Gary Smulyan Conquers Contrafacts


Gary Smulyan credits much of his interest in contrafacts to pianist Reese Markewich, who has written two books on the topic.

(Photo: Antonio Porcar)

“It’s a very interesting rabbit hole to dive down into, this world of contrafacts,” said baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. A type of jazz composition in which a new melody is placed over another song’s chord progression—for instance, Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” over the changes to “How High the Moon”—the contrafact long has been an object of fascination for Smulyan. Since 2006, he has released four albums devoted to them: Hidden Treasures; More Treasures (2007); Alternative Contrafacts (2018); and his latest, Our Contrafacts (2020).

Smulyan credits much of his interest in the idea to Reese Markewich, a pianist and psychiatrist he met growing up on Long Island. “[H]e wrote an incredible book on substitute harmony, mostly tritone subs, called Inside Outside: Substitute Harmony in Modern Jazz and Pop Music,” Smulyan said. “Totally self-published, and for me, it’s the one of the best books ever written on harmony. But it’s very hard to find, because, like I said, it was self-published—just a cardboard [cover] and paper with staples.

“And in the back [of the book] he had about 40 pages of reharmonizations of pretty obscure standards. I got interested in that, and I used to hang out at his house all the time. He’d show me these tunes, and we’d play.”

Markewich also wrote two books on contrafacts—Bibliography of Jazz and Pop Tunes Sharing the Chord Progressions of Other Compositions (1970), which Smulyan owns, and a follow-up, The New Expanded Bibliography of Jazz Compositions Based on the Chord Progressions of Standard Tunes (1974). The first volume lists 10 contrafacts based on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” By the second edition, there were 15.

“One is called ‘Yoicks,’ by Charlie Mack on Paradox Records,” Smulyan said, going through the “Cherokee” list. “I’ve never heard that. And then there’s ‘Escalating’ by George Wallington. I’ve never heard that. There’s ‘Dial-ogue,’ which is Serge Chaloff and Ralph Burns. And ‘Chickasaw,’ which is Terry Gibbs and Shorty Rogers.

“So, this book has become a real source book for me, to try and find these tunes,” he added. “A lot of these records have been put on YouTube.” Indeed, of the “Cherokee” contrafacts he mentioned, all but “Chickasaw” can be found online.

Our Contrafacts is the only one of Smulyan’s contrafact albums not to benefit from Markewich’s work. These contrafacts all were composed by Smulyan and his trio. But what’s the difference between playing contrafacts and writing your own?

“That’s a very interesting question,” the saxophonist replied. “You’re already working with preset chord changes, so you have kind of a framework with which to write, which is different than writing a totally original composition, where you’re trying to come up with a harmonic structure and a melodic structure.”

Listening to a contrafact can be like working a crossword, taking the new melody as a clue and then filling in the blanks. If you notice that “Quarter Blues” from Our Contrafacts has the same meter and changes as Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” you’ll have a different appreciation for how the band plays it.

In addition to six new contrafacts from Smulyan, Our Contrafacts includes two each from bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green.

“Actually, the first time we played together was for Alternative Contrafacts,” he said. “After that, we’ve had some opportunities to play live, and of course it’s never enough. But when we do play, it feels like no time has passed. We feel music and think about music in a similar way. We’re kindred spirits that way.” DB

This story originally was published in the February 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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