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.