Back in the 90s the club was a crucial incubator of young talent, especially recent graduates of the then-fledgling jazz program at the New School: Peter Bernstein, Sam Yahel, and Brad Mehldau, among them. Skyrocketing rents and tougher building-code enforcement eventually led original owner Mitch Borden to shut it down in 2002. A couple of years later a new owner reopened it as Ipanema Bar, but the new venture struggled, and in 2007 the pianist Spike Wilner—one of the early New School regulars—ended up buying the place and reclaiming the Smalls name; the club returned as the spot for young up-and-comers working in the straight-ahead vein, and it was Wilner that got the live-recording thing happening. (Another label simply called Smalls has released both studio and live recordings by many of the club's regular talent, from Omer Avital to Harold O'Neal, but the imprint isn't formally affiliated with the venue).
Wilner has released more than 30 titles on his imprint since it started in 2008. The CD packaging is clean and attractive, just like the music captured inside. The recordings are clear and balanced, but there are no bells and whistles; these are straight-up live recordings, but nearly everything the imprint has put out has been nothing less than solid, if not fantastic. I've never been to the club, but from all accounts it's the kind of cozy, casual spot where players can feel comfortable, and it always sounds that way on these recordings, but nothing I've heard sounds phoned-in. Among the leaders who've made recordings for the imprint: guitarists Bernstein and Lage Lund, saxophonists Joel Frahm, Jesse Davis, and Jimmy Greene, and pianists Ethan Iverson, Kevin Hays, and Bruce Barth. These bands are sharp and inspired, and the live energy and onstage rapport feels palpable. Two recent titles make excellent cases in point.
Live at Smalls from the young bassist Dezron Douglas is typical in its excellence and aesthetic. The quintet has strong connections to the hard bop of the 50s, particularly groups led by pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. The stuff doesn't push the envelope stylistically—this is New York's jazz mainstream, but boy does it sound great. The frontline includes tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard (who often goes much further out when he plays with the trio Tarbaby), the impressive young trumpeter Josh Evans, drummer Willie Jones III, and pianist David Bryant (not to be confused with Boston pianist Dave Bryant). The recording complements three strong originals by Douglas with one by Bryant and some hard-bop nuggets penned by Barry Harris and Gigi Gryce, and once you come to terms with the fact that the group is using a familiar language, you take note not just of a jaw-dropping fluency, but of the kind of fiery interaction and musical prodding that can allow hard bop to sound as fresh and exciting as anything out there. Below you can check out the Douglas tune "Power of One."
Mitchell is a Chicago native who came up studying with Donald Rafael Garrett and Malachi Favors, and cut his teeth playing behind Von Freeman. His father was the great mural painter Mitchell Caton (the subject of the heartfelt ballad "Caton," included here), a jazz lover who was friends with folks like John Coltrane and Max Roach. He left town in 1984 for New York and went on to tour and record with Taylor, Sun Ra, singers Jon Hendricks and Shirley Horn, and saxophonist Steve Grossman, among others. He moved to Mexico in 2000, but recently returned to New York, and since then he's been making the scene at Smalls. Below you can check out the burner "Take It With Me."
Annelie Gahl and Klaus Lang, John Cage: Melodies & Harmonies (Col Legno)
Fino Coletivo, Copacabana (Oi Música)
Dr. John, Gris-Gris (Atco)
Ricardo Ray y Bobby Cruz, El Bestial Sonido (Vaya/Fania)
Brian Settles Central Union, Secret Handshake (Engine)