Located at West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, Smalls Jazz Club has hosted concerts in a small basement room since 1994. Since 2007 Smalls has been recording and archiving all its performances, and in 2011 it began including live streaming and posting video archives that can be accessed at smallslive.com. Smalls has also launched a record label, SmallsLive, which has released 55 CDs to date; the recordings are also available as HD or mp3 digital downloads. SmallsLive CD covers feature a stylish aesthetic that merges black-and-white photographs of live jazz performances with colored graphics, giving the covers an “old-school” look. That sense of jazz history is also reflected in the music, as the SmallsLive catalog is mostly in the long-established hard bop/post-bop idiom.
Many of the musicians who appear on the SmallsLive label are established players who have performed at larger venues, and part of the appeal of both the club and the label is the opportunity to hear world-class players in an intimate setting. Typically SmallsLive albums feature small-group sessions, with lots of quartet and quintet dates. The catalog includes recordings led by such veterans as Harold Mabern, Johnny O’Neal, Seamus Blake, and Peter Bernstein. With sidemen as well-known as Jeremy Pelt, Chris Potter, and the late Mulgrew Miller, SmallsLive serves as a reminder that, in the mercurial world of jazz, you can never predict who will be in the next lineup and how enticing that grouping will be. The inside of each CD states, “SmallsLive is dedicated to the idea that jazz is best heard in a live context with minimal editing captured in the full spontaneous moment in which it was created.” The simplicity and directness of that approach seems especially well-suited to jazz.
Some standout SmallsLive CDs include a 2009 date led by drummer Neal Smith, in which Mulgrew Miller shows his mastery during a rousing 15-minute version of the traditional hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Bassist Dezron Douglas’ album features a fresh take on Barry Harris’ “Bish Bash Bop” and a hip arrangement of Gigi Gryce’s “Minority.” On the 2014 CD headed by tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, the swing stylist influenced by “pre-boppers” Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster performs “The Nearness of You,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and other standards.
If I had to choose a favorite SmallsLive release, it would be the 2014 album featuring trombonist/vocalist Frank Lacy and the Smalls Legacy Band. An exciting, versatile performer, Lacy has performed and recorded with groups headed by Art Blakey, Bobby Watson, Lester Bowie, and Henry Threadgill, but his recordings as a leader are few and far between. One of my favorite compositions, George Cables’ “Think on Me,” is played faster than usual, giving it added urgency. Charles Fambrough’s “Alicia” is transformed from a slow samba to a medium up swinger. A burning version of Freddie Hubbard’s “The Intrepid Fox” concludes this CD as Lacy, Dillard, and trumpeter Josh Evans successfully negotiate the complex melody.
Mezzrow is a companion club located close to Smalls, and the most recent SmallsLive discs include the first Live At Mezzrow CD, a duo of standards and jazz classics from pianist Tardo Hammer and bassist Peter Washington. Also, the label recently put out its first studio recording, A Set of Originals, with pianist Spike Wilner and the SmallsLive All Stars. In addition, there’s a new live-at-Smalls session courtesy of saxophonist Nick Hempton with his Trio Stonk. To paraphrase Hempton’s liner notes, he scrapped the compositions he planned to record, dropped the piano player, and went back to the basics of “swing, blues and melody.” On “Droppin’ A Franklin” he even plays a second solo over the changes to “A Night In Tunisia” and after a drum interlude goes down home on “A Whistlin’ Blues.” Fans of well-recorded and good, honest, straight-ahead jazz should definitely check out the SmallsLive label.