In the three years since its launch, the Live at Smalls series has proven a microcosm not only of the sort of gigs that take place at the Greenwich Village club but of New York’s thriving mainstream jazz scene in general. None of these four new releases, recorded in 2012, push at the edges of the music, but each is a reliably solid listen that adds something of value to its leader’s canon.
Pianist Harold Mabern, at age 77 more than five decades into his career, remains a regular presence at some of the city’s more intimate rooms, often in the company of his trio mates here, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. He’s a remarkably agile and astute player with a penchant for taking on seemingly unlikely repertoire and molding it effortlessly to his easy-rolling postbop style. At this Smalls date, he brings depth and sophistication to Fats Domino’s R&B classic “I’m Walking” while retaining its trademark NOLA swing, and his take on Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” manages to simultaneously straddle dark and edgy and cheerfully upbeat. The Sesame Street theme is utterly transformed into a showcase for the three players, and Erroll Garner’s “Dreaming” is appropriately laconic and contemplative.
Were Will Vinson not such a masterful, commanding altoist, the band on his Live at Smalls set might have overshadowed him: Pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Lage Lund are equally responsible for the constantly shape-shifting melodic direction these seven tracks take, and the rhythm section of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Marcus Gilmore is right alongside to offer support and suggest new wrinkles. On the four Vinson originals, the single tune by Lund and one each from Ellington (a bare and beautiful sax and guitar duet on “Morning Glory”) and Benny Golson, Vinson and quintet repeatedly beguile and surprise: The opening “The Clock Killer” and the following “Star of Greece” couldn’t be further apart in demeanor, the former crisp and crackling, the other unfolding tentatively.
Alex Sipiagin likes his music bold and brash. The shortest piece here by the Russian-born, longtime-NYC-based trumpeter and his quintet of Seamus Blake (tenor saxophone), pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Nate Smith clocks in at 11 minutes, the longest at nearly 20, and any of the five original compositions might have gone on longer without losing steam. Sipiagin is a lyrical and often fiery player whose large-ensemble experience (Gil Evans, Mingus Big Band) predisposes him toward thinking in broad strokes. The epic “Pass” affords Blake, Kikoski and Sipiagin himself ample opportunity to blow hard atop the loping pace created by the rhythm section, and they revel in it until they’ve simply exhausted all available routes.
Finally, there’s Joe Magnarelli’s quartet date, notable not only for the trumpeter’s alternately temperate and fierce solos but because this release, recorded in August 2012, is likely to serve as one of the final live recordings to feature the pianist Mulgrew Miller, who died unexpectedly in May. Miller is featured often and generously, particularly shining on Magnarelli’s “Third Set” and, not surprisingly, setting the tone on Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.” But that’s not to take away from the leader or the rhythm players, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Jason Brown-the four made for a formidable team.