Big Jazz on SmallsLIVE
For Spike Wilner, Executive Producer of SmallsLIVE and the owner of Smalls Jazz Club, the idea of making live recordings at Smalls came not long after he began running the business end of the club in 2007. "One of the things that was most important to me was to start to archive performances here. I feel the music that's performed here night after night is of historical value in terms of jazz music, New York City and our culture overall." Wilner's strong feeling about the value of the Smalls tradition has deep roots: his association with the club dates back to its beginnings in 1994, when he started playing piano there regularly and eventually led weekly late-night jam sessions. Mitch Borden, the original founder of Smalls, continues working at the club and as Wilner's partner and close associate.
As far as the criteria that Wilner and his crew use on the SmallsLIVE label, "we've chosen artists that we think are indicative of the club or important to be heard." Each of the CDs on the label has a similar look and sound, to some degree. Almost all of them are entitled "Live at Smalls": David Schnitter Live at Smalls, Tyler Mitchell Live at Smalls, etc. The sound engineering and mixing is generally by the same team and the covers use eco-friendly packaging with black-and-white photos of the headlining artists. As of this writing, including a batch of four CDs released in the spring of 2013, SmallsLIVE has 40 albums in its catalog. "We usually do four at a time and usually three times a year if we can. It's a loose production schedule, but that's what we try to keep to. This latest batch includes one I'm especially excited about, the Harold Mabern Trio, with Joe Farnsworth on drums and John Webber on bass. It came out great. It's amazing."
"We also have a quartet led by Joe Magnarelli, an old friend who played with me in the Planet Jazz band led by Johnny Ellis in the '90s. He came in with the great pianist Mulgrew Miller, Jason Brown on drums and Duane Burno on bass. That came out great, too. The third one is led by Alex Sipiagin, the phenomenal Russian trumpet player, with Seamus Blake on tenor sax, David Kikoski on piano, Boris Koslov on bass and Nate Smith on drumsa terrific band. And the last project of that batch is saxophonist Will Vinson. He's from London; he's been on the scene, plays quite a bit with Ari Hoenig. He has a terrific group with [guitarist] Lage Lund, whom we've recorded, Aaron Parks, who's a terrific pianist playing around quite a bit, Matt Brewer on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. So, I'm excited about this latest batch."
The previous grouping of releases on SmallsLIVE, issued January 2013, was another set of four, featuring ensembles led by two veterans and two younger musicianstwo bassists and two tenor saxophonists.
Bassist Dezron Douglas led a quintet made up of dynamic young musicians who play at Smalls quite regularly: tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, trumpeter Josh Evans, pianist David Bryant, and drummer Willie Jones III. "Dezron is a young man who's very quickly assumed a really prominent role on the jazz scene by just being an excellent musician and a beautiful person," says Wilner. "He's a true jazz artist. He's got the spirit of this music permeated in him and a reverence for the tradition. He's got a great spirit and really focuses on swing and the feel. He's also a great leader, even though he's a younger guy. People admire and watch out for him."
Veteran bassist Tyler Mitchell led another quintet for his CD. "Tyler was around during the early part of the '90s and at that time was basically the top call bassist in New York City. He worked with Art Taylor and Taylor's Wailers, Barry Harris, Sun Ra and all kinds of people, real serious bebop and other top guys at that time and had a pretty prominent career. Tyler had a hiatus where he left New York and was gone for about ten years and then re-emerged recently. Tyler and I had become friends back in those days, when I was a kid, basically, and he had befriended me. It was nice for me to welcome him back to New York at Smalls and provide him a place to play. Eventually, that led to the SmallsLIVE project, which included Josh Evans on trumpet, Abraham Burton on tenor, who's phenomenal, Eric McPherson, another phenom on drums and myself on piano. To me, that particular project is almost the most indicative of a night at Smalls, because it's a little rough around the edges; it's not as planned out or perfected as some of the other dates, but it has a good feeling to it. People respond to it." The two tenor saxophonists in this grouping of four CDs are Grant Stewart and David Schnitter. "Grant is a terrific tenor player," says Wilner. "He's not exactly a young guy, but he's younger. He came in with Tardo Hammer on piano, his brother on drums, Phil Stewart and David Wong on bass. It's a nice, straight-ahead date, with Grant's beautiful tenor sound, really in the tradition, really swinging and with great tune selection." Wilner's association with Stewart goes back to the '90s, when the two first started playing at Smalls. "We have a long personal history as well as a musical association. Grant's one of my oldest friends in New York City. I met him when he was 18; I think I was about 22. I had just broken up with my girlfriend at the time. We met at a jam session, and he was looking for a room to rent, so we ended up becoming roommates. Then we started just becoming buddies, hanging out on the scene. Eventually, we became part of a band that collectively became known as Planet Jazz, with Peter Bernstein, Joe Magnarelli, Neal Miner and the late Johnny Ellis, who was the drummer and leader. We had an association with that group for quite a while."
