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Big Jazz on SmallsLIVE

Bob Kenselaar By

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"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.

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