Four new releases launch hard bop and soul jazz live recordings from New York City’s intimate jazz club – all from established veteran jazz artists that are “keeping the flame lit,” eliciting high smoking jazz on a weekly basis from this esteemed club. Smoke has been a “go-to” destination for approximately fifteen years for fans of largely straight-ahead soulful jazz. It is a small club, just the right size for a special evening for out of town jazz fans, and a regular stop for locals who appreciate the relaxed space for some of the best Big Apple stars either keeping their chops sharp or experimenting with new group combinations, or preparing to release new material.
On a long jazz week in New York several years ago, Smoke was a must stop for me. On most any night, they feature first-call musicians. You will find artists who live in town and enjoy playing a weekly or month gig when not recording, or out of town on tour. You will find Hammond B-3 nights, piano trios, and small groups lead by saxophonists or trumpeters. What is consistent is the fact that you get the opportunity on a week night to hear major talent, something that you’ll find nowhere else in the country. Along with the more well known venues (Blue Note, Village Vanguard, Kitano), Smoke fills an opportunity to meet a spur of the moment urge to get out and get your jazz cravings met.
The club owner’s Frank Christopher and Paul Stache, along with cohort, Damon Smith, have decided to branch out and release recordings from the club (and in the future studio issues) on an initial monthly basis. Combining vintage recording techniques with more state of the art machines, Stache recorded the initial releases, and had them mixed and mastered by Roman Klun. They are available in either compact disc, high-res digital downloads or in limited edition 200 gram vinyl mastered by ace engineer Kevin Gray. For audiophiles it might be a good idea to audition the CD and then follow up by buying your favorites on pristine vinyl.
We’ll begin by reviewing the initial four issues on the label from David Hazeltine, Vincent Herring, Javon Jackson, and Harold Mabern. The Mabern CD is a piano trio, while the other three feature saxophones as lead instrument, or as major accompaniment (David Hazeltine). Joe Farnsworth is the drummer on three of the four initial issues.
David Hazeltine – For All We Know – Smoke Sessions SSR-1405, 72:28 ****:
(David Hazeltine – piano; Seamus Blake – tenor sax; David Williams – bass; Joe Farnsworth – drums)
David Hazeltine has long been one of my favorite contemporary pianists. His recording resume is strong and ranges from solo projects on many labels over the years, as well as being an integral force for the supergroup, One For All (that features Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, and Jim Rotondi).
His ballad playing is top-notch and he excels at tribute concepts (i.e., The Inspiration Suite (on Sharp 9), which honored the Montgomery Brothers. On For All We Know, David expresses his love for Cedar Walton, who passed away last year and whose loss was a significant blow to the jazz community. Eddie Harris, with whom David played many years ago also has a titled track. Accompanying Hazeltine on this recording from last September is bassist David Williams, who backed Walton for many years, as well as Hazeltine’s band mate on One For All, Joe Farnsworth. The talented tenor saxist, Seamus Blake, who is a major player on his own behalf, with several recordings on his own, adds greatly to the mix as a newcomer.
“Et Cedra“, “Pooh“, and “Lord Walton” are the Cedar Walton tribute tracks written by David. The opening track has a polished swing with Seamus keeping the groove in a mainstream setting. Farnsworth is nicely upfront in the mix showing the talents of engineer Roman Klun. As usual, Hazeltine is in fine form with glistening runs, and a gentle yet swinging touch. “Pooh” is solid and in the groove. Blake and Hazeltine blend nicely before David solos backed by simpatico cymbal work by Farnsworth. “Lord Walton” is more up-tempo and features some fine blowing by Seamus.
“Eddie Harris” provides an opportunity for the band to stretch out a bit with a blend of funk that Blake provides that brings Eddie immediately to mind as Seamus digs in and does some free blowing. In addition to these tracks, Hazeltine’s group provides admirable arrangements on the standards, “My Ship,” “For All We Know,” and “Imagination.”
TrackList: Et Cedra, My Ship, Pooh, Lord Walton, For All We Know, Eddie Harris, Cheryl, Imagination, A.D. Bossa
Vincent Herring – The Uptown Shuffle – Smoke Sessions SSR-1403, 68:29 ***½:
(Vincent Herring – alto sax; Cyrus Chestnut – piano; Brandi Disterheft – bass ; Joe Farnsworth – drums)
Vincent Herring is another cat who has paid his dues. After some early studying with Phil Woods, Herring began a long association with Nat Adderley, and later work as a member of Louis Hayes’ Cannonball Legacy Band (I was lucky enough to hear this group at Ronnie Scott’s in London many years ago), as well as a long association with Cedar Walton. On Herring’s new Smoke Sessions CD, The Uptown Shuffle, he honors the jazz tradition in his acknowledgments to Cedar, Nat, John Hicks, Jackie McLean, Mulgrew Miller, Freddie Hubbard, and others. His Smoke session, recorded April 26th and 27th of last year, features the soulful piano of Cyrus Chestnut. The tracklist is a mix of burners, standards, and a piano trio (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”) where Vincent sits out.