Wilner plays piano on the David Schnitter CD, along with Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums. "Schnitter is a real jazz treasure, a veteran. He was the longest standing member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, longer than any other musician in that band. He's been on the New York scene for years and plays better than ever now, a beautiful, abstract musician. He's played here at the club for quite a few years, and we had a nice, working band on that, which also features his wife, Marti Mabin, singing a couple tunes on that CD. She's gorgeous. That record, from a personal point of view, I think is one of the best examples of my own playing, and I also think it's just a great document of an unsung hero of the music."
The recordings on SmallsLIVE include a number of intriguing lineups. A 2010 CD by the guitarist Peter Bernstein, one of the first releases on the label, which Wilner considers "a classic," included the Miles Davis alum Jimmy Cobb on drums. "Pete is a guy who's just so beautiful and talented in what he does. He's just a consummate artist. He comes out of that strong tradition of swing and blues and romantic playing, and he also marries it to a modern sound and modern ideas. He was a huge influence on me and a lot of the musicians that I know." In addition to the quartet CD with Cobb, Bernstein appears on a SmallsLIVE 2011 release, Bernstein/Goldings/Stewart Live at Smalls, where he teams up with long-standing collaborators, organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart. "Those guys started playing at Augie's back in the late '80s. I think they kind of started the whole organ revival thing, in a way." Wilner says that there will be another release on SmallsLIVE for Bernstein before long, a solo guitar outing.
Wilner himself is featured as the pianist on little more than a handful of the CDs in the SmallsLIVE catalog, but he's the common thread throughout, since the label focuses mainly on the musicians that appear at Smalls Jazz Club on a regular basis, along with notable special guests. Wilner is a major presence at the club, and he throws himself into it completely. "One of the things with me and Smalls is that I have a personal relationship with everyone who plays here. There's no musician that comes into this club that I don't either know as a colleague or as a friend. A lot of them are guys that I've known for my entire adult life and my whole career as an artist myself... Pete Bernstein may be my closest friend right now, actually. We've been friends since teenage years... Larry Goldings was my college roommate freshman year at the New School. He's the guy that started calling me 'Spike,' by the way. He started calling me that as kind of a joke, and I got really angry when people called me that, and I think because of that, it ended up sticking hard. But Larry is a guy I've known for years and he's been a big influence on me musically. I learned so much piano from him back in the day."
Another early release on SmallsLIVE features tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, a more recent acquaintance of Wilner's, who is joined by pianist David Kikoski, guitarist Lage Lund, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Bill Stewart. "That's a great record," says Wilner. Seamus is a guy I've gotten to know over the years. I don't know him as well personally as I do Pete, but we have a very amicable relationship, and he's just a very popular artist. He's got a phenomenal sound on the tenor, a real modern concept and writes really beautiful little tunes that are very catchy and pretty. I'm lucky to get him in the club when he comes in. I'm always happy to have him at Smalls. He's got a strong following among younger musicians, which is something that I like to see. When making a decision on someone to record, I'm always very aware of what the 20- something jazz students and fans are interested in, because that's a barometer of who's happening, in a way."
Bassist Ben Wolfe leads another quintet CD featuring musicians who appear regularly at Smalls in a variety of contexts. They include saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, pianist Luis Perdomo and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. "Ben is a guy who has basically always been at the very top of the scene and has had a phenomenal career with amazing artists. He's also a fantastic composer and has a real interesting band concept. He proposed doing a SmallsLIVE thing which we put together, and it's all really cool music, kind of a suite of one tune after another that's all very inter-related, very well thought out and very well planned. He uses one of my favorite piano players, Luis Perdomo, on that and Marcus Strickland. The Strickland brothers are in quite a bit at Smalls, both Marcus and E.J. Strickland Terrific guys, great musicians, very popular artists and assets to the club and the label."
