Smoke, one of New York City’s most intimate hardcore jazz clubs, is the latest venue to branch out into the album industry. The organization hasn’t wasted time either, dropping Smoke Sessions’ first six discs before 2014 reaches its mid-point. All were recorded at the club, although one was made without a live audience present. The sound quality on all of these discs captures the intimacy of the 50-seat room, and feels rich without adding any production trappings. Each disc comes in a foldout digipak with excellent photography by Jimmy Katz. Inside, the liner notes bypass clichés and fawning, opting instead for sharp interviews with the bandleaders.
Pianist Harold Mabern has always been a gifted soloist who pushes his ideas forward with heavy chords. Right on Time reveals his knack for discovering material way off the jazz path. He turns the disco hit “Dance With Me” into a McCoy Tyner-esque show of force. Divested of Laverne and Shirley’s comedic mugging, that duo’s TV theme, “Making Our Dreams Come True,” reveals a strong melody ripe for Mabern’s solo. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” becomes a slow blues that, understandably, draws a joyous shout from the audience. With longtime triomates John Webber (bass) and Joe Farnsworth (drums) in tow, Mabern makes it all sound new.
On The Uptown Shuffle alto saxophonist Vincent Herring leads a quartet featuring Farnsworth, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and bassist Brandi Disterheft. Herring’s connection to Cannonball Adderley-stints with brother Nat’s band and the Cannonball Legacy Band-is readily apparent in his tasty phrasing and tone, smooth yet tough. Two Herring originals and one Chestnut sit next to standards like “Tenderly,” “Love Walked In” and “Strike Up the Band.” The players catch fire during the solos, but the themes of the tunes are a little rote, and it sometimes takes a while for the sparks to shoot.
Javon Jackson begins his set with Wayne Shorter’s “One by One,” which was originally played by the Jazz Messengers. The quartet reflects the Blakey group’s attack, especially with the thunder created by drummer McClenty Hunter. But Jackson’s tenor solo and Orrin Evans’ piano take the song beyond a simple homage. Between solid originals by Jackson, he also gives a solid swing to Roberta Flack’s “Where Is the Love?” and Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” The latter’s chorus has a delicious descending riff that was made for this music, and Jackson fully exploits it. Evans-in his first-ever outing with Jackson-Hunter and bassist Corcoran Holt drive the music expertly throughout.
Pianist David Hazeltine’s For All We Know is another saxophone-with-rhythm-section session, but it’s by no means mechanical. In fact, Seamus Blake immediately sets the bar high during “Et Cedra” by unraveling deep, marathon melodic ideas. Hazeltine does the same in the theme of “Pooh,” the second of three tunes written in tribute to pianist Cedar Walton. The title track follows as a reflection on Walton’s passing, and it triumphs-nearly 12 emotional minutes without any maudlin feelings. “Eddie Harris” salutes the saxophonist with a funky groove and a rapid Blake solo that captures its namesake’s spirit.
Drummer Louis Hayes revives the Jazz Communicators name of a 1967 group he led, but this one forgoes the standard two-horns frontline in favor of vibes (Steve Nelson) and tenor (Abraham Burton). Pianist David Bryant and dynamic bassist Dezron Douglas complete the lineup, for a set that combines originals with standards and solid compositions by peers. Bryant, Douglas and Hayes feel in-the-pocket from the get-go, and their comrades shine, especially the thoughtful Nelson, who makes “Lush Life” sound brand new.
Jimmy Cobb also looks back on bygone days by reuniting with guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist John Webber, all of whom he met two decades ago while teaching at the New School in New York. Time has merely strengthened their rapport, and everyone contributes originals, including the leader, whose writing skills are on par with his abilities behind the kit. This latest addition to the Smoke Sessions series might be the strongest yet.