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Label Profile : Smalls Records

For nine years between 1994 and 2003, Smalls served as a base of operations for a close-knit group of musicians anchored in bop. A veritable scene within itself, some musicians went so far as to sleep at the club when they could find nowhere else to stay. Owner Mitch Borden, after having to shut down Smalls, has moved his activities to the Fat Cat. I've never been to either location, but I can imagine that both are much like any jazz venue across the world run for the love of the music, whether in a basement, an attic, on a main street or down a back alley.

For years, erstwhile philosophy student and now Smalls Records owner/producer Luke Kaven recorded shows at Smalls for free, as a favor towards the musicians. At the same time, he saw labels come in and cherry-pick the most promising and marketable players. Deciding that he wanted things done right, Kaven created his own label in order to best serve the interests of the musicians affiliated with Smalls and help bring to light others unjustly neglected. Smalls Records has recently released its first batch of four CDs.

For Kaven, "jazz began as an eclectic music, and the bebop period represents one of the zeniths of its refinement, characterized by brilliant melodic and harmonic progressions, woven together with great poetic force". Thus, his vision for the label is to promote "talented jazz artists being neglected for the reason that, if nothing else, they are too jazz and too good for popular tastes". Fighting words, not always backed up by the music. These albums share not only dark packaging, but also a slightly gubby sound, which sacrifices clarity for atmosphere.

As a label dedicated to unearthing hidden talent, it is at once fitting and tragic that the first Smalls Records release should be by pianist Frank Hewitt. Described by Kaven as "without a doubt the master amongst us", Hewitt did not live to see the release of his first record as leader. Following in the spirit of this release, 76-year-old pianist George Ziskind will have his own debut out on Smalls later this year.

Frank Hewitt was born in 1935 and you can hear in his music the result of growing up with bebop and swing. Archie Shepp has an album and composition entitled "I Know About the Life" and the same could be said about Hewitt: The toll time has exacted upon him is plainly, almost painfully, audible. Granted, it is difficult to totally separate the music from the image conjured up by Hewitt's personal history and the quietly somber cover photo, but there is a sense that he embodies a street-wise kind of jazz that has largely disappeared, one that has nothing to do with the hip-hop beats currently used to signify "from the streets" status. Chords are presented unceremoniously; gracefully stumbling lines are interrupted by sudden, Art Tatum-esque upward scrambles, the whole being always suffused with a great sense of nostalgia, loss and tenderness behind the timeworn exterior. His ballad playing is at once tough and sentimental, sharing Monk's ability to make the saccharine sound subversive.

My only reservations are with the sequencing, which makes the album top-heavy with not very distinguishable ballads, and the repetitiveness of the arrangements (or rather, the lack thereof). Practically all tracks follow a piano intro-theme-piano solo-arco bass solo-theme format. Two drum solos, a piano-bass duet and the absence of a bass solo on the last track are the only deviations from the norm. As drummers Jimmy Lovelace and Danny Rosenfeld are both discreet throughout, the surface of the music tends to become numbingly even. Further, Ari Roland's omnipresent arco solos might be an acquired taste: They are rhythmically fantastic, with horn-like phrasing, but his sound is often whiny and grating and his attack harsh (and the same can be said of his soloing with Across 7 Street). Yet, the joy to be gleaned from Hewitt's playing far outweighs these limitations.

According to Kaven, Hewitt, at his last recording session, was overheard saying, "I'm not afraid to die. I'm not afraid to LIVE either. A lot of people are afraid to live." It's that lack of anxiety and fulfillment of desire—in a word, urgency—that can be heard on the closing, stunning performance of "Cherokee". Contrary to his deceptively sedate ballad playing, Hewitt lets loose here, manhandling the well-known theme over a sleek uptempo accompaniment. In a way, what at first seemed to be a rather forbidding sequencing is turned into a very slow build-up to this moment, as hints of the freedom Hewitt seizes here are dropped more and more forcefully throughout the album. While the pianist seemed almost to excuse himself for his earlier abstract lines, playing them softly and letting them be almost overwhelmed by his left hand comping, there are no apologies on "Cherokee": He puts it all on the line for the listener, a transcendent finish. The cover carries the tantalizing "Volume 1" label; let us hope that this promise does not remain unfulfilled.

Across 7 Street consists of Chris Byars on saxophone, John Mosca on trombone, Sacha Perry on piano, Ari Roland on bass and Danny Rosenfeld on drums. This group held the Sunday night slot at Smalls for many years, developing an original repertoire and an easy, extremely non-competitive rapport. The 12 originals (writing duties are shared by Roland, Byars and Perry) are unadulterated bebop and are given tight, rigorous readings.

Sobriety, teamwork and craftsmanship seem to be Across 7 Street's guiding principles, so much so that the album could have been called For Listeners Only, rather than Made in New York. Byars has a warm tone and laid-back phrasing that make him the most emotionally extroverted player of the quintet. His relationship with the retiring, blurry-toned Mosca is a finely-dosed one: Their unison lines allow for both a total blending of the two instruments or a subtle lead to be taken by either horn, while the contrapuntal writing of Byars' "Apollo 7" is expertly handled.