The biggest selling CD in the catalog is Cyrille Aimee + Friends: Live at Smalls. "It gets a lot of radio play, and I've re-ordered her CD more than any other," says Wilner. "She's very popular. She's going to be a star. She's already a star. It's amazing... That was a very special project for me for a lot of reasons. I met Cyrille in 2006 when I was finishing a master's degree at SUNY Purchase. I didn't really know at that time where my career was heading. I wanted to get a credential for teaching, and Purchase has a good jazz program that's affordable. I ended up meeting this whole crew of young musicians up there that have all become part of Smalls now, including Spencer Murphy, who is one of my managers, a fantastic bassist, and Cyrille and Ken Fowser.
"Cyrille is an incredibly beautiful and talented musician, and she also happens to be one of the best, if not the best, scat- singing vocalist I've ever heard in my life. She is really like a horn player. She can sing beautifully and render beautiful songs, but she's also an amazing improviser harmonically and rhythmically. She is in the changes, she's phrasing, she's creating with the band in ways that are just amazing. We became very close personally as well as musically, and we had a lot of wonderful gigs together, traveled to Europe together. She was somebody I knew was going to get famous quick, and I wanted to record her really quickly before anybody else did.
"When we talked about the record date, she said she wanted to try to get Roy Hargrove. Roy is also a very old friend of mine. He's kind of an elusive figure, though, and he has very protective management, but I was able to talk to Roy, and we just kind of put it all together. It was great." Joining Aimee and Hargrove on the CD are Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Wilner on piano, Phil Kuehn on bass and Joey Saylor on drums.
Wilner has a number of other personal favorites on SmallsLIVE. One is by trombonist Steve Davis, the fifth release in the catalog. "I love that record," says Wilner. "There's something about it that's real jazz to me. And Larry Willis does some of the best playing on piano there." A trio recording led by pianist Kevin Hays, the label's second release, is another favorite. "That's an amazing trio record. Kevin is a pianist that I've always admired. He's my age, but he's always just been a super bad cat. He's one of the first guys I wanted to record just for my own reasons, so I could sit down and listen to what he does." Off the top of his head, Wilner rattles off a few others: "Bruce Barth put out a really nice piano trio one, that's a lovely record, and the record by [saxophonist] Joel Frahm with Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Joe Martin on bass and Otis Brown III on drums, I think is one of the best ones on the label, too. They're all great."
As with just about all commercially released recordings today, the music on SmallsLIVE is available via downloads as well as in CD format through the club's website, as well as through the SmallsLIVE iTunes store.
While SmallsLIVE presents a good representative sampling of the scene at Smalls Jazz Club, there's actually a huge collection of other live recordings done at the club beyond what's on the label. Wilner has set up an "audio archive" on the club's website that has some 7,000 recordings in it, with more than 600 musicians represented. These recordings don't get the same attention that the ones on the SmallsLIVE label dothe mixing, mastering and post productionbut the sound quality is quite good, and, for now at least, everything is can be streamed for free on the club's website.
Wilner installed a recording systemaudio and videonot long after he began his full-time association with the club in 2007. Even from the outset, he wasn't just thinking about making a few recordings here and there. "We started recording everything, and then, eventually, it led to the system we have currently, our audio archive and the video archive... It's all categorized by date and the musicians on each date. You can find out information about every artist that's ever played here too, get their bios and photos, in addition to hearing the audio. We have the full length recording, just the gig as is, the point being to create a time capsule of sorts so that in the future, when Smalls is no longer, we'll have this chunk of work that people can point to and say, well, this is what happened here.
"My inspiration for it was how they would put radio wires in the old clubs back in the day, like in Kansas City. John Hammond [the Columbia Records producer] was driving from Chicago and he heard the Count Basie Orchestra on his car radio because of this radio wire. I thought, man, that's such a great idea, taking the music from this small venue and broadcasting it worldwide for whoever wants to listen, whoever can find it. And it created a big thing for us. Our website became very popular, and we've created an international audience of people who come to watch our live video or listen to our audio archive."
Wilner is poised to take the Smalls audio archive in a new direction, "a new kind of SmallsLIVE," which he hopes to debut by the fall of 2013. "What we're finding now is that running a record company is almost impossible. There's no market for physical CDs. There are hardly any stores anywhere to buy CDs. And hardly anyone buys them anymore. It's a dead end. The digital download market is also limited. You can do some things. We have an exclusive account with iTunes for SmallsLIVE and we sell downloads from our own site. But for the most part it's a really difficult business to sell recorded projects. The old-school idea where the record company signs the artists, pays them some money and puts together this one-off product that's marketed and soldI think it's a dinosaur. It's not economically worthwhile anymore, and there's no market for it.
