Live at Smalls
Smalls opened 16 years ago in Greenwich Village as a tiny jazz cellar without a liquor license. For a $10 cover you could listen until dawn. There have been closures, remodelings and ownership changes over the years. Smalls has not exactly gone corporate, but the cover charge has gone up, it now has a bar, and probably no one sleeps in the cooler as Frank Hewitt used to do.
The new smallsLIVE label is now up to 16 titles. It should not be confused with Luke Kaven’s Smalls Records, the label that grew out of the original Smalls and made some classic albums there, like Hewitt’s Out of the Clear Black Sky and Omer Avital’s Room to Grow. The new label has not yet released anything as important as the best stuff on Smalls Records, but these three new releases are worthwhile, especially the Jimmy Greene.
The owner of Smalls, Spike Wilner, is also a pianist, with a blocky, eccentric style rooted in the distant past. He offers credible, slightly updated revivals of Scott Joplin (“Elite Syncopations”), Willie “The Lion” Smith (“Echoes of Spring”) and James P. Johnson (“Snowy Morning Blues”). When most jazz pianists play “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or “I Can’t Get Started,” it is to reimagine them in terms of modern relativities and ambiguities. Wilner inverts the procedure and makes them sound older than they are.
The very best thing about the smalls-LIVE series is how these recordings recreate the visceral experience of Smalls, the hang itself. Engineer (and celebrated jazz photographer) Jimmy Katz comes up close on every instrument—appropriate for a club with 60 seats—but also lets in the applause, the tinkling glasses, the night air. One caveat: The fades of applause and announcements are unfortunate production decisions. They interfere with the fantasy that you are there.