Three CDs from the Live at Smalls Jazz Series

by | Jan 15, 2011 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Three CDs from the Live at Smalls Jazz Series

Smalls Jazz Club has been a New York institution for creative jazz, where avant and jazz more approachable to the general jazz audience merge. It has been open for sixteen years, but has been run for the last three years by Spike Wilner. Wilner has started the label, smallsLIVE, to showcase largely New York-based creative jazz talent, in the intimate setting of the club.

Eleven releases launched the label and a diverse roster of talent has been presented ranging from an Ethan Iverson trio, a collaboration between ace guitarist Peter Bernstein and legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb; and sets by noted artists Jim Rotondi, David Kikoski, Seamus Blake, trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s quintet, and a Steve Davis Quintet featuring  pianist Larry Willis.

This review will feature releases from Jimmy Greene’s Quartet; bassist Ben Wolfe’s Quintet; and Israeli bassist Omer Avital’s Quintet:

Jimmy Greene Quartet – SL 0012, 62:47 ****:

(Jimmy Greene – saxophone; Xavier Davis, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drum)

Saxophonist Jimmy Greene has made rapid progress on the jazz scene. Beginning in his mid-teens studying with Jackie McLean at the Jazz Collective and then following up with McLean at the Hartt College of Music, Jimmy made quick inroads and soon began recording for the RCA and Criss Cross labels. Honing his craft at all night sessions at Smalls facilitated his progress.

Recorded in mid-February, 2010, at Smalls, Jimmy is joined by pianist Xavier Davis, who backed Jimmy in 2004 on the Criss Cross issue, Forever. Davis recorded with bassist Okegwo on Ugonna’s 2004 CD, Universe. Anchoring the rhythm section is Gregory Hutchinson. Greg has recorded with Roy Hargrove, Eric Reed, and Christian McBride, so he certainly does not need any introduction.
The six tracks on this CD are all Greene originals except for Monk’s “Ugly Beauty.” Almost every track is extended and leaves room for all the band members to stretch out, especially Greene.

“Sense of Urgency” opens the CD and the title is appropriate as Xavier opens with a repetitive line for Greene to expand. Jimmy covers the full spectrum of his horn and digs in for some passionate blowing while Hutchinson propels the beat to a frenetic pace. Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” is a ballad which shows Greene’s lyrical side. I heard a little of McLean’s influence here from Jimmy as Jackie had a special way with ballads combining beauty with an acidic edge.

“Soul Music” brings a sweet blend between the band with Xavier Davis comping behind Greene, and Hutchinson’s use of percussion bringing a world music influence. “Self Portrait #1” was a personal favorite of mine as I dug the bluesy vibe the band lays down. “Home” also continues the mellow groove with Xavier Davis’ glistening right hand runs.

For fans of both Greene’s wide range and those that can appreciate the intimate setting of a tight quartet in front of an appreciative audience, this CD comes highly recommended.

TrackList: Sense of Urgency, Ugly Beauty, Soul Music, Self Portrait #1, Home, Bloomfield

Ben Wolfe Quintet – SL 0015, 61:15 ****/2:

(Ben Wolfe, bass; Marcus Strickland, tenor sax; Ryan Kisor, trumpet; Luis Perdomo, piano; Gregory Hutchinson, drums)

As a sideman Ben Wolfe has been very prolific, having recorded with Harry Connick, Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, among others. But Wolfe is also a busy composer and band leader for MaxJazz. Marcus Strickland, Luis Perdomo, and Gregory Hutchinson were onboard on 2008’s No Strangers Here.

For Wolfe’s May 25-26, 2010 concerts at Smalls, he wrote all the tunes. Wolfe has a talent for writing challenging but swinging numbers and whether composing for a larger congregation or a quintet, he writes with a swing feel always at the forefront.  Right out of the box, “Block 11” features sparkling piano by Perdomo and a tenor/ trumpet blend that blends seamlessly. “For the Great Sonny Clark” has the sweet Blue Note feel down cold with the horn blend, and a catchy melody. Wolfe’s solo is meaty and rich. When Kisor kicks in with his warm solo, all is right with the world. (My kind of track.)

“Telescope” again has that head-nodding groove that has to be experienced live. “Unjust” gives time for all band members to say their piece starting with Hutchinson, then opening up for Wolfe, then Strickland, and back for an extended bass solo. Wolfe’s playing is so rock solid that it easy to understand the caliber of musicians he draws into his bands.

“I’ll Know You More” is a gorgeous ballad written for Strickland. “Double Czech” has a brooding nourish quality and an air of mystery that is intriguing. “Coleman’s Cab” lets the band’s leader set an introspective tone for the horns and pianist Perdomo to expand upon as the energy gets ratcheted up. “The Trade” lets the horns sit out while Wolfe and Hutchinson  have a brief conversation.

TrackList: Block 11, For the Great Sonny Clark, Telescope, Contraption, Unjust, I’ll Know You More, Double Czech, Coleman’s Cab, The Trade

Omer Avital Quintet – SL 0014, 71:04 ****:

(Omer Avital, bass; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Jason Lindner, piano; Joel Frahm, tenor sax; Johnathan Blake, drums)

“Theme for a Brighter Future” opens Avital’s April, 2010, Small’s two day sessions with a upbeat New Orleanish blues driven atmosphere. Avishai Cohen shines and makes his upcoming Portland Jazz Festival visit with his siblings an anticipated event. “Magic Carpet” finds pianist Lindner setting a sensitive opening before the horns take off on an “outside” tear.

“Bass Intro” is a Avital solo that gives an introduction to his talents. “Anthem to Life” is enthralling and inspiring and also brings to mind a NOLA visit. “Blues for Tardy” is an old school blues-blowing session and here again Avishai shows he can hold his own with American contemporaries. Joel Frahm and Johnathan Blake have strong statements as well.

“D-Bass” is another testament to Avital’s skills as the band lays out to let Omer strut his stuff. "(..Just Some) Small Time Shit” has a lot in common with “Anthem to Life” and “Theme For a Brighter Future” as the quintet cooks on the front burner with another catchy groove.

TrackList: Theme for a Brighter Future, Magic Carpet, One, Bass Intro, Anthem to Life, Blues for Tardy, D-Bass, (..Just Some) Small Time Shit

Lots of creativity going on at Smalls in the Village. Add it to your Big Apple jazz experience…

— Jeff Krow

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