"What is viable and marketable these days is the idea of libraries of contentsubscriptions, like Netflicks. There, you pay a monthly fee for unlimited usage of this library of films that you can watch as much as you like. So, what I'm currently working on is a mechanism of revenue sharing for artists where our new model for SmallsLIVE will be to convert our audio archive into a more streamlined library and charge a monthly subscription fee for unlimited access. The archive will grow with new content, week after week. And every artist in there will be registered. We'll be monitoring how many minutes of listening time each artist gets, and then they'll get a piece of this revenue pie that we collect every month. What I'm trying to do, you might say, is to create one of the biggest record companies ever, with every artist who plays at Smalls signed to the label."
The approach is a reversal of what Smalls now does between its video and audio archive. "Right now, there's a subscription fee for our video, and the audio archive is free. But we feel that that's not the right paradigm. We only make our live video free on Wednesday nights. We take down the pay wall and advertise it on Facebook. We'll see as many as 10,000 to 15,000 views in the course of a night, worldwide. So, my philosophy is if I can make this free every night, where we can start generating a nightly audience worldwide, 10,000 or 15,000 viewers or more, we can say, hey, if you enjoyed the show tonight and you want to watch it again or listen again, become a subscriber to our archive. Then we're benefiting everyone, the musicians will get paid, and I think it'll work all around. So that's the new vision, and I think if I can implement that, then, the CD label itself might go the way of the dodo.
"I might still have special projects with CDs here and there, but the truth is it's just not economically viable. It's very hard to recover the money you put into it, between paying the artist, the printing costs for the CDs, and the artwork and mixing and post production. I'm sure that if you talk to anyone at any record label, they'll tell you the same thing. A lot of labels these days are vanity projects where you have wealthy people who just don't care about actual profit. Although, in my case, I don't really care about profit, either, really. What I care about is the dissemination of the music worldwide. That's my main goal. And I think taking SmallsLIVE in this new direction will be a better way to do that. I'm excited to see what happens with it. I think it could be a new paradigm for the music industry in general."
Beyond his work recording shows at Smalls and breaking new ground with ways to distribute the music, Wilner has his hands full with maintaining the club, managing it and keeping the staff organized, not to mention practicing piano and performing. "There's the lawyers, accountantsit's insane having to stay on top of the taxesplus the banking and payroll. Everything's on the books; we do Federal withholding for everybody. Then there's the bar management, ordering booze and beer, keeping a wine list. Smalls is very labor intensive. You could just open a bar, and you wouldn't have to work as hard as we do here. But the thing about Smalls is that it's not so much a jazz club as some kind of religious organization. It's really like a monastery. It's a place for art, and there's a very dense community, with many interpersonal relationships that I'm in the center of. It involves a lot of social work. I'll loan money to people, work with them on getting medical help, write letters of recommendation for people to help them stay in the City. Artists come here to paint, writers come to write. We're very concerned with the culture of art in New York, and I want to make sure that our little thing here is still viable in the City because it's so rare now. It's almost gone. That's our mission."
As a lifelong New Yorker, Wilner has seen a lot of changes in the City and in the local jazz landscape. He's been in the thick of the jazz scene since the 1980s, when he joined the very first class of students in the jazz performance program at the New School. "That was a seminal event in my life," he recalls. "I was kind of floating around at that time, waffling between music and computers. I decided that I was really a musician, and I heard about this new program that was being started at the New School by Arnie Lawrence, who's since passed away, unfortunately. I was auditioned by Arnie and Tommy Flanagan, although I had no idea who Tommy Flanagan was at the time. He was just a very kind man. I remember at the audition I played 'Take the A Train,' and I played the second chord as a half diminished chord, but the actual chord is D7 flat 5. And Tommy came from behind, reached over and said, "Son, don't you mean this?" And he played the chord. I remember the sound of that chord at the audition just stunned me, and after that I went out and bought a ton of Tommy Flanagan records. He became one of my great heroes to this day,actually.
"The initial class of that school was chock full of the stars of our current scene: Brad Mehldauwho became one of my best friends Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Jesse Davis, Sam Yahel, Joe Strasser and all the guys from the rock bands the Blues Travelers and the Spin Doctors. They were all there as part of the initial class. Roy Hargrove went through there, too. It was an amazing collection of young, talented guys who have become successful jazz professionals.
