Classic live albums recorded at legendary clubs are a vital part of jazz history. To name but a few, the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard, Birdland, and the Half Note all have timeless records associated with them. Once labels like Blue Note, Impulse, Riverside, and Prestige released these albums, but recently a new trend has been developing. A few years ago the Greenwich Village nightspot Smalls Jazz Club began recording and releasing performances that took place inside its walls. Recently another New York jazz club has launched its own label, Smoke Sessions (smokesessionsrecords.com). Located on the Upper West Side, Smoke Jazz & Supper-Club Lounge opened in 1999 after replacing Augie’s Jazz Bar. When I talked to the owner of Smoke, Paul Stache, he made the label sound like a natural outgrowth of what was already happening. “Having run Smoke for 15 years, I’ve had a front row seat to phenomenal talent on a nightly basis,” he explained. “I would record some shows for the musicians so they had reference tapes, and some shows were recorded for other labels.” So what inspired him to take the next step and form his own record company? “The main reason was encouragement by the musicians,” he explained. “They said the room sounds great, so why not start a label?”
An intimate and acoustically impressive club, Smoke seats about 50 people. Thus far most of the Smoke Sessions recordings have taken place in front of a live audience (one benefited from the room’s acoustics, but no crowd was present). Along with releasing everything on CD, Smoke Sessions recently began issuing high-res downloads on HDtracks. The music on the label represents the kind of undiluted jazz that sounds best in a club, evoking the aura of the venue and of Manhattan nightlife. The lineups offer a microcosm of the NYC jazz scene in general, mixing younger and older musicians and better-and lesser-known names.
It also bears mentioning that the Smoke Sessions crew is passionate about sound. The recording equipment for the label includes Rupert Neve-designed mixing consoles, Studer mastering decks, and Manley tube equalization. Grammy-winner Roman Klun mixes and masters the releases. I’ve been impressed by the sound of Smoke Sessions releases, which combine the full-bodied intimacy of jazz studio recordings with the energy of live shows.
Band leaders for the first stack of Smoke Sessions releases include two veteran drummers with experience in legendary lineups. Jimmy Cobb’s resume includes work with Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Wes. The younger players Cobb performs with on The Original Mob (Peter Bernstein, guitar; Brad Mehldau, piano; John Webber, bass) are all ex-students/ bandmates reuniting with a mentor. The music here is understated, tasteful, melodic, and colorful. Drummers have been known to overplay as bandleaders, but Cobb keeps things fluid instead of grabbing the spotlight. All four members contribute originals, and the highlight may be the performance of Mehldau’s “Unrequited,” an intriguing minor-key composition that never quite resolves; the pianist has also recorded it with Pat Metheny.
Drummer Louis Hayes appeared on some classic sessions with Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, and Oscar Peterson. He’s also a veteran bandleader who’s not afraid to try some new things. “I’ve had groups with trumpet and saxophone out front a lot of different times,” Hayes says in the liner notes to Return of the Jazz Communicators. “I wanted another sound.” He found it when he paired Abraham Burton’s tenor saxophone with Steve Nelson’s vibes, a combination that lends an impressionistic haze to the music.
All it takes is a few bars of “Elation,” the opening track of Vincent Herring’s The Uptown Shuffle, to tell that his quartet smokes. Herring’s insistent alto work leads the charge, followed by a Cyrus Chestnut piano solo that’s equally fervent and edgy. Other highlights include a warm reading of “Tenderly” and Chestnut’s bluesy “Uptown Shuffle.” On Midnight Melodies Chestnut heads a piano trio whose ballad-oriented set list includes the Billy Strayhorn compositions “Chelsea Bridge” and “U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group).” I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more restrained version of “Bags’ Groove”—and it works. The trio saves the fireworks for a breakneck version of “Giant Steps” and then slows things down again for the poignant John Hicks composition, “Naima’s Love Song.”
I’m also fond of the album by Harold Mabern, whose discography includes some classic Prestige sides. The veteran pianist shines on the trio session Right on Time, where he breathes new life into such standards as “Seven Steps to Heaven,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Charade.” Early in the set, when he dips into Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” his soulful phrasing inspires the kind of audience reaction you’d expect from an encore. The response seems to catch Mabern by surprise, and the spontaneity of that reaction—like all these Smoke Sessions releases—gets to the heart of what jazz is all about.