This week Smalls jazz club is launching a record label featuring live performances from the New York City hotspot. The first batch of releases from Smalls Live includes sessions led by Seamus Blake, Peter Bernstein, Ethan Iverson, Jim Rotundi, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Steve Davis, Dave Kikoski, Neal Smith, Ryan Kisor and Planet Jazz. With a few exceptions, the music is modern hard-driving post-bop – blowing sessions of the first order. The albums, all with the same title of Live at Smalls feature a consistent graphic look with the names of the sidemen prominently displayed on the cover.
Club owner and label founder Spike Wilner says that what you see is what you get. “The unique thing about Smalls Live is that it’s a live performance label,” he explains. “We don’t do any studio recordings whatsoever. Everything is done at the club.”
There’s no question that the club itself has a unique place in the jazz scene. Ethan Iverson, the pianist from the Bad Plus and a longtime denizen of the club, wrote about the club’s unique vibe in the liner notes to his Live at Smalls album with Albert “Tootie” Heath and Ben Street: “Part of the jazz tradition is intimate informality. That’s why Smalls is so important to New York City music. It’s not a concert venue: It’s a club, a joint, a hang, and a jam session every night. The piano exhibits serious wear and tear and the house kit has all the right sizes and tunings for acoustic music. Everyone (meaning: not too many, since it’s tiny) can hear every note. It’s hard not to order a drink. If you want to try to learn to play jazz, work at Smalls.”
Wilner sees the label as offering artists and listeners something different from what’s out there, thanks in no small part to that vibe and the position of the club as a fulcrum in the New York City jazz scene. Despite the challenges with starting a record label in this economic climate and razed retail field, Wilner feels that this step was almost pre-ordained. “The label is a natural extension of what we’re doing here,” says Wilner. “It made sense. I’ve developed this audio archive and the live video archive. I have an opportunity with Smalls to really put together a catalog that will be the envy of almost every other label around. It’s easy for us to just book some quality name jazz artists. They come in because it’s so comfortable. And we just record everything over a period of two days, then let the musicians choose their sidemen. It’s a real musician-oriented label. They have full creative control over what gets played. They choose the cuts. They just deliver it to me their choices and we master it after that and do the art and we put it out.
Lest it sound that Wilner has a polyanna view of the troubled record industry, he acknowledges that he doesn’t have blinders on about the long-term viability of the CD product format. “I think the CD may be a dead thing. My original conception for Smalls Live was to be all digital, actually. Originally we were thinking about doing the recordings and just making only available through digital download. But then after developing the label over the last year, we decided to go ahead and try a print run.”
Having committed to the hard product at least initially, Wilner is proud of a few of the product wrinkles he’s brought to the label. “We’re using what is called the four-panel eco-pack format, which is an all-paper format, so that there is no plastic involved. What that does is it makes it environmentally friendly and it makes it extremely lightweight. So we store a lot of them in a small place and we can ship them quite easily.”
They’ve already shipped over 20,000 of those lightweight units to their new distributor, Harmonia Mundi, a European classical label who also have an international distribution network, featuring classical, world and jazz titles. “They’re going to be putting them all over Europe, Asia, Australia, Israel, the whole world,” says Wilner. “So we’ll see what happens with the CD sales over the next few years. My goal is like a two year plan. We have a two year contract with them and at the end of the two years I’m going to evaluate where we are. If it seems to make sense to make CDs after that, then we will. And if not, we’ll just go to the all digital format.”
Wilner is stoic about the label’s potential for profitability. “I don’t have any illusions about it. My business model for making a jazz record label is kind of the kamikaze model. Which is I take my airplane and fly it into the ship and die in the process. I don’t have any expectation to make money on this. If I do, it will be a miraculous thing, but I do know that it’s a losing prospect.”
At the same time, Wilner exudes confidence about the label’s unique selling properties, which is marketing lingo for singularity. “What I have as far as unique things that other labels don’t have that I have to take advantage of…for one thing the club itself, Smalls. With our web site, our live video streaming, and our archiving, we’ve got a world audience right now. And a lot of foot traffic. Wherever I go in the world, people know about Smalls. My goal is to make Smalls Live into a brand name in the sense that people, they may know about Dave Kikoski, but because they know Smalls, they’ll take a chance in checking out Dave Kikoski. Rather than try to take one artist and make him into the star, we’re really going to promote the label name itself. And it’s been somewhat successful at this point, because people have been coming on the site, and buying CDs.”
The label is the club is the music is the scene, as Gertrude Stein might say. And that means capturing the unique way music sounds live in a small club that’s very different from a concert hall or recording studio. “The label is more about the club and the experience of the live performance at the club,” confirms Wilner. “We focus on trying to get the club sound. We’re not really trying to go for a studio sound. We’re kind of an anti-studio label. We want to exploit the imperfect quality of the Smalls. We want to incorporate the sound of the crowd. Our goal is to present to a listener the experience of being at that club live for that show. In the context of jazz itself, as far as me as a professional jazz musician, my favorite records are the live ones, like Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard, Miles Davis at the Blackhawk, any Bird record you want to talk about. When you really hear the artist, you hear them doing their live shows. We’re trying to give the most honest document we can of an artist’s performance live. There’s no editing, we don’t do any punches, we don’t do any splicing. What you hear is what you get.”
