Planet Jazz at Smalls

David A. Orthmann By

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Planet Jazz
New York, NY
May 28, 2006

In March of 2005, I caught Planet Jazz at Smalls, just a couple of weeks after the reopening of Mitch Borden's legendary bastion of straight-ahead sounds. It was a decidedly casual performance before a sparse audience. The sextet's regular tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart was out of town, Charles Ruggiero substituted for drummer Joe Strasser, and pianist Spike Wilner hurried in from another gig for the start of the second set. Although guitarist Peter Bernstein and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli played some first-rate solos, as a whole the performance was a mere notch or two above a jam session.

Fourteen months later on the eve of Memorial Day, the band (including bassist Neil Miner) was fully intact, well organized, and played with genuine esprit de corps. The date was a celebration of In Orbit, their superb disc released several days before on Sharp Nine Records. This time all of the club's seats were filled and a couple of dozen people stood in the back of the room.

They opened a ninety minute set with "A Bee Has Two Brains, a medium tempo swinger written by the late Johnny Ellis, the band's founder. Never sounding hurried, Magnarelli's solo connected related phrases and benefited from Wilner's active comping. Stewart displayed a nice broad sound as he deftly shuffled elements of varying complexity. Bernstein juxtaposed single note lines and chordal passages while calmly positioning himself between Wilner's intense chords and Strasser's melodic-sounding fills. Evincing a two-handed attack, Wilner's note choices were lucid and fun to listen to.

Bernstein's "Simple and Sad moved between a section featuring his guitar and a melody played by the horns. His solo featured subtle blues touches and some brief high note flourishes. Showing off a substantial vocabulary of sounds that were structured very tightly, Stewart hit on one jarring sequence of hard-nosed triplets before moving to more relaxed combinations. Wilner adroitly juggled various elements, including clipped sixteenth note runs that gradually became more relaxed. Bernstein comped behind Magnarelli, who moved in and out of the higher register, then hit some choice plump notes.

The band's rendition of Ellis' gracefully flowing "The Lemer is a Dreamer, one of the highlights of In Orbit, included a couple of melodic strains and three tempos. Magnarelli played the opening and closing somewhat less formally than on the record. Grant Stewart took an exhilarating solo over the rhythm section's up-tempo, his lines alternatively taut and relaxed at short intervals.

Spike Wilner played the introduction to his arrangement of the standard "The Lamp Is Low, with Stasser's heaving bass drum and Latin-oriented cymbal rhythms leading the charge. As always the pianist's solo offered something familiar to hang onto in the midst of plenty. He took one fragment and shifted it around, contrasted chords and high note clusters, then finished with a quote from the tune's melody. Magnarelli's lines were like patterns of speech. He repeated variations of a four note phrase, paused here and there, and then (like Wilner) offered a song quote. In one long advance, Strasser moved between easily recognizable patterns and jumbles of strokes; toward the end his bass drum sounded off in a constant, underlying buzz.

Bernstein's solo was the highlight of a rendition of "Dawn on the Desert modeled on a version by The John Kirby Sextet. After a reflective beginning, a series of long fluid lines turned convoluted and obstinate. He struck pairs of notes up and down the instrument, bore down on some chords, and eased into a pleasant conclusion.

The band closed the set with "Righty-O, another one of Ellis' compositions. As Strasser responded to every nuance, Wilner's pristine bop-oriented expressions sang and sighed. Allowing every phrase enough time to make an impact, Stewart didn't let the fast tempo hurry his thoughts. He skimmed over the rhythm section as well as worked off of their pulse. Strasser traded eights and fours with the band. On one particularly dazzling break he picked up on one of Wilner's voicings and ran with it.

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