Smoke Sessions Records is doing it old-school: recording the best musicians in New York playing mainstream jazz that cooks.
Above: Harold Mabern on the cover of Right on Time (2014)
Jazz is a many-headed hydra. Commercial “smooth” jazz is still hanging around, there are the many singers still crooning Gershwin and Jerome kern in restaurants and lounges, there are the free jazz honkers and squealers, the jazz experimenters, Latin jazz orchestras, and hip blends of jazz and R&B, jazz and world music, jazz and just about about anything you can think of.
Where’s the hub of this wheel?
There remains a form of “straight ahead”, supremely cooking jazz that has been the music’s true mainstream since the mid-'50s. On any given night in a good jazz town you can hear a band playing some of this driving, swinging music: the “hard bop” of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the funky, blues-infused grooves of the recently departed Horace Silver, the kind of sound associated with the great Blue Note and Prestige albums of the '60s.
That music is still alive, vital, and in great hands. It ought to have a home not just in jazz clubs but in recordings, too. Even if there’s nothing exactly novel in that well-trod territory, it’s still brilliant art. And a current slice of that art is now thriving on the new label, Smoke Sessions.
Smoke Sessions has released six recordings to date, each one recorded live at the Smoke Jazz and Supper Club in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side on Broadway. Each disc serves up a huge bowl of fiery, soulful, expressive jazz: swinging and explosive drums, fat walking bass lines, ripping improvisations, emotion-soaked ballads, jazz interpretations of popular songs, and unquestionable top-shelf jazz talent. Each record is so good, so assured and intelligent and fun to listen to, you wonder why these kinds of discs haven’t been more plentiful lately.
Two Brilliant Jazz Piano Recordings
Smoke Sessions could not possibly go wrong in leading off with a brand new piano trio recording by the incredibly overlooked, classy, sparkling jazz pianist Harold Mabern. Mabern is one of those masters who never made a breakout recording as leader (though he recorded frequently for Prestige in the late ‘60s and consistently on smaller labels) and who played great dates as a sideman that left him overshadowed. With Gene Ammons, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine (The Sugar Man), Lee Morgan (The Gigilo), Freddie Hubbard (Night of the Cookers), and many others, he was indispensable.
His Smoke Sessions outing is called Right on Time, and it ought to be. John Webber is on bass and Joe Farnsworth (who is the de facto Smoke house bassist, it seems) are with him every step of the way, creating an evening of 11 killer slices of soulful modern jazz.
The song selection is fantastic: they take Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” at a strolling ballad tempo; both “Seven Steps to Heaven” and “My Favorite Things” are played in the manner to which you are familiar, but they are just that much bluesier because Mabern is at the helm; and who would expect a jazz trio version of “Making Our Dreams Come True”, the Laverne & Shirley theme, but darn if it isn’t an amazing Latin/samba that works like a charm.
Mabern is a wise 78 years old, so his ballads, you can bet, are heartfelt. He is playful and feeling with both Thad Jones’s lovely “To You” and the Hoagy Carmichael gem “The Nearness of You”. It’s as good a jazz trio recordings as 2014 is going to hear.
I’m just as enamored with For All We Know, a live session led by pianist David Hazeltine with Seamus Blake on tenor, Cedar Walton’s great bass player, David Williams, on bass, and (again) Joe Farnsworth on drums. Indeed, while this is Hazeltine’s long-standing trio, the date is fashioned as a tribute to the recently passed Walton, clearly a huge influence of the leader.
Though there isn’t a single Walton tune here, it features three Hazeltine originals that are dedicated to or reference Walton’s signature harmonic and rhythmic ideas: “Et Cedra”, “Pooh”, and “Lord Walton”. Additionally, the arrangement of the Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Imagination” is straight from the Cedar Walton playbook, using hip triplet figures in the bass line to turn the ballad into a swinging affair.
Finally, the band plays the classic Walton arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” almost exactly as Walton did. And every note from this band reminds you of why Cedar Walton was not just a great pianist but also a wonderful bandleader — a musician with a particular and compelling idea about how his music should sound. Hazeltine gets a great set of clear, satisfying solos from Blake on tenor, whose sound is winsome and lovely.
Soulful, Smart, Saxophone
The Smoke Sessions certainly love ripe, expressive saxophone. Expression is a live date for Javon Jackson and his quartet with Orrin Evans on piano, Cocoran Holt on bass, and McClenty Hunter on drums. Jackson, of course, was the final tenor saxophonist to play in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and everything he plays swings with that kind of fire. He also played often with Cedar Walton, as well as Freddie Hubbard and many others, including making a run of terrific albums on Blue Note and Palmetto a while back.
The beauty of this band is the balance between Jackson’s soulful shout and the huge presence of Orrin Evans on piano, who rips a series of two-fisted solos that often steal the show. Just as on the classic Blue Notes of the old days, Jackson crafts a set here that balances the American Songbook (“When I Fall in Love”), jazz standards (Wayne Shorter’s “One by One”), originals with drive and personality, and also pop songs turned to jazz purposes (Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” and the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit “Where is the Love?”).
This band is particularly marvelous when it lights the fire under a cycled "out chorus", which happens on both those pop songs, with Jackson worrying a particular phrase that gets in his craw and then the band just pumping coal onto the flame. But it's equally beautiful to hear the simplicity of the Evans/Jackson duet, “Lelia”.
The second sax-led band on Smoke is a quartet featuring Vincent Herring on alto and Cyrus Chestnut’s estimable and soulful piano. Herring is straight from the Cannonball Adderley and Phil Woods school of hard-nosed alto players, a guy who plays a ton of notes and a ton of blues no matter what kind of song he’s interpreting. There are a couple of tracks here where you hear him moving along the speedy bop track on automatic pilot, playing licks he has no doubt played a million times before. But the whole session is so ripping and strong that you excuse a little sameness just because the spirit is so compelling.
Dig, for example, the band’s version of “Strike Up the Band” (Gershwin that doesn’t get played much as a jazz tune), another arrangement inspired by Cedar Walton, for whom Herring did many dates. Chestnut is unbeatable, keeping it all light and quick, but the way Herring digs into his raspy sound to keep thingsl moving is astonishing.
The band lives most earnestly at mid-tempo, like on the Chestnut original “Uptown Shuffle”, which lets Joe Farnsworth sock away at his snare and swing the life from the ride cymbal. Bassist Brandi Disterheft (a woman from Vancouver, Canada — applause for a strong woman in jazz, please!) is so solid of time and tone that she seems integral to both Farnsworth's groove and Chestnut’s swing. Her sound matches the rest of the band’s: ripe, rosy, deep with feeling.
Drummers Who Never Get Old
Then there are two drummer-led dates on Smoke Sessions, each fronted by a player who seems impervious to time. Louis Hayes (77) has never played with less than total commitment, and Return of the Jazz Communicators shows that he hasn’t lost a step. Here, he revives a band based on the somewhat unusual front line of tenor (Abraham Burton) and vibes (the great Steve Nelson). Burton varies his tone from warm to burly, and Nelson operates both inside and outside the straight harmonies, providing the songