John Birchard, a firmly committed Washington, DC, jazz listener who moonlights as a Voice of America correspondent, sent this report. The Rifftides staff added links.
I attended a jazz concert at the Kennedy Center’s “K-C Jazz Club” venue – the Baritone Saxophone Band in a Gerry Mulligan tribute. I had been looking forward to the evening for some time and was not disappointed. On the remote possibility you’re not familiar with the group, Ronnie Cuber has rounded up Scott Robinson and Gary Smulyan for a three-bari front line that displays a remarkable variety of sound combinations due to Cuber’s skills as an arranger – gruff and punching here, smooth and crooning there. He also avoids the mistake of routining each tune the same with head followed by horn solo, horn solo, horn solo, bass solo and drum fours, then out. If only more jazz band leaders would give that rote approach some thought, their music would be more stimulating.
Cuber is faithful to the Mulligan concept of a no-piano rhythm section that included Andy McKee on bass and Shingo Okudaira on drums. The set we attended included such Mulligan staples as “Five Brothers”, “Walkin’ Shoes”, “Line for Lyons” and “Theme for Jobim”, all of which had their attractions. The band really took off on an up reading of “Bernie’s Tune”, with Cuber digging in hard in his solo. After the applause died down, he referred to it as “ass-kickin'” music. Later in the set, he departed from the Mulligan book to take one from Art Blakey’s library – Curtis Fuller’s “A La Mode”, which was ‘way up and smokin’.
Robinson and Smulyan are excellent players and accomplished soloists, but clearly the boss is Cuber. Over the years since I first heard him with Maynard Ferguson’s band in the early 60s, he has developed into a mature, gifted musician whose solos display swing, wit, soul, experience and whose ideas are given space to breathe. He’s grayer and larger in the mid-section now than I remembered him, but he still has the stuff that has kept him employed with everyone from Mongo Santamaria to Woody Herman to Steely Dan and the Mingus Big Band. If there’s a better owner/operator of the baritone sax around today, I haven’t heard him/her. Ronnie Cuber is a rightful heir to the Gerry Mulligan/Harry Carney/Pepper Adams legacy.
Cuber, Smulyan and the late Nick Brignola recorded in an earlier three-baritones coalition paying homage to Mulligan.