What stands out immediately is the passionate playing of Vincent. On many tracks, he takes off with a vengeance and never lets up. Cascades of choruses freely flow with urgency, and his rhythm section is along for the ride. Chestnut is an able accompanist both on the hot numbers and also when he can shine on the standards such as on the Gershwin’s “Love Walked In.” On the ballad, “Tenderly,” Herring shows a welcoming tender touch, and an affinity for the blues. The title track is right up Cyrus’ alley and Herring’s work here will get your head nodding. An intriguing choice, “Strike Up the Band” is taken at a racehorse pace. The closer, Duke Pearson’s “Big Bertha” is a welcome addition, as we get to hear Chestnut’s blues prowess and Vincent’s soulful side.
There’s a little something for everyone here. The nice gatefold jewel case has an insightful interview with Herring and great photos from Jimmy Katz.
TrackList: Elation, Love Walked In, Tenderly, Uptown Shuffle, The Atholete, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Strike Up the Band, Don’t Let It Go, Big Bertha
(Javon Jackson – tenor sax; Orrin Evans – piano; Corcoran Holt – bass – McClenty Hunter – drums)
Perhaps my favorite issue of the initial four Smoke Sessions issues is Javon Jackson’s Expression. It features Javon’s take on some popular recent hits such as Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry About a Thing,” Roberta Flack’s and Donnie Hathaway’s “Where is the Love,” and the classic “When I Fall in Love.” It’s always a fun experience to get nostalgic with a soulful venture into one’s pop favorites.
Wayne Shorter’s “One by One” is instantly recognizable from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s book of classic hits. As a member of one of Art’s final aggregations, Javon learned well from the master. Jackson has developed a bluesy strut that rouses the Smoke crowd from this July 26-27, 2013 live session. This CD is Javon’s first live recording (in over 25 years of recording!), and he feeds off the audience’s enthusiasm here. It’s a great opener for what is to come. Stevie Wonder’s hit follows, and the rising star, pianist Orrin Evans, provides an opening piano solo that had a quality of McCoy Tyner, before Javon steps in blow the familiar chorus. At over nine minutes the quartet can stretch outside the song’s recognizable chorus and head off in new directions.
The next track, “T.J.” was written by Javon for his father, so you know it has special meaning, and must have been a special treat to play live. “When I Fall in Love” is simply divine, played with so much soul it demands an immediate repeat hearing. The audience’s rapturous response validates. Another winner is George Cables’ “Think on Me.” The quartet coalesces in a way that you’d be surprised that they had not played together for years.
“Where is the Love” needs no introduction for those of us that loved Roberta Flack’s and Donny Hathaway’s inimitable version. Jackson’s version brings back fond memories. Javon’s Smoke Sessions CD is one that might be a prospective audiophile LP consideration. It’s that good…
TrackList: One by One, Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing, T.J., When I Fall in Love, Think on Me, Mr. Taylor, Where is the Love, Lelia, Richard’s R.A.P., 88 Strong (Tribute to McCoy Tyner)
(Harold Mabern – piano; John Webber – bass; Joe Farnsworth – drums)
Saving the first Smoke Sessions CD review for last is like awaiting the tasting of a fine brandy. Harold Mabern is one of our last living piano legends. We’ve lost so many piano masters in the last few years, such as Mulgrew Miller and Cedar Walton, that we are blessed that Harold Mabern is still going strong at age 78. His career has been revitalized by living and working in New York City, and being a regular at Smoke.
Harold has played with so many legends since the 1950s till now, that it would likely be easier to point out who has not been graced by his presence. Getting started in Memphis, then Chicago, Mabern initially made his mark by being part of MJT+3, where he made the acquaintance of the great Frank Strozier. Mabern dedicates his Smoke Sessions debut to Phineas Newborn, Jr.
Harold’s song selection on this CD is as varied as his life’s experience. It ranges from the title track, a disco hit, to the theme to the TV show, Laverne and Shirley, a dedication to Lee Morgan (“Edward Lee”), all the way to a bluesy inspiration to his answering machine message (“Blues for Frank ‘n Paul ‘n All”).
The standards are hardly ignored with tracks from Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Hoagy Carmichael, and Henry Mancini. What is immediately evident from his sparkling playing and occasional arpeggios is the fact that Mabern has retained all of his chops, his timing, and his impeccable use of space. Much like Hank Jones, who kept his skills till well into his ‘90s, Mabern makes his renditions a work of art. His affinity for the blues, honed from Memphis, through the Windy City, and arrival in the Big Apple, make his piano playing a treat, whether backing Eric Alexander on a regular basis, or leading a trio backed by the bassist and drummer from One for All.
I love his rendition of “My Favorite Things,” a classic which was made most famous in the jazz idiom by John Coltrane. I eagerly anticipated hearing where Mabern would go with his tribute to Lee Morgan, “Edward Lee,” and found it to be just right with the inquisitiveness and power that one might expect with its inspiration in mind.
Long live Harold Mabern…
TrackList: Dance With Me, Seven Steps to Heaven, Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, My Favorite Things, To You, Edward Lee, Making Our Dreams Come True, Charade, Blues for Frank ‘n’ Paul ‘n’ All, The Nearness of You, Cherokee
—All reviews by Jeff Krow