The SmallsLIVE label is unique. It started up in 2010 and already has 31 titles. It exists to document one particular venue, scene and culture: Smalls, at 183 West 10th in Greenwich Village. This tiny, humble basement dive is the nerve center for New Millennium Bop. You don’t go to Smalls to hear radical experimentation; you go to hear bop warriors young and old play all the current permutations of their genre. The energy of the Smalls scene proves that bop, when it is astute, passionate and personal, is an inexhaustible musical language. SmallsLIVE recordings put you smack in the middle of the communal Smalls hang, the musicians in your face, the crowd up against you.
Tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, without apology, loves the old tunes, and plays them with fresh, hip intelligence. Every song sounds optimized when portrayed in Stewart’s large, looming, luminous tenor tone. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “The Meaning of the Blues” and “Mr. Lucky” are lovingly sketched, but with a free hand. Stewart flows away and reshapes them, but his suave, graceful new forms contain each song’s essence. He has made several excellent studio albums on the Sharp Nine label. His SmallsLIVE release proves that he is an equally elegant, unflappable improviser in a sweaty, funky jazz joint. Stewart’s pianist, Tardo Hammer, is a bulletproof bop master. He continuously inserts revelatory content, like his counter-melody in chords on “Get Out of Town.”
David Schnitter plays gruff, amiable, rough-and-tumble tenor in the great Jazz Messengers tradition. (He was the longest-standing member of Art Blakey’s band.) He is capable of examining every derivative of his own “Drone Tone” for 17 minutes, and deconstructing “Star Eyes” for 15 minutes, while sustaining not only energy but conceptual lucidity. This long-winded improviser sometimes writes buttoned-up tunes and offers them in tight, clean versions, like “Portrait” and “Freeway.” His most intriguing composition is “Squeamish.” Schnitter and pianist Spike Wilner, spilling and seething, create a persuasive musical representation of uncertainty and duress. There are two deeply felt vocals by Schnitter’s wife, Marti Mabin, who swoops up and down and all around “Peace” and “Soul Eyes.”
Bassists who compose lead the last two albums. Dezron Douglas writes subtle, intricate lines like “The Puppet” and “Power of One.” Tyler Mitchell writes classic, declamatory bop anthems like “A Time Called Now.” Both leaders create high-energy musical environments for the purpose of kicking their strong sidemen loose. Josh Evans plays trumpet on both albums. Compared to the two fire-breathing tenors (Stacy Dillard with Douglas, Abraham Burton with Mitchell), Evans sounds understated. Whereas Dillard and Burton are bulls in the Smalls china shop, Evans sneaks up on ideas from the side. He plays cryptic, minimalist code on Gigi Gryce’s “Minority,” which also contains Dillard’s best moments. On soprano saxophone, Dillard gushes so wildly he sounds overdubbed, but isn’t. Burton does not break new ground but scorches the earth of the old ground. From a relatively measured start on Mitchell’s “Caton,” he ascends to long climactic calls and trills of catharsis.
Wilner, one of the owners of Smalls, hired himself for the Schnitter and Mitchell recordings. Sometimes such self-indulgence is justified: Wilner is a rhapsodic soloist, a provocative accompanist and provides Mitchell with the best original composition on these four albums, the haunting, mysterious “La Tendresse.”