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David Berkman: Live at Smalls

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The five releases covered in this review-albums from pianist David Berkman, guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Rodney Green, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and singer-pianist Johnny O’Neal-were all recorded at the New York club Smalls in 2012 or 2013, all put out on the venue’s SmallsLIVE label and all given the title Live at Smalls. But what really makes them similar is the idea that each one delivers Just Jazz. There are no rappers or string quartets on these records, you know? Just Jazz. That’s the way it is at Smalls and that’s the way it is on all of these CDs. And though most of the albums and about half of the tracks are too long-Just Jazz!-it’s a beautiful thing. Concepts are great, but so is performance.

The best of the lot is O’Neal’s, on which the singer-pianist leads a trio featuring bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Charles Goold. (Pianist Spike Wilner, who manages the club, sits in on “Tea for Two.”) The threesome’s way with the swing groove, a beast that, in the wrong hands, can feel tired and monotonous, is free and light here, and the leader’s soulful, worn-in voice is comforting. The highlight of the disc is an uplifting instrumental medley of the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway duet “Where Is the Love” with Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” The former tune glides and sashays at midtempo before dropping into a brisk Latin take on the latter. At the beginning of “Overjoyed,” O’Neal goes into a quick speech that ends with “I’m just having fun with all these great songs.” “Fun” seems like a good way to sum up O’Neal’s Live at Smalls.

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