"At that time it was an amazing thing; it was so small, it was run more like a forum than a school. Everyone would gather together in a room. Some great jazz master would come in, and we'd just hang out with him. That was the school. Jimmy Cobb would show up, and we'd all play with Jimmy Cobb. Or Donald Byrd would come in. I mean, we met Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Ram Ramirez and Cecil Paynea great aggregation of people.
"And we also caught the very tail end of the great New York jazz scene. When I was a freshman, sophomore and junior at school, there were still 35 or 40 jazz clubs in town. You could still go all over the place at night, Bradley's, the Village Gate and so many other places and still hear the Tommy Flanagan and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. I heard all those guys, because it was still part of the scene at that time."
Wilner has fond memories of the Village Gate especially. "That's where there were jam sessions all the time. Art D'Lugoff owned it, and Raphael D'Lugoff, his son, who's a great pianist, became a great friend of mine. The Gate was just like a madhouse, musicians in and out, jam sessions. That was the hang. They finally went out of business in '93, when they lost their lease."
Not long after the Village Gate closed, Mitch Borden opened the original Smalls, in April 1994, at the same location of the current club, 183 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. "I remember I was hanging with Grant Stewart, and he got a phone call. He said, 'Hey there's this new club opening, I just got a gig there. Smalls.' We all came down to Smalls, and Mitch had this free-for-all approach to the music. It was just this rumpus room for musicians, and it became kind of a wild pit. It's hard to describe. There was no bar; there was no anything. People would pay ten dollars to get in and bring their own beer. There was no liquor license. It was open 24/7. You were just there all the time. I became part of the fabric back then. I played my own gigs there, and I led a jam session, a late night session, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.
"Eventually Mitch was undone by rising costs and the fire department and City codejust getting penalized to death. The City changed so much, especially after 9/11. It was interesting to watch. It went from a much freer kind of vibe to something that was much more controlled. It's still very strict now. Mitch finally went bankrupt, and the club was closed in 2003 for almost two years. Then it reopened in a weird incarnation as a Brazilian venue before I became a partner back in 2007."
While Smalls doesn't have the wild and loose feel it had in the '90s, it's open seven days a week until 4 a.m., with three or four bands playing every night, and the club still hosts late-night jam sessions on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wilner finds booking bands at the club to be a challenge. "It's hard because I have a lot of friends. I love these musicians so much, dearly, but I can't just give the people who are my friends the gigs, because it doesn't quite work like that. If there's a senior artist who deserves a gig and needs it, we provide for them. If there are guys who are just clearly at the forefront of the scene and there's no question that they should be performing, then that's obvious. And then there are young guys who are up-and-coming, and we really want to promote the ideas coming through the ranks. And we have to think about who are the artists who really bring something to the club.
"I always tell people the scene dictates the booking policy for me. We just try to keenly observe it and be as fair as possible. I try to be very compassionate and attentivebut at the same time, I can't give everybody everything that they want. We've now gone to an invitation-only booking policy, actually.
"The club is so small. Our budget is tiny. The artists who play here get paid less than what they should be making and less than what they might make somewhere else, but they're glad to play here because of our environment and who we are. They know that we have the best interest in mind in terms of the music. The integrity level here is very high. And the playing field is very high. If you're playing a gig at Smalls, maybe Dave Kikoski is going to be in the audience, or Greg Hutchinson or Harold Mabern. You're not going to be playing for a bunch of tourists who don't know anything about jazz. This is a very sophisticated audience, and it's not just the musicians who come herewe attract people who are serious jazz fans who really know music. The bar is set high for anyone who plays here, even at jam sessions, and that's something that we want to maintain."
Harold Mabern Trio, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Joe Magnarelli, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Alex Sipiagin, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Will Vincent, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
David Schnitter, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Tyler Mitchell, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Grant Stewart, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Dezron Douglas, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2013)
Joel Frahm Quartet, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2011)
Bernstein/Goldings/Stewart, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2011)
Bruce Barth Trio, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2011)
Cyrille Aimee + Friends, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2011)
Spike Wilner, Solo Piano Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2011)
Ben Wolfe Quintet, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2011)
Planet Jazz , Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010)
Ethan Iverson/Albert "Tootie" Heath/ Ben Street, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010)
Seamus Blake Quintet, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010)
Steve Davis Quintet, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010)
Peter Bernstein Quartet, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010)
Kevin Hays Trio, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010)
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