Hard Boppin' at Smalls

Dave Kaufman By

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Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village is a remarkably vibrant music venue that enjoys considerable international renown. It is not the most mannered of clubs with loud and boisterous audiences. Nor is it the most decorous, but does offer a rather distinctive look. The club has a great vibe and is committed to treating its audience to a great and generous music experience. For example, on weekends, the first shows commence at 4 PM and end with jam sessions at 4 AM. I was fortunate to catch the last two sets on a Saturday night beginning at midnight. They featured two tenor titans, Walt Weiskopf and Eric Wyatt. Both have had lengthy and varied careers. Weiskopf is perhaps best known as a touring member of Steely Dan. He also has released numerous CDs as a leader and has distinguished himself as a sideman in multiple contexts. Eric Wyatt has gained international attention (especially in Southeast Asia where he has performed numerous times) as a performer and bandleader. Recently, he was a featured performer at a Sonny Rollins tribute in Purchase, NY (organized by Jon Faddis) along with tenor greats such as Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. Eric will be the subject of a forthcoming Jazz Raconteurs article. Both Weiskopf and Wyatt are formidable saxophonists with pronounced Coltrane/Rollins influences and talents deserving wider recognition. On this occasion, both led quartets with remarkably dynamic rhythm sections.

Weiskopf's Quartet featured Ugonna Okegwo on bass, Peter Zak on piano and Jason Tiemann on drums. The highlight of the show was a great version of "Gates of Madrid," a Weiskopf composition that appeared on his Open Road CD (2014). It has a melodic line similar to the great Blue Note recordings of the 1960s and particularly reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's compositions of that era as C. Andrew Hovan notes in his review of the album. I was unfamiliar with Tieman, but was impressed by his vigorous presence throughout the set.

Wyatt's group included longtime sideman Tyler Mitchell on bass, Bruce Cox on drums and Victor Gould on piano. Eric often features great up-and-coming pianists in his group including Benito Gonzalez (his regular pianist) and Sullivan Fortner. Victor Gould, a regular member of Wallace Roney's group is a dynamic young player of a growing stature and was in great form on this occasion. The group tore the cover off the classic Joe Henderson composition "Inner Urge." The lengthy rendition featured solos by each of the musicians and some notable exchanges between Wyatt and Gould. Another highlight was a beautiful and somewhat up-tempo version of a beautiful ballad by Bobby Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem." Cox and Mitchell played with great exuberance and were clearly having a great time. Their joyousness was infectious.

The photos in this series draws primarily from these performances. I also included several images of great jazz artists who have played Smalls with some regularity in prior years.
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