Big on Smalls

Eric J. Iannelli By

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Smalls (aka Fat Cat in its present incarnation) was one of many New York jazz clubs engendered following the repeal of lingering Prohibition-era laws in 1988. Like so many of the peculiar ordinances that persist on the books all over the U.S. – take, for instance, the Alabama legislation declaring it illegal to wear a fake moustache that incites laughter in church – these capped, among other things, the number of musicians able to gather in one place at a given time. Mitchell Borden, a man after Alfred Lion's own heart, greeted the abolition of these antediluvian diktats with nothing less than exuberance. He had long been eager to establish a centre for the NYC jazz community, enabling the musicians and their music to thrive. Now, more than ten years later, Borden's club has founded a record label (run by one Luke Kaven) to bring its regular performers to a wider audience.

Frank Hewitt

We Loved You

The first two consecutive albums to be released on the fledgling label are stunners, plain and simple. Number one is the late Frank Hewitt’s We Loved You: The first volume of historic recordings of the late master jazz pianist , a disc that is no less than breathtaking in its intelligence and beauty. Nowadays raised eyebrows are in order whenever someone is called a “master” anything. But Hewitt, a twice-weekly Smalls performer who passed away before this CD was pressed, is surely deserving of the title.

Why? His style is playful, brooding – not at all dissimilar to Bill Evans’; but, as producer Luke Kaven’s liner notes expertly point out, the classically-trained Hewitt’s individual gift lay in improvising a fresh intro to each song (his sets were also determined on the fly) and then developing that original verse thematically throughout the piece. You need look no further than the opener, “Ghost of a Chance,” at once as simple and melodic as a folk tune, rich and multifaceted as a symphony. Of course, these recorded versions don’t allow us to marvel at Hewitt’s invention of brand new takes night after night. Yet they do give us a sense of the brilliant interplay between Hewitt and his regular trio: bassist Ari Roland, drummers Jimmy Lovelace and Danny Rosenfeld. Listen to the subtle swing of Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You.” What is it if not the sound of a single dynamic instrument?

If nothing else, We Loved You will belatedly relieve Hewitt of his anonymity. The rest of his posthumous recordings can’t come fast enough. When they do arrive, however, it’s unlikely that you will have finished exploring all that We Loved You contains.

Across 7 Street

Made in New York

Hewitt’s bassist, Ari Roland, must be the most common entry in the Smalls payroll, because he also co-leads the ensemble Across 7 Street (in which Danny Rosenfeld also performs), the club’s Sunday evening mainstay. The album Made in New York features all original compositions from three of the five members, though there is something remarkably familiar about each tune. Chris Byars, the group’s tenor saxophonist, writes in his description of pianist Sacha Perry’s bop chart “You Think So?” that it’s based on “a set of chords you’ve never heard before but thought you had.” (Byars reinforces this idea by paraphrasing the final verse of “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” during his solo.) This could easily apply to the whole album.

Nevertheless, the familiarity of Made in New York does not imply that it’s hackneyed stuff. Quite the opposite. This is music that operates in a well-established idiom without sacrificing one whit of inventiveness – proof, in other words, that there is still a long and vibrant life in traditional melodic jazz. Roland’s “Having Tea with Swamp Thing,” whose title threatens to reveal a cacophonic, too-postmodern-for-its-own-good foray into the realm of the avant, is in fact a delicately swinging number with an imperceptibly (and intentionally) fractured rhythmic pattern. The rest of the tunes on the disc are, from a technical standpoint, equally intricate, and from an audience standpoint, supremely listenable. Thus Made in New York is as rewarding for the person just discovering jazz as it is for the seasoned – even jaded – musician.

There are currently four Smalls Records discs, two of which – Ned Goold Trio’s The Flows and Ari Hoenig’s The Painter (with Jean-Michel Pilc) – I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing. If they are half as good as the two under review here, this will be a label to watch in 2004 and beyond. For the skeptics, the Smalls website offers a fine sampling of full MP3s from albums in the present and anticipated catalogue. Stop there first. Then buy.

Visit Smalls Records on the Web.

Album details:

Frank Hewitt

We Loved You

Track Listing: 1. Ghost of a Chance 2. Polka Dots and Moonbeams 3. That Ole Devil Called Love 4. I Remember You 5. I'll Remember April 6. Lady Bird 7. Frank's Blues 8. Cherokee

Personnel: Frank Hewitt (piano), Ari Roland (bass), Jimmy Lovelace (drums,1-5),Danny Rosenfeld (drums, 6-8)

Across 7 Street

Made in New York

Track Listing: 1. You Think So? 2. Having Tea with Swamp Thing 3. Apollo 7 4. St. Francis' Dimes 5. Sundial 6. We'll See 7. Back in the Cosmos 8. One for D.T. 9. Need I Say More? 10. Eleven Later 11. Adriatic Sea 12. Once

Personnel: Chris Byars (tenor sax), John Mosca (trombone), Sacha Perry (piano), Ari Roland (bass), Danny Rosenfeld (drums)

AAJ CD Review
Ari Hoenig's The Painter (Smalls)

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