Big Jazz on SmallsLIVE

Bob Kenselaar By

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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."

Cyrille Aimee and Friends Live at SmallsThe 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 do—the mixing, mastering and post production—but 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 system—audio and video—not 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 sold—I 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 content—subscriptions, 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."

Peter Bernstein Live at SmallsThe 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."
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