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Smalls Live, A New Jazz Label Founded By Smalls Jazz Club Owner Spike Wilner, Captures The Essence Of New York's Storied Jazz Club On Disc

SOURCE: Published:
Smalls Live Features Five Upcoming Releases By Jimmy Greene, Ari Hoenig, Omer Avital, Ben Wolfe and Wilner, Available on October 12

With the launch of its new record label, Smalls Live, Smalls Jazz Club throws open its doors, inviting a worldwide audience into the intimate confines of the Greenwich Village club.

Since it opened in 1993, Smalls has become a hothouse for modern jazz, where up-and-coming musicians can hone their craft before an enthusiastic crowd, and veteran artists can stretch out in front of an audience full of attentive and discerning ears. As Ethan Iverson, pianist of the irreverent trio The Bad Plus, writes in the liner notes to his Smalls Live release with bassist Ben Street and legendary drummer Albert Tootie Heath, Smalls is “not a concert venue: It's a club, a hang, and a jam session every night... Everyone (meaning: not too many, since it's tiny) can hear every note. It's hard not to order a drink. If you want to try to learn how to play jazz, work at Smalls."

The goal of the Smalls Live releases is to capture every aspect of that experience (except for the drinks, which CD buyers will have to provide themselves). “We have this very unique environment called Smalls Jazz Club where night after night you have unbelievable artists performing," says club owner Spike Wilner, “and my goal is to preserve that and get it out to the world so people can hear it and appreciate it."

The label launched with an initial batch of eleven releases which represent the diversity and quality of artists associated with Smalls. These include the Iverson/Street/Heath trio's playful and wide-ranging explorations of jazz standards; pianist Kevin Hays' cerebral fusion of jazz, gospel, and 20th-century classical influences; the cross-generational collaboration of guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Jimmy Cobb; the relaxed simmer of trumpeter Jim Rotondi's quintet; drummer Neal Smith's assertive swing; pianist David Kikoski's trio digging deep on an expansively interactive set; a collection of scintillating originals by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake; a laid-back, upbeat evening with trumpeter Ryan Kisor's quintet; a taut, focused workout by trombonist Steve Davis' quintet featuring pianist Larry Willis; the funky, party atmosphere conjured by tenor saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, who has collaborated with modern-day soul songbirds Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse; and a reunion of the band Planet Jazz in tribute to its late founder, drummer Johnny Ellis, which includes Wilner in his role as pianist.

Each CD is simply titled Live at Smalls and features similarly striking black and white photographs of the artists. Each disc is generally the result of a two or three-night run, after which the artist is free to choose the best selection for their album. The second wave of release already planned includes discs by saxophonist Jimmy Greene, drummer Ari Hoenig, bassists Omer Avital and Ben Wolfe, and a solo piano recording by Wilner himself.

The Smalls Live label is the latest and most visible result of the ongoing effort to retain the best qualities of a classic jazz club while taking advantage of new opportunities offered by modern technology. In the three years that he's owned the 16-year-old hotspot, Wilner has posted an online archive of virtually every performance at Smalls, available for free on its website, www.smallsjazzclub.com. In addition, each night's show is streamed live, translating into 40-50,000 listeners per month—not bad for a sixty-seat club.

“We've already got an international reputation among jazz musicians," Wilner says, “but the audio archive and the video stream have increased our visibility and become a resource for musicians to discover new artists or hear the artists that they love. It's creating a buzz internationally and we're really reaching a very broad audience."

Along with raising the profile of Smalls Jazz Club, the archive is rapidly becoming an important resource for the documentation of the modern jazz scene, which Wilner sees as an important outgrowth of the site and the label. “It's a mission more than a business. We're trying to preserve the music for as long as we can. I don't know how long Smalls will last, but I want to make sure that when it does finally go, there is a legacy left behind for future historians. I think about a place like Birdland or the Three Deuces—what would it have been like if we had the kind of equipment that we have today, where we could record everything? If we had two solid years of Charlie Parker, can you imagine how that would affect our perception of jazz?"

As a musician himself, capturing the spontaneity and electricity of live jazz music is a crucial goal for Wilner in launching the label. “My favorite jazz records are the live ones," he says, citing classic sessions like Sonny Rollins' A Night at the Village Vanguard and Miles Davis' In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk. “These are the best records because that's when you really hear the artists stretching. The studio is a contrived environment for a jazz artist. So I'm trying to offer people the experience of hearing live jazz in a true jazz environment."

But rather than simply being a collection of music recorded at Smalls, the Smalls Live discs strive to recreate the atmosphere of the club by capturing the environment along with the music itself—a factor that many live albums try desperately to eliminate.

“One of the stars of the show is Smalls itself," Wilner says. “The sound of the room is remarkable, and we want people to have the experience of being in the club, to hear the applause, the cash register ringing, glasses tinkling, announcements. We're not a studio label. We're going for a Saturday night at Smalls, where it's packed, the waitresses are trying to get by with drinks, the artists are up on the stage joking around. That's live jazz. That's Smalls Jazz Club."

For additional information on Smalls Live, please visit our website.


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