However, the albums don’t sound like bootleg tapes or recordings done with mics hidden under a cocktail napkin. “We’re very concerned with the audio quality. When we do a project, we’ll book a band that we’re interested in. Then I have an engineer who comes in with a fairly unobtrusive setup. It’s not 16 tracks but it’s really quite discreet. We have someone who does the mixing. And we take it out to Gene Paul’s studio for mastering, the guy who did all the Atlantic records. We have a very strong concern for a high quality product in terms of the audio, but at the same time, we’re not going to go for the studio sound. We’re trying to get away from the ultra clean reverb-heavy sound that you get in the studio. Smalls Jazz club itself is an acoustic room. It’s very close to the Vanguard in terms of its layout and the sound. I really like to hear the sound of this room. What you find is that when musicians play in a comfortable environment like a live club like Smalls, they balance it themselves and they mix it themselves because they know what it’s supposed to sound like. That’s all you have to do is to capture that sound and you’ve got a really good record.”
Technology has certainly been a great asset, with digital recording making it relatively affordable to record performances in the club. “We do everything digital. It’s a matter of getting good quality mikes, getting them placed correctly and then getting a good mix.”
In addition, Wilner relies on input from the artists themselves to make things work. “The artists are hands-on in the mixing process. We bring them to the studio so when it’s time and they give their input about what they like. Like with the club, I try to run the label from the perspective of the musician rather than from anybody else’s perspective. As the producer, I stay out of the way of the creative decisions. I’ll choose which artists get recorded and look for interesting projects. I’m in a good position, because I know who’s who and what the value is. And I also know from Smalls who is popular. I know that if Seamus Blake will come in with Bill Stewart and Dave Kikoski, there is going to be a line out the door. I know that will be a record that will sell. Not just that I’m looking for sales, but it’s just something that strikes a chord with fans.”
The musicians also have control over the selection of the material, which may come from a succession of performances. “What I’ll do is Seamus will record X number of tunes and I’ll give him everything and I’ll say, ‘Hey man, pick 65 minutes for me and that will be the record.’ And that’s what happens.”
Although the club used to be known as one of the first places for a young jazz musician to get a gig, Smalls has evolved into a top-flight jazz room and the label aims to present the very best from that pool of artists. “It’s important that the artists that we record are artists that are known to jazz fans,” explains Wilner. “What I want to do is create a jazz record that a jazz musician, a jaded, bored, grizzly jazz musician would say, ‘I want to hear that.’ I know, for example, that if I do a Kevin Hays trio record with Bill Stewart and Doug Weiss, people are going to want to listen to that.” He must be reading my mail, because indeed that was the first in the initial set of 11 Smalls Live albums that I listened to. Wilner goes on to say that, “I know that Ethan Iverson with Tootie Heath is interesting enough to people who are in the know that they’re going to want to try and check it out.” Wow, nice to know that I am in the know, because that was the second album I listened to. Wilner certainly knows the taste of the jazz aficionado.
It certainly has helped Wilner to be there on the scene, night after night, year after year. “I have an advantage over everyone because I have my club. Guys like Ethan Iverson for example, he approaches me and says, ‘I want to do this project.’ And if it sounds good, we do it. A lot of these artists are approaching me because of the reputation of the club and now they’re starting to hear about the label, they’re interested. I’m very upfront about what the costs are and what our budget is and most of the times the guys are willing to work within our limited budget. They understand the mechanics of the business. We are trying to keep out budget in a range that recovery is possible if we can sell 1,000-2,000 CDs. It’s a matter of keeping the expenses down and the interest level up.”
It seems that many of the artists who got started there still come back to play. Do artists ever get too big for the club? “No, Smalls used to be a place back when it originated when it was such a wild place with college kids drinking that it wasn’t an optimal place for an artist to play. My goal for Smalls for the last few years was to reshape it into a listening room. We’re a little more mature than we were. The experience at Smalls for the artist is extremely positive. The people who come to Smalls now are really there to listen. I think the experience with the artists is that it’s an intimate experience. Even though the money may not be the fee that they’re used to, the lure to playing here is great enough that they can accommodate that. All of the big labels are essentially finished, so there’s a hole left for artists that are looking for a recording contract. What I’m going to try to do in my position over the next few years, if I don’t go completely flat broke, is to collect all the guys that are great or have been great. After awhile who knows what will happen. For the time being, my goal is to publicize the name and fill the catalog up and see what happens.
Wilner is an accomplished musician himself and so you’d have to wonder how adding a record label to his workload might affect his own career. Wilner doesn’t see it as a burden or hindrance at all however. “I’ve been playing professionally for 25 years now in New York City. I’ve done some touring and recording. In one sense, my career has been put on the back burner, but as an artist it’s first and foremost. I practice more than I’ve ever done. I feel stronger at the piano than I’ve ever done. I play at my club. My regular gig is on Sundays. I play sometimes during the week, maybe solo or filling in or sitting in. In a sense I have all I need right here. At Smalls I’m surrounded by the best musicians in the city at all times. I get to play and listen. Artistically, I’m growing in ways that I never could have imagined. Also being in the pressure cooker of being in the driver’s seat at Smalls means that when it’s time to play the piano, I feel I really have to deliver or else I’m opening myself up to some serious criticism. I know I have to maintain a certain level just to justify my street credentials. Not that I care about that.”
He does care about the music and the club, and now the label and sees a bright future for all of it. “Even with the end of the CD era, there’s still going to be a need for recorded music. There’s still a worldwide audience for jazz, even if it’s a small one. That’s what we’re trying to tap into.”