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.
Bernstein’s disc is an understated triumph too. A solo electric guitar set and the only one of the bunch that is not a band outing, Bernstein’s Live at Smalls explores standards only, including two each by Thelonious Monk (“Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Pannonica”) and John Coltrane (“Giant Steps,” “Wise One”). Amiable but not slick, the guitarist’s playing is a portrait of good taste. His approach is also wonderfully grounded: some chords, some runs, some low notes, some magic. That’s it. Nothing fussy. Nothing inhuman. The music is what counts.
The other three releases, all quartet dates featuring a piano trio plus one horn, are only marginally less exciting than the LPs by Bernstein and O’Neal; they’re worth your time too. Green’s hit-with Joe Sanders on bass, Luis Perdomo on piano and Seamus Blake on tenor sax-is smoky and strong, and, of all the albums, relies most heavily on compositions by the leader. (To be fair, only the Green and Berkman albums include originals.) Berkman’s date, with Ed Howard on bass, Johnathan Blake on drums and Tom Harrell on trumpet, is beautiful and loose, and marked by its leader’s impressive piano, not to mention a memorable duo performance of “Body and Soul” from Harrell and Berkman. And Hamilton’s Live at Smalls, with pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Chuck Riggs, will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face, from the gospelly “Shake It, Don’t Break It” to a soulful “The Nearness of You.” There are no duds among these five recordings.
Some of the best moments on these albums are the surprises, the things you don’t see coming-like when Bernstein delivers an arrangement of “Giant Steps” that could almost be a different composition. Or when, during the mysterious “Ghost Wife,” Berkman and company plunge into free jazz. In a tradition as defined as straight-ahead jazz, the unexpected is always welcome.