Smalls Jazz Club is in the eighth year of its most recent incarnation as a bastion of uncompromising jazz in New York City. A couple of blocks down 7th Avenue from the Village Vanguard, a couple up from The Garage, it is in a part of Greenwich Village that may be as close as we’re going to see to a 21st century equivalent of the 52nd Street of the 1940s and ‘50s. In addition to presenting established musicians—Jimmy Cobb, Ethan Iverson, Jeremy Pelt and Peter Bernstein, among others—Smalls’ primary resuscitator, the pianist Spike Wilner, seeks out rising young players. Tonight, for instance, guitarist Avi Rothbard, tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and bassist Spencer Murphy will lead successive groups, with Murphy playing after hours until the unspecified closing time.
Smalls produces CDs and live video performances streamed on the internet. Among the 40 CDs in its Live At Smalls catalog are three recent ones by Johnny O’Neal, David Berkman and Frank Lacy, all recorded at the club.
O’Neal is a Detroit pianist who made a splash in New York in the 1980s, then was largely unheard from for a couple of decades until his comeback in 2010. Self-taught, he is often mentioned as having technique that compares with Art Tatum’s, although there are no overt Tatum references in his CD. What grabs the listener as O’Neal’s Live At Smalls recording opens is his grainy singing of “The More I See You,” impeccable in swing and intonation. Elsewhere in the album, his vocal performances are less even. It’s O’Neal’s pianism that carries the day. The album includes a delicious exercise in dynamic variety and keyboard touch on “Blues For Sale,” an intriguing version of Walter Davis’s “Uranus,” a reflective unaccompanied “Goodbye,” and energetic compatibility with bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Charles Goold in a medley of Roberta Flack’s “Where is the Love” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” O’Neal’s fierceness and execution are absolute in his solo on Billy Pierce’s “Sudan Blue.” Wilner acquits himself nicely as he sits in on piano to accompany O’Neal’s vocal and to solo on “Tea For Two.” O’Neal wraps up with “Let The Good Times Roll,” a title that sums up the collegial feeling of the album and his connection with the audience. O’Neal was featured in a recent New York Times profile.
Pianist David Berkman’s album for Smalls has the recognition advantage of featuring trumpeter Tom Harrell as a sideman, but it’s not Harrell’s star quality that accounts for the group’s success. It is Berkman’s musicianship and the interaction that he, Harrell bassist Ed Howard and drummer Jonathan Blake achieve. On the trio piece “For Kenny,” Berkman’s fluidity, energy and harmonic intensity make it clear that this relatively unknown Clevelander who teaches at Queens College in New York is in the top tier of contemporary pianists. His compositions “Ghost Wife” and “Small Wooden Housekeeper” are demanding vehicles that stimulate Harrell to intriguing, and frequently witty, harmonic solutions. Berkman and Harrell make their unaccompanied duet on “Body and Soul” an intimate conversation that Harrell seasons by working a quote from “The Gypsy,” of all things, into a place where it might not be reasonably expected to fit. It is refreshing to hear a contemporary group bring bebop verve to John Lewis’s “Milestones” and lace it with new harmonic daring.
Trombonist Lacy is one of the most flamboyant practicioners on an instrument that lends itself to blowsiness, but in his Smalls CD he is relatively restrained at the helm of a sextet of bright young New Yorkers. That is not to say that Lacy doesn’t burst forth with keenly placed blurts and blats, as in his harmonically rich “Spirit Monitor,” but at times he is downright lyrical. His colleagues in the front line are tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard and trumpeter Josh Evans, both impressive for enthusiasm and command of their instruments. Dillard switches to soprano sax for an exotic, chancy solo on “Spirit Monitor.” Reaching high enough that he occasionally shows a bit of strain, Evans nonetheless manages logic and continuity in his flow of ideas on “Carolyn’s Dance,” which features Lacy’s granular voice in the passionate lyric to his love song. The rhythm section is Theo Hill, piano; Rashaan Carter, bass; and Kush Abadey, drums. According to the evidence here, Abadey is a listening drummer who designs accents and off-beats in reaction to the ideas of the soloists. In his solo on Joe Bonner’s “Sunbath,” Lacy manages to meld impressions of desperation and self-assuredness, after which Hill, unfazed by the contradiction, constructs a piano solo of quiet serenity. Without succumbing to crass imitation, Evans evokes Freddie Hubbard on Hubbard’s “The Intrepid Fox.”