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Gary Smulyan & Lou Smaldone

Gary Smulyan

Gary Smulyan, Lou Smaldone & Joe Barna

Gary Smulyan

Joe Barna

Lou Smaldone

Photos by
Albert Brooks

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Professor Java's
Colonie, NY
September 25, 2010

by J Hunter

Professor Java’s is no stranger to live music. The Wolf Road coffeehouse has held open-mic nights for some time. But when Bread & Jam Café went the way of the buffalo (and the Lark, for that matter), drummer/erstwhile impresario Joe Barna went searching for another place to play, and I think he’s struck salon. Java’s performance area is an earth-toned, track-lit, art-intensive room that can be closed off from the rest of the facility. There’s no stage, let alone stage lights, but that actually works in the space’s favor; it’s like attending a house concert in a home without table lamps, which is pretty cool as a concept. Along with giving concert-goers their own little universe, the arrangement lets Java’s regular customers sit, sip, and surf in their own area without being forced to (directly) endure music they don’t care for… though how anyone could not check out what baritone-saxman Gary Smulyan was throwing down is beyond me.

Mind you, what Smulyan created with Barna and bassist Lou Smaldone over two barn-burning sets was not simple stuff: Sax-trio jazz requires a whole other mindset from both the players and the audience; the primary instrument was bari-sax, works on a completely singular harmonic level; although Barna and Smaldone knew what might be played, rehearsal time was basically non-existent – in other words, if Smulyan called out a number, the rhythm section had to either catch it or learn it in a big hurry; and at the end of almost every piece, one of the trio had to build a bridge to the next number. Basically we’re talking about a musical triathlon in a space smaller than my living room. One audience member had to leave after the first set – not because the music wasn’t great (It was, and then some), but because the sheer output of sound and ideas was so great, the man’s brain nearly shorted out.

The bari-sax has a tendency to be stereotyped in the same way as the trombone: It’s a gadget instrument, with no other purpose than to provide Old School sounds and comedy relief. Watching someone stretch the outside of the instrument’s sonic envelope shifts the paradigm without bothering to use the clutch. Smulyan’s known primarily as a big-band player; his marvelously expressive take on “Body & Soul” is a major highlight of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s Grammy-winning disc Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard. Smulyan went up-tempo bebop on “Body” at Java’s, and he flat-out owned it. Everything Smulyan called – be it standards like “If I Were A Bell” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” or originals like “Jaubero” and “Weaver of Dreams” – was presented as part of a rising river of musical consciousness that only broke when Smulyan nodded to his partners and stepped over to the far wall.

Those were moments that could have been funny early on, because they came with split-seconds of silence while Barna and Smaldone exchanged looks that either said “Wanna go?” or “I got nuthin’; how ‘bout you?” The silence didn’t last, as both men readily chose swimming over sinking. Smaldone’s lines showed outstanding levels of lyricism and aggression, and he had no problem soloing on a duet version of “Autumn in New York”, a piece he’d never even attempted before this evening. As if Barna needs any more inspiration, the impromptu nature of the show seemed to galvanize the drummer like nothing else. He brought the big noise on Monk’s “Evidence”, and he slapped a turbo onto a swinging version of “Secret Love” that included a nice quote from Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”

At one point during “Body”, Barna played a simple rising drum roll that broke Smulyan up. “Buddy Rich, ladies and gentlemen,” he called out, still laughing. That was in high contrast to the moment during “B Flat Blues” where Smaldone dropped out to give Smulyan more space; without breaking the fusillade of notes he was playing, Smulyan gave Smaldone an over-the-shoulder look that clearly said Did I tell you to stop? Despite the pickup nature of this group, this was definitely Smulyan’s gig. Even so, he got as much inspiration out of Barna and Smaldone as they got out of him. The result was a stem-winding three hours of jazz gold that I hope we see more of at Professor Java’s, because I like great music with my iced coffee.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.