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Poll-Winning Baritone Saxophonist Gary Smulyan Unites with Famed Actor and Singer Dominic Chianese (“Uncle Junior” on The Sopranos) for Bella Napoli, a Stylish Collection of Italian Favorites, Out October 15 on Capri Records
Smulyan’s ensemble of fellow virtuosos for Bella Napoli also includes arranger Jeff Lederer, pianist-accordionist Gary Versace, bassist Martin Wind, drummer Matt Wilson and Joseph Brent on mandolin and violin
“Smulyan handles the baritone’s breathy demands like he has learned to harness the gust of a hurricane.” – The Huffington Post
“Smulyan owns a contemporary melodic vocabulary enhanced by a flawless technique… and a glowing tone that embraces the listener in its warmth.” – London Jazz News
There are artistic encounters that we don’t see coming and, yet, when the best of these do somehow occur, they seem inevitable. The musical union of Gary Smulyan, the acclaimed jazz baritone saxophonist, and Dominic Chianese, the famed actor and singer, may appear to have arisen out of left field, but the results of their new album, Bella Napoli – a collection of beloved Neapolitan classics – tell a different story. The love that both men share for these timeless songs, and the obvious respect that each feels for the other’s artistry, resonates throughout this heartfelt album, to be released October 15, 2013, by Capri Records. This is an all-star, kindred-spirit project at every level, with Smulyan’s ensemble including a virtuoso rhythm section: pianist-accordionist Gary Versace, bassist Martin Wind, drummer Matt Wilson, and Joseph Brent on mandolin and violin. The arranger and music director for the album was Jeff Lederer.
Smulyan and Chianese certainly come from different worlds of contemporary show business. Smulyan – named Baritone Saxophone Player of the Year again in 2013 by the Jazz Journalists Association and a consistent topper of both the Critics and Readers Polls in both DownBeat and JazzTimes – is the heir to such acknowledged baritone masters as Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff and Smulyan’s personal hero, Pepper Adams. Chianese, an admired actor and vocalist – now best known for his role as mobster Corrado “Junior” Soprano on the HBO series The Sopranos, a modern classic – has appeared in such celebrated films as The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. Despite their uncommon backgrounds, these two artists found common ground for collaboration with Bella Napoli.
“I had been wanting to do a jazz project interpreting classic Italian songs for a long time,” says Smulyan, whose wife, pianist/educator Joan Cornachio, is of Italian descent. “For me, these tunes are akin to the gems that jazz musicians have culled from the Great American Songbook – I think of them as Italian standards. I happened to catch Dominic at the Litchfield Jazz Festival performing Italian songs, and I thought he was terrific. Although his approach was more traditional, I knew he’d be perfect for this.”
Collecting original sheet music for traditional Neapolitan songs whose “lyrical and beautiful” forms spoke to him, Smulyan then sent them to a close musical associate, the tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer, who as musical director for Bella Napoli was given carte blanche in conceiving the arrangements. “I picked songs that, for me, reflect the open nature of Italian culture,” Smulyan explains. “This is soulful music – it has a funky quality that we tried to capture.”
Striking a balance between the improvisational nature of jazz and the lyrical character of the song material, Bella Napoli is half instrumental, half vocal. The all-instrumental forays include lusty turns on “Funiculi Funicula,” “O Saracino” and “Tre Veglia e Sonno.” Smuyan’s deeply expressive mid-tempo playing features on “Fenestra Che Lucive” and “Pegue.” Celebrating his 82nd birthday just two weeks after the album was recorded, Chianese turned in vocal performances that are all heart. As Smulyan and his associates quickly understood, here was – as Lederer so aptly puts it – “the real deal.”
Chianese had been singing these Italian songs for much of his life – this music was in his blood. His passion and sensitivity are apparent in every breath. You can hear this best in the album’s coda, an unaccompanied, heartbreakingly direct Chianese performance of “Santa Lucia Lontana.” Smulyan says: “Dominic never played with a band like this before, but he nailed everything in one or two takes. He loves to sing, and when he does, he becomes ageless. Dominic is a true gentleman – the complete opposite of his character on The Sopranos.”
Permeating Bella Napoli is the genuine commitment that everyone involved brought to the project – there’s not the slightest hint of gimmickry or kitsch. Coming through clarion clear is nothing but shared love for two musical cultures that somehow blend together like a perfectly aged Parmigiano-Reggiano over fresh pasta and “gravy.”
As DownBeat magazine has said, “Gary Smulyan puts the ‘tone’ back in baritone…” Over the course of his four-decade career, Smulyan has been heard enlivening the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and, currently, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, as well as ensembles under his own leadership and those led by such jazz luminaries as Carla Bley, Dave Holland and Joe Lovano. In addition to his appearances on myriad recording projects by others, Smulyan has recorded 11 albums as a leader, including Smul’s Paradise from 2012 on Capri Records (featuring Mike LeDonne on Hammond B3 organ, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Kenny Washington). Smulyan is also a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music, SUNY Purchase and Amherst College.