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Big Jazz on SmallsLIVE

Bob Kenselaar By

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Since its launch in 2010, the SmallsLIVE record label has been offering a substantial sampling of the outstanding jazz talent consistently featured at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City's Greenwich Village. Musicians who appear on the label range from the great veterans Harold Mabern and Jimmy Cobb to contemporary players at the top of their careers like Larry Goldings and Roy Hargrove, not to mention a mainstay of the Smalls scene: up-and-coming young musicians quickly making names for themselves, such as Dezron Douglas and Marcus Strickland.

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 drums—a 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 musicians—two 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."


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