Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan is an adept improviser with a big, warm sound and lithe, swinging style in the Pepper Adams tradition.
Born in Bethpage, New York in 1956, Smulyan first started out on the alto saxophone as a teenager and gained early experience sitting in with such luminaries as saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter Chet Baker, violinist Ray Nance, and others. After high school, he honed his skills studying at SUNY-Potsdam and Hofstra University before getting a call to join Woody Herman's Big Band playing the baritone sax chair. With no experience on the bari, Smulyan quickly purchased an instrument and hit the road. For much of the late '70s, he toured with Herman's band, playing alongside such luminaries as saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer John Riley. Although he initially thought of himself as a die-hard altoist, during his years with Herman he developed a distinct sound on the baritone, and by the early '80s it had become his primary instrument.
As a leader, Smulyan made his debut in 1991 with The Lure of Beauty on Criss Cross, featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller and trombonist Jimmy Knepper. Another Criss Cross date, Homage, also appeared that year and featured pianist Tommy Flanagan. More well-received Criss Cross albums followed including 1993's Saxophone Mosaic with saxophonist Dick Oatts, 1996's With Strings, and 2000's Blue Suite, which showcased his brass ensemble featuring trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Greg Gisbert, French horn player John Clark, tubist Bob Stewart, and trombonist John Mosca. Also in 2000, he joined longtime associate Joe Lovano for 52nd Street Themes on Blue Note.
In 2003, Smulyan led the hard-swinging quintet date Real Deal with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and pianist Mike LeDonne. Hidden Treasures, with bassist Christian McBride, followed in 2006. Three years later, he paid tribute to late vocalist Frankie Laine on High Noon: The Jazz Soul of Frankie Laine. He then paired again with LeDonne (this time on Hammond B-3), and guitarist Peter Bernstein for the soulful Smul's Paradise in 2012. The Italian-themed Bella Napoli with Sopranos-actor/singer Dominic Chianese appeared the following year. In 2017, Smulyan released the concert album Royalty at le Duc, which showcased his quartet live at Le Duc des Lombards in Paris. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi