Michael "Spike" Wilner was a fixture at the late, lamented New York City club Smalls, which was a very hip little place that featured great music by young, rising musicians at reasonable prices. This CD, consisting of live performances by Wilner's quintet and trio, functions as a fitting memorial to that place. The resulting sounds are spirited and always swinging.
Wilner's music is rooted in bebop; the musicians adroitly negotiate the intricate rhythms of bop phrasing. And they improvise largely from the chord changes, and not from post-bop scales built on those changes. This music runs the risk of sounding retro, but Wilner and company embrace the parameters of bop with their hearts and souls. Their stance isn't ideological in the least, and their enthusiasm and genuinely joyous bop-based approach bursts forth on every track.
Wilner's repertoire consists of sunny originals, neglected standards, neglected Ellington/Strayhorn tunes, and a healthy dose of the blues. "How Am I To Know," for example, is an old song that isn't played very often. Wilner really digs in here, organizing his improvisation in unpredictable fashion, so that his ideas take on a consistently fresh cast, and all the while he and his band mates are possessed of a radiant, jaunty swing. Among Wilner's originals, "Hopscotch" stands out. It's a blues waltz with arresting changes, one of four blues tracks on Late Night: Live At Smalls.
Among the sidemen, Smith really stands out. His solos are bursting at the seams with ideas and potent swing. His phrasing somewhat recalls Jackie McLean, but his robust tone is entirely his own, so that what could be considered a conservative use of tried-and-true bebop ideas instead becomes a personal, extrovert, and very happy sound. Brouqui plays with a clean, light guitar tone, delivering his solos in crisp and swinging fashion. Gill walks with distinction, and solos well both pizzicato and arco. Strasser is an excellent drummer, constantly pushing the music forward, and locking in with Gill to create the kind of percolating swing that can only come from a working band.
Late Night: Live At Smalls isn't a cutting-edge statement, nor is it an ideological one founded on what jazz is supposed to sound like. Instead, it's a personal statement by musicians who live and breathe their chosen idiom, and whose love of playing shines through.
Personnel: Michael "Spike" Wilner, piano; Ian Hendrickson Smith, alto saxophone, flute; Yves Brouqui, guitar; Paul Gill, bass; Joe Strasser, drums.