Smalls Records: Sound Stewardship For US Treasures

Derek Taylor BY

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From trumpeter Bunk Johnson waxing reverential about Buddy Bolden to saxophonist Michael Brecker bowing at the altar of John Coltrane, a strong sense of nostalgia is woven through the history of jazz. The phrase "when giants walked the earth is frequently invoked or implied, and the feeling that the best is already behind us bothers musicians and listeners alike. Label owner and producer Luke Kaven adopts this overly reverential tone when he recounts halcyon memories of New York's Smalls club in the mid to late 1990s. Reading Kaven on the subject is like gaining entry into a secret enclave where improvisatory marvels occur nightly and the obscurity of the musicians-cum-magicians is a product of a wider society in which cultural priorities are egregiously inchoate.

But regardless of Kaven's rose-tinted prose spectacles, and despite the fluctuating fortunes of its club namesake, the music on these discs hits the spot—the Smalls label continues to release some of the finest New York-bred ensemble jazz available. Kaven strikes a welcome balance between archival sets taped during the club's storied years and studio recordings of more recent vintage. His passion for and protective impulses toward the players and their independent-minded art is palpable in every project, from well annotated sleeve notes through high production values and aesthetic integrity.

Such thorough stewardship is a rarity in the music business and Kaven's reasons appear rooted in the awareness that he is preserving distinctly American treasures. The label's latest five releases celebrate several of the Smalls community's stalwarts and sustain a well-earned reputation for tradition-conscious top quality jazz.

Ned Goold
March Of The Malcontents
Smalls Records

Saxophonist Ned Goold's first disc for Smalls comprised a cache of trio performances taped at his employer Harry Connick's gigs. His second, recorded in December 2005, switches the setting to studio and adds Sacha Perry—a pianist mentored by the late Frank Hewitt and deeply in tune with bebop by way of Bud Powell roots—to the equation. It's also apparently the last title to carry the classic Smalls look of pastel scripts in vivid reds, blues and purples against a black backdrop.

At over 76-minutes the generously sequenced program of originals and standards displays Goold's singular saxophonics at length and in detail. Bassist Neal Caine, who routinely seems to channel the musical mien of Wilbur Ware, and Goold's son Charles on drums complete the quartet. Goold's outward resemblance to the late Charlie Rouse in charcoal dry tone and a serpentine style of phrasing can be uncanny. The rhythmic and harmonic complexities of Warne Marsh make for another easy set of dots to connect and Goold also shares a fair bit in common with his label mate Stephen Riley. His 12-tone derived improvisations thread temperately through the tunes, materializing in slippery, sometimes willfully smudged modulations that don't subscribe to predictable harmonic trajectories.

Perry is a master at complementing such expositions with a comping style that accents and punctuates, but doesn't interfere. The younger Goold's rhythms sometimes sound a bit staid by comparison, but he keeps steady snare and cymbal-centered time. Swing in the conventional sense is frequently just an afterthought: these four players are after something far more personal and intimate, sourcing subtle eccentricities that invest each track with reliable replay value.

Sacha Perry
Not Brand X
Smalls Records

Packaged with a title intended to personify Perry's distance from the more commercially minded of his peers, this November 2006 set also exhibits the Smalls look of abstract solid colors and lines. My nostalgic preference is for the earlier design style, but that has nothing to do with the music contained within, which is of customary high caliber. Perry and his partners focus solely on a cache of seven standards, most with provenance dating back the better part of a century. It's a case of old bottles, new wine, however, as the pianist's practiced hands infuse new flavor into the antiquated receptacles.

Perry has a clever habit of stretching a piece beyond its expected harmonic parameters, filling the ensuing space with terpsichorean interjections as on the opening stroll through Gershwin's "Mine. Bassist Ari Roland and drummer Phil Stewart are well accustomed to the pianist's proclivities and they do far more than gird his improvisations with stoic time keeping. Stewart's lithe touch with sticks and brushes propels the pieces without leaving an obfuscating exhaust trail and Roland alternates between emery board arco and a warm walking pizzicato. The string of culminating breaks on the reading of "Love is one of several episodes where the old superlative of improvisatory telepathy seems an apropos ascription.

Perry's also a pro with pedals, elongating notes such that they hang in the air with a reverberating weight. His supple, but dramatic chord voicings on "Brother Can You Spare A Dime? cut to the insolvent connotations of the hackneyed tune and turn it into something new. At well under an hour the program feels just about perfect in length, the players saying just what they want to say and then judiciously closing shop.

Omer Avital Group
Room To Grow
Smalls Records

Charles Mingus seems an easy reference point for bassist Omer Avital's sextet, an improvisatory ensemble that held court at Smalls during the late 1990s and was fortunate to fall under Kaven's recording rubric. A sense of orchestral drama and a sometimes flamenco-tinged attack are traits in common between the two bassists. I also hear affinities to Adam Lane in Avital's embrace of an egalitarian musical ideology that seems open to the complete history of jazz.

Taped in performance at Smalls in early 1997 the three track set presented here stretches to over an hour, but still seems to shuttle by. Avital's "Kentucky Girl occupies a third of that temporal space, but contains just two discrete horn solos, one a fiery fulmination from alto saxophonist Myron Walden, the other a contemplative-to-ecstatic turn from tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy. Both are showstoppers. Avital's bass is a constant rudder, moving from foreground to fringe and sustaining a stabilizing presence with Joe Strasser's dynamic drums that nullifies their outnumbered ratio to the horns. His frequent and felicitous solos evince a guitar-like phrasing and agility and make attractive use of amplification.

