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Rick Germanson Quartet: Live at Smalls

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SmallsLIVE was designed to offer listeners without easy access to the Greenwich Village club the opportunity to experience the atmosphere without the travel expenses. Pianist Rick Germanson fully embraces that mission, offering a rough-hewn, feel-over-finesse set of hard bop that will have you getting up off your couch to head for the bar. The quartet leaps right in with Bobby Timmons’ “So Tired,” driven by the propulsively grooving rhythm section of bassist Paul Gill and drummer Lewis Nash and highlighted by Dr. Eddie Henderson’s gutsy solo. Somehow the chattering and glasses-clinking crowd enhances the feeling of relaxed camaraderie on “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” with Germanson playfully goading Henderson during the trumpeter’s muted solo before spinning his own variations on the familiar melody. That alternation of the blazing and the blissful is maintained throughout, as when the yearning “Shorter Waltz” is followed by the dark-cloud ferocity of “Interloper.”

Where Germanson’s set has the energy of a primetime set, saxophonist Jesse Davis’ quintet date feels more like an after-hours session, Davis’ raw-throated alto presiding over a less explosive but more playful, loose-limbed program. There’s plenty of space for all involved to stretch out on the disc’s five tunes, none shorter than 10 minutes. The leader blows a scything blues through “I’ll Close My Eyes” before picking up the pace with the jaunty, Bird-tinged original “Piece of the Apple,” kept aloft on drummer Billy Drummond’s boiling-point rhythmic outbursts. Following a closing-time intro by pianist Spike Wilner, trumpeter Ryan Kisor moans the melody of “Body and Soul,” Peter Washington’s bass offering an eloquent shoulder to cry on. Washington bows in duet with Davis’ keening alto to open the melancholy “Pray Thee/Beyond the Storm,” before the disc closes with the sleek “Journey From the Lighthouse,” featuring a convivial, urbane solo by Wilner.

Saxophonist Ralph Lalama opts for the strolling trio format for his smoldering outing. The audience intrudes far less on this disc, appropriate for an intimate, conversational set that finds Lalama, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Clifford Barbaro bantering on a half-dozen standards and originals. The disc begins abruptly with Wayne Shorter’s “Lester Left Town,” Lalama’s husky, deep-toned tenor setting the tone for the program to come. Unlike many a pianoless trio, the leader doesn’t grab the opportunity to flex his every muscle, aiming for expression over athleticism. He whispers sly insinuations over the rhythm section’s skulking on “Mean What You Say,” and unfurls melodic quips on his own “Da-Lamma’s Da-Lemma.” The album ends on the joyous, tropical-flavored celebration of “Wonderful, Wonderful.”

A set led by the young Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund ramps up the edginess, proving that Smalls continues to be an incubator for state-of-the-art improvised music. His disc consists entirely of originals, harmonically rich and evocative. “Strangely” opens the disc with an air of mystery, Lund’s guitar haze clearing to reveal Ben Street’s pulsating bass and Marcus Gilmore’s crashing rhythmic tides. The intersecting lines of Lund and pianist Pete Rende dodge the stop-start rhythms on “Circus Island,” a cheerily disjointed feel that Rende unsnarls in his solo. Rende also provides a ruminative, lyrical solo introduction to “Soliloquy,” a ballad that shows off Lund’s weightless fluidity. The quartet revisits the big top on closer “Circus Blues,” whose kaleidoscopic head gives way to an agile blues solo by Lund and a crisp, steely back-and-forth between Street and Gilmore. Ultimately, even if the compositions reflect a more modern outlook here than on the other three releases, all four eventually arrive at the same place: ebullient musicianship, interacting in a welcoming setting. That’s Smalls, in person or on record.

Originally Published