While Rosenfeld provides an indefatigably upbeat presence, there is a depressing grimness about the album, which the less than crystal-clear audio contributes to. Everything seems small-scale, a feeling highlighted by Byars' technically minded liner notes: In describing the ballad "Once", he speaks of Roland's audacious note choices, yet surely Wayne Shorter legitimized the beautifully dissonant ballad in the 1960s? And what of the main violin melody of Mercer Ellington's "Moon Mist", back in 1942? While sentimentality can often veer into kitsch, here the general lack of sentiment weighs heavy. This is probably due in part to overstuffing: While most tracks are less than six minutes long, all musicians solo on all tracks, meaning that statements are often cut off arbitrarily, as is Perry's interestingly jerky playing on "St. Francis' Dimes", without being allowed to unfold naturally. I really wonder about the lack of feature tunes that would have given one musician at a time the space to develop his ideas at leisure.

These characteristics (grimness, small-scaleness, excessive rigor and non-competitiveness) culminate in a general, unfortunate, lack of urgency: The question of "why play this?" receives no intuitive answer. With Frank Hewitt, the answer is obvious, immediate. Here, though, there is no sense of the collective pushing the individual (or vice-versa) or of the musicians needing to play something beyond what Byars has written about in his liner notes.

There are, however, more than a few rays of sunshine: Byars' "Back in the Cosmos" and Perry's "Need I Say More?" are happy, radiant outbursts of song, while the saxophonist's "Adriatic Sea" contains a few welcome surprises. While the album is bottom-heavy with similar mid-tempos, it ends with its only out-and-out ballad, a needed dose of lushness and delicacy.

Ari Hoenig's quartet on The Painter is an international bunch comprised of his regular associate, the French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc (the two first met at Smalls), Guadeloupean saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and New Zealander Matt Penman on bass. Compared to the other three Smalls Records releases, this one is positively volcanic and also less central to the label's stated mission, as Hoenig and the three others are far from "neglected musicians". This is an album that fans of the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio's athletic, percussive, virtuosic-but-don't-you-know-it music will not want to miss (and, conversely, that its detractors will want to give a wide berth).

The set opens and closes with a standard, the melodies of which are first stated by Hoenig with toms and mallets: Monk's "I Mean You" benefits from thrillingly wild-eyed reprises of its theme and trademark Pilc trio arrangement tricks, such as sudden unison lines during improvised passages, while Gershwin's "Summertime" suffers from every phrase of Pilc's solo becoming an epic statement, giving its 16 minutes a bloated feel. Amusingly, as Hoenig plays the head to end the piece, Pilc sounds a final low note, as if to say, "Yes, the drummer is in tune." The melodic approach Hoenig displays on the two standards is unfortunately mostly absent from the rest of the album, except perhaps in the orchestral richness he achieves in his solo on "I Mean You".

The rest of The Painter is made up of five Hoenig originals and a collaboration with Schwarz-Bart. Hoenig likes to take simple material, wring it through extensive group improvisation (but without losing the initial theme from sight, as on the title track) and, even for putative ballads, make sure that the rhythm section is laying down a muscular beat. Several tunes recall Miles Davis' Second Quintet: For "Pilc-ing Around", a single line is repeated endlessly on saxophone or piano, as the rest of the group swirls dramatically around it; "For Tracey" is a slow, suspended 6/8 ballad whose feeling is contained as much in the melody as in the moan of a rubbed drum head. Further, Hoenig's sudden eruptions out of a swing rhythm are extensions of Tony Williams's playing.

A different approach is taken on "Remembering", a poppish ballad that sounds closer to a Keith Jarrett/Jan Garbarek collaboration. Here as elsewhere, Schwarz-Bart's contribution is a wistfulness that tempers the trio's unbridled athletic playfulness. A more forceful saxophonist would likely have led to overkill.

Ned Goold's The Flows is the most cerebral of this initial Smalls Records batch. It was recorded in various locations as Goold's trio opened for a Harry Connick, Jr. tour (Goold is, or was, Connick's artistic director). As an improviser, Goold likes to execute complex figures at low altitude. So much so that at times he seems to fuse Sonny Rollins with a very subdued Eric Dolphy, producing quasi-mumbling. He also shares Sonny Rollins' appreciation for reworking corny tunes (what else could "Heigh Ho, the Gang's All Here" be?) and even writes one of his own: "Fell Harvest" always seems on the verge of turning into the Benny Hill theme. Yet, this is followed by Edsol's stunning, graceful loops and counter-loops. Another original, "Whatness of Allhorse", begins with lines as twisted as the title that suddenly unfurl into more linear and bluesy playing. Generally, The Flows makes the listener work hard for its rewards, too hard for this writer. I wonder what the Connick fans made of it.