GARY SMULYAN/RALPH LALAMA QUARTET
January 7, 2011
by J Hunter
As he introduced his own composition “Dalama’s Dilemma”, Ralph Lalama smiled at the people that had braved the growing snow to pack Professor Java’s intimate concert space. The tenorman (who resembles Mark Twain on the South Beach Diet) gestured towards baritone-sax player Gary Smulyan, who was studying a chart handed to him by bassist Lou Smaldone.
“Me and Humpy here recorded this in Italy,” Lalama informed us. He looked back at Smulyan. “Right?”
"Don’t talk to me, man,” Smulyan deadpanned, much to the crowd’s amusement. It should be noted that Smulyan’s own grin was pretty wide.
These two have known each other for almost three decades, and as such, have no compunctions about busting each other’s chops if the moment calls for it (and maybe even if it doesn’t). But in this case, familiarity hasn’t bred contempt – it’s bred a river of respect, and that was one of many things that fueled two devastating sets of mind-blowing music.
As was pointed out by erstwhile emcee Paul Villani (the only Lord Buckley impersonator the Capital Region has ever known), Smulyan and Lalama only make up two-fifths of the reed section of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra – a monster big band that packs enough musical throw-weight to win any fight it finds itself in. But when Lalama counted in the swinging opener “This I Dig of You” and the two saxmen let fly on Hank Mobley’s melody, all I could think of to scrawl was Oh, my sacred aunt! This was just two guys playing without any microphones, backed by your basic rhythm section… but in this fun-sized venue, it sounded like they were playing through a stack of Marshall amps. If I’d had any hair to begin with, it would have been billowing out behind me.
That doesn’t mean all they cared about was turning it up to 11. The craftsmanship Smulyan and Lalama put into the music – both separately and as a unit – boggles the mind. Lalama’s solos tend to come in clusters, with bursts of ideas short and long, as if he’s dissecting an issue piece by piece. Contrarywise, Smulyan is a perpetual motion machine, with chorus after chorus after chorus after chorus washing over you in waves. In the midst of his onslaught on “Dig”, a “Charleston” sub-reference bobbed by, hanging onto a raft for dear life as it headed downstream. When the front line joined up for the head (after trading 8’s and 4’s with drummer Joe Barna), they achieved some incredible harmonics… or, to be more precise, dis-harmonics. If we’d been sitting on a fault line during some of the more resonant passages, Professor Java’s would be doing business in downtown Peking.
“Dig” was followed by “Evol Declaw Ni”, Thad Jones’ bluesy take on “In Walked Love”, and the patron saint of the VJO got another nod when Smulyan and Lalama used Jones’ “Three in One” to kick off the seond set. Ray Brown’s “Fuji Mama” closed the first set with some high-powered samba. Smulyan reprised the 3/4 take on “Body & Soul” he’d done on his last visit to Professor Java’s, but with Lalama filling in the spaces, the picture was even more colorful than it was before. It seemed like “Body” was going to close out the night, but just as the two players seemed to finish trading solos in the clear, Lalama counted out a quick four beats and the quartet was hitting us with a warp-speed version of Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour.”
We got Smulyan and Lalama separately last year – Smulyan at Professor Java’s, Lalama at the late, lamented Bread & Jam Café – but both shows were backstopped by Barna and Smulyan, who are as rock-solid as it gets. Smaldone’s foundation playing just can’t be beat, and he’s got a lyrical voice of his own that can hold the stage at any time. As for Barna, it pleases me no end to see him do it all – whether it’s dropping bombs with impunity on “Dig”, or painting elegant brushwork onto Lalama’s sexy take on “These Foolish Things.” Given the chemistry the rhythm section shared with the front row, you’d have thought those aforementioned gigs had happened the week before.
Despite the fattening snowflakes that kept on coming, almost everyone stayed for both sets. I’m sure the rationales were many: Maybe it’ll let up, I’ll give the plows some time to work, I’ve got 4-wheel drive… but at the end of the day, everyone listened to the towering music Ralph Lalama and Gary Smulyan were doling out, and thought, “I just… can’t… leave!”
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.