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.