Coda Magazine / Sept-Oct 2005    
Smalls Records
Nate Dorward

Mitch Borden’s Smalls jazz club earned a reputation in the 1990s as a hotbed for New York’s jazz talent, especially through its till-dawn jam sessions. It was a place where older, little-celebrated players like Frank Hewitt, Gil Coggins, Charles Davis, John Mosca, and Harry Whitaker crossed paths with a younger generation. Some of the younger players – Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, Brad Mehldau, Omer Avital, and Greg Tardy, for instance – were snapped up by the major record labels, but many other fine musicians went unsigned. The new Smalls Records label, owned and run by Luke Kaven, a dedicated fan of the club and its musicians, has begun to remedy the situation; the catalogue has already grown to ten releases since the label’s start in 2004.
Much of the buzz around the label has concerned bebop pianist Frank Hewitt (1935-2002). A seasoned veteran of the New York scene, Hewitt played with Coltrane, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday, was at one point part of the Living Theater’s production of The Connection, and was a member of pianist/educator Barry Harris’s coterie. But he remained largely overlooked, despite Smalls’ enthusiastic support (he played there several times a week), and the end was very hard indeed: frequently homeless, he often took refuge in Smalls’ decommissioned walk-in freezer. Legendary figures often shrink to lifesize once recorded evidence surfaces, but the posthumous release of Hewitt’s trio discs We Loved You (SRCD-0001) and Not Afraid to Live (SRCD-0007) confirmed that he was indeed a neglected master, a lyrical visionary of bebop piano in the tradition of Powell, Monk and Elmo Hope. The newest Hewitt release, Four Hundred Saturdays (SRCD-0010), documents one of his regular Saturday-night quintet performances at Smalls. Alto saxophonist Mike Mullins and tenor saxophonist Chris Byars join Hewitt’s usual rhythm section of bassist Ari Roland and drummer Jimmy Lovelace; though Mullins is somewhat uneven, Byars turns in an exceptional performance: elegant, hardswinging, full of “how’d he do that?” harmonic moves. Across four long tracks – “Lullaby in Rhythm,” “Blue Gardenia,” “Oblivion,” and “Manteca” – the music at times virtually levitates. (Byars is also co-leader of Across 7 Street, whose Made in New York [SRCD-0002] was reviewed in Coda 320.)
Other releases have focussed on younger players. William Ash’s The Phoenix (SRCD-0006) is a classic Wes Montgomery-style guitar trio: no surprises here, but Ash inhabits the style so strongly that the results are a small gem. Drummer Ari Hoenig’s The Painter (SRCD-0004) is a live date featuring pianist Jean-Michel Pilc: his keyboard-swamping virtuosity is fun but overbearing, and the real reason to hear the disc is Hoenig, whose freakish ability to play melodies on the drumkit gets an impressive showing on “Summertime.” The Darkling Thrush (SRCD-0005) is a showcase for the young vocalist Sasha Dobson. She’s a likeable singer though still not quite there yet; the greatest attraction is again Chris Byars, who arranged the charts and leads the eight-piece band. Saxophonist Ned Goold’s The Flows (SRCD-0003) is a scrapbook of live trio performances; it’s difficult music, but Goold’s Rubik’s Cube harmonic approach and crisp Charlie Rouse-influenced playing make this one of strongest items in the catalogue.
The most intriguing recent Smalls releases are two idiosyncratic debut albums. Pianist Sacha Perry is a remarkable composer, his dark-but-jaunty sensibility recalling Herbie Nichols. The tunes on Perry’s trio disc Eretik (SRCD-0009) seem perpetually to head in several directions at once, as if saying, “when you come to a fork, take it!” As a soloist he’s lyrical and curiously meticulous, as if patiently threading a line through the tune’s labyrinth. He relies too heavily at times on a few favourite stock phrases, but that’s the only blemish on an exceptional disc.
Neal Caine’s Backstabber’s Ball (SRCD-0008) has a slightly offbeat lineup: a two-tenor front-line of Ned Goold and Stephen Riley, Caine’s deep-toned bass (he plays unamplified), and Jason Marsalis’s unobtrusively ingenious drumming. Caine and Goold recently visited Toronto to perform with Quintet Sperandei: discussing this album, Caine remarked, “a lot of times ‘loud’ and ‘busy’ are mistaken for ‘hip’ and ‘energetic.’ And really it’s more about creating space and having a whole texture of emotions and feelings from soft to loud.” The hushed dynamics, lack of a harmony instrument, and spare, eloquent compositions suggest the classic Gerry Mulligan quartets, but the album resists pigeonholing: it’s gentle, emotionally open music, balanced between folksong honesty and bubbling wit. For all its discreetness, the music can be genuinely ecstatic. Of the current Smalls catalogue, this is the strongest of the non-Hewitt releases, and it’s among the year’s best jazz albums so far.