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Big Jazz on SmallsLIVE

Bob Kenselaar By

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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." Tyler Mitchell Live at SmallsThe 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."

David Schnitter Live at SmallsWilner 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.

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