Cole Porter's "It's Alright With Me and Coltrane's "26-2 receive atypical readings and Avital invests each with plenty of twists and turns, weaving his febrile bass lines through strings of rapturous reed solos and cunningly reconfiguring the latter standard as a samba-injected march. Walden's unaccompanied improvisation in pole position on the former piece bleeds pathos and his band mates' muted exclamations of approval only add to the semblance of a preacher and pulpit perspective. Statements from tenor saxophonists Charles Owens and Grant Stewart and Tardy (on clarinet) follow, once again parsed by lively interstitial interplay between Avital and Strasser. Perhaps most promising in the wake of listening to this exciting concert date is the realization that Kaven's Avital tape trove is far from tapped out.

Chris Byars
Photos In Black, White And Gray
Smalls Records

Another regular saxophonic satellite in the Smalls orbit, Chris Byars isn't as idiosyncratic or conspicuously challenging as his label colleague Goold, but his career credentials are still quite astounding. Kaven's liners recount his early career as a child operatic prodigy, logging "over a thousand performances around the world before he reached his middle teens.

This studio date, recorded in November 2006, and the first Smalls release to feature him in a small ensemble setting, finds him in the copasetic company of the club's house rhythm section. The quartet runs through a program comprised completely of selections from Byars' songbook, pieces imbued with strong bop flavors that allow for ample solo space. Byars recounts the personal details relating to each composition in his notes, a pithy change of pace from the usual liner strategy of allowing some hired pen to sketch ascriptive assumptions to the origins and meanings of tunes.

Musically, the ensemble is tight and cooperatively attuned, exhibiting the sort of repartee only earned from regular and lengthy sojourns on the bandstand together. Roland's Paul Chambers-reminiscent method of bowing takes a bit of getting used to with its sometimes acerbic pitch slides, but his placement is always on point. Watson is a muscular drummer, even on brushes, and his cross-rhythms blend well with the bassist's rounded and prominent pizzicato. Byars surfs atop the support of his mates with a lithe attack and congenial pacing of melodic line.

Standouts to my ears include the ballad "Safe At Home, a title with both literal and baseball associations, "Riddle Of The Sphinx, scripted in honor of dearly departed drummer Jimmy Lovelace, and the Perry-less trio piece "A.T. that offers a chance to hear Byars' ingenuity in the absence of a defined chordal presence. Byars is one of a salient number in the Smalls fraternity whose discographies are finally catching up with their talent.

Charles Davis
Land Of Dreams
Smalls Records

Saxophonist Charles Davis is among those elders consecrated by Chris Byars as "local talent : players who shaped urban jazz in and around the birth of bebop and have managed to sustain themselves in the decades since. He's probably best known for his sessions with the likes of Sun Ra, Kenny Dorham and others in the Fifties and Sixties, but his work as a leader remains incommensurately small. These tracks were recorded in spring 2006.

Davis' enduring connection to Smalls solidified in a regular Saturday night gig as featured guest of the Frank Hewitt Trio that ran for several years. He seems to have excised baritone saxophone from his arsenal, perhaps a function of that weighty horn's respiratory demands, but his work on tenor and soprano still place him as a contender. The rhythm section represents Davis' working band , in which pianist Tardo Hammer is a particularly potent foil. The session sound is a bit bright and congested, but part of that is the band's barely bridled energy. These four musicians are all about swinging hard and Davis' authoritative tenor readily leads the charge on stout burners like the opening "JC , initials no doubt reflecting musical marrow transplanted from Coltrane. Hammer's effulgent chords recall McCoy Tyner and drummer Jimmy Wormworth handles his kit with an energy and verve evocative of Elvin Jones.

Standards and originals alternate throughout the remainder of the set with Davis making a surprising foray into Herbie Nichols territory via "Some Wandering Bushman along with more predictable Monk and Porter fare. A grafted Latin beat spices up "How Am I To Know? and a lengthy reading of Tad Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now finds Davis reeling off one romance-ready chorus after another against a plush bed of brushes, bass and gilded piano comping. No great departures from his past work arise, but neither are they necessary in the case of a player as rightfully venerated as Davis.

Tracks and Personnel

March Of The Malcontents

Tracks: Boss Borden/Paris Waltz/Goooold/Feeding Off The Host, Part 1/I Never Knew/Lovely To Look At/ March Of The Malcontents/Please/Make Believe/Sour And Ugly/What Is This Thing Called Love?/Thus This.

Personnel: Ned Goold: tenor saxophone; Sacha Perry: piano; Neal Caine: bass; Charles Goold: drums.

Not Brand X

Tracks: Mine/Love/Brother Can You Spare A Dime/Give It Back To The Indians/All God's Chillun Got Rhythm/Get Out Of Town/This Is It.

Personnel: Sacha Perry: piano; Ari Roland: bass; Phil Stewart: drums.

Room To Grow

Tracks: Kentucky Girl/It's Alright With Me/26-2.

Personnel: Omer Avital: bass; Gregory Tardy: tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Myron Walden: alto saxophone; Grant Stewart: tenor saxophone; Charles Owen: tenor saxophone; Joe Strasser: drums.

Photos In Black, White And Gray

Tracks: Aquarian Epoch/Milton/Safe At Home/Acoustic Phenomenon/Manhattan Valley/ Cliff Diving/Riddle Of The Sphinx/A.T.

Personnel: Chris Byars: alto, tenor & soprano saxophones; Sacha Perry: piano; Ari Roland: bass; Andy Watson: drums.

Land Of Dreams

Tracks: JC/Moon Nocturne/How Am I To Know?/If You Could See Me Now/ Love For Sale/Some Wandering Bushmen/Strangeness/We See/Land Of Dreams.

Personnel: Charles Davis: tenor & soprano saxophones; Tardo Hammer: piano; Lee Hudson: bass; Jimmy Wormworth: drums.

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