A new album with Gary Smulyan and Ronnie Cuber!

It seems pretty undisputed that Gary Smulyan and Ronnie Cuber are two of the greatest living titans of the baritone saxophone. They each have a long discography and incredible career. And we are fortunate to have a new album out this week that features both of them. This isn’t the first time they’ve played together or even recorded together. The album ‘Three Baritone Band Plays Mulligan’ is listed on my 5 essential listening albums page and feature both Gary and Ronnie – as well as Nick Brignola. Interestingly that band toured a bit and the great Howard Johnson could also sometimes be seen with that band.

‘Tough Baritones’ was released this week on the Danish SteepleChase label, on which you will also find a number of other records from both Gary and Ronnie. Though I find it incredibly difficult to find any actual information about this label, or about the albums. Almost like the label goes out of its way to make sure very little information can be found even after the albums are released for sale. But regardless, the album is available on streaming platforms, or if you’re like me and enjoy a physical copy that can be found on amazon here.

This album to me is very reminiscent of a period of jazz that had a huge influence on both of the leaders here. The whole album, but especially the first couple tracks bring back the vibe of Leo Parker recordings, and some of the great two saxophone albums with the likes of Jug (Gene Ammons) and Stitt (Sonny Stitt). This is largely reflected in the tune choice and feel of those songs. A lot of singing blueses and almost boogaloo type feels, as well as some classic Cuber favorite standards – ‘Nica’s Dream’ and ‘Lover’. No sign of a ballad in sight, but that’s just as well since we’re all here for the fire anyways.

If I am going to be incredibly objective, I’d say that Ronnie’s playing doesn’t quite have the fire that he may have had in his prime, but he is by no means at all unenjoyable here. He plays with fire and still shows why he has been one of the leading influences on the baritone for decades. Also if we are going to compare him to most 78 year old saxophonists, he is probably nearly the best in the world. Gary’s playing is top notch and while connoisseurs of the baritone will easily tell their styles apart, they both approach the music with considerable force.

Recording quality wise, having been fortunate to sit right in front of both of their bells in person, it seems to me that the recording captured Gary’s sound a bit more accurately. Ronnie’s mix on the record feels a little distantly recorded. Otherwise the sound of the album is excellent, the two baritonists are panned separately left (Cuber) and right (Smulyan) to help differentiate further. They got a great rhythm section to back the front men. Gary Versace on piano, Jay Anderson on bass, and Jason Tiemann on drums.

I think anyone with an interest in jazz or baritone saxophone, (let alone those at this site that are likely interested in both) should probably head directly to their nearest music provider and check out this album from the royalty of jazz bari sax.

Howard Johnson has passed away.

I am sad to report that Howard Johnson passed away this morning. Below is the message from his partner. If you are not familiar with Howard, I recommend you become familiar. He was a very important baritone saxophonist and musician.

“I am deeply saddened to announce that Howard, my beloved partner of many years, passed away this morning after a long illness. Plans for a memorial service will be announced in the near future.
During his remarkable life, Howard dedicated himself to creating a distinctive jazz legacy, and to advancing the stature and versatility of his signature instrument, the tuba. It is his wish that—in lieu of flowers or other tributes—memorial donations be made to benefit The Howard Johnson Tuba Jazz Program Fund at Penn State, an endowment which will provide a residency program for low brass musicians and baritone sax. Donations to the fund can be received at: raise.psu.edu/CelebratingHowardLJohnson
Thanks for all the love and appreciation you have shown Howard over the many years he has charmed and amazed us. And for your kind support during this difficult time.
Nancy Olewine”

 

Yamaha finally adds Custom baritone!

We wrote earlier this year about Yamaha releasing a new intermediate level baritone. Well, it seems like this is the year for Yamaha and the baritone. They have finally released a baritone on their “Custom” line of instruments, which is their highest professional level instruments. This model will be the YBS-82. One of the most important features of the new model is a choice of hand made neck – more on that in just a bit. In addition to neck choice there are six different finishes –  lacquer and plating options,  and additional key options (can be ordered without high F#). The bell will be one piece construction as opposed to the YBS-62’s two piece. Key buttons will be mother of pearl, as opposed to most Yamaha’s polyester/plastic buttons.

There are some important changes and improvements from the existing horns as well. Ergonomic improvements, and a shorter bell! The shorter bell is a welcome change, both for tuning and size reasons. Not only has Yamaha released two completely new models of baritone but they have also announced the YBS-62II! This will replace the current YBS-62 with many of the same ergonomic improvements. Both the YBS-82 and YBS-62 will come with an integrated, but removable peg to make the horn easier to play while sitting down.

Custom Necks!

Custom necks are all the rage right now, players are finally discovering how much of a difference the neck of a saxophone can make. Both by changing materials, bore, plating etc. So the most exciting news here could be that Yamaha is offering a custom hand made neck with the new YBS-82. But also that they will have these necks for sale a la carte as well, and that these necks will work with any current Yamaha baritone! Pricing starting at $366 – which is actually incredibly cheap compared to current custom neck options. They will offer three different bore/taper sizes (C [small], E [medium], V [large]), and 6 finish options. This could be an amazing way to spruce up or improve your current Yamaha horn. I also wonder if… maybe these custom necks could work on Selmer baritones? I’m hoping someone can try this out sometime and let us know!

How does it play?

I was offered the chance to try a new ‘secret’ baritone from Yamaha at the Navy Sax show in January of this year. I was floored, and which I had gotten to spend more time playing it. The horn felt great under the fingers, but I was most blown away by the neck options and how different the tapers felt. I am so glad that Yamaha has finally entered the truly top end range of saxophones that they had already done with their soprano, alto, and tenor lines! 

Ed Xiques has passed away.

Great human and wonderful saxophonist Ed Xiques has passed away. Although he was rather private and not as well known as you’d think for someone with his musical resume, many musicians knew his importance. Having played saxophone with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra and many others, as well as a long time teacher he left a positive impact on the jazz scene.

New Holiday Gift Guide Page

Curator, Andrew Hadro with some of the baritone gift options.

There are a lot of terrible or tacky saxophone things for sale on the internet. So I’ve done some digging and tried to save some time for people looking to get baritone related gifts for friends, family, or other baritone enthusiasts. I’ve already purchased a number of these items as you can see. Since the holidays are approaching I thought it might be a good idea to share the list with everyone. Though we shouldn’t need a holiday to shower the baritonists in our lives with gifts.

The items range from more generic posters/prints/t-shirts to very niche and well done artistic renderings of famous baritone minded musicians. 

So if you’re looking to pick up something (less costly than a new horn) for that special baritone saxophonist in your life, head over to the new Gift Ideas Page.

Andrew Gutauskas releases second album

Intrepid baritonist, Andrew Gutauskas has released his second album titled, “Look Out!“. This comes after his first album “Look Up!” from 2017. Perhaps in the future we’ll see “Look Within!” to finish out the trilogy? [ Feel free to use that Andrew 😉 ]

Gutauskas is a wonderful player and composer and the music on this album is very uplifting and positive, much like the leader himself. The line-up is a baritone, bass, and drums with trombone added on some tracks. A classic no-chord sound harking back to the Gerry Mulligan / Bob Brookmeyer quartets, though the songs and playing here will sound a bit more modern.

Check out the video below for a taste of the album. And of course I’d encourage you to head over to Andrew’s BandCamp page to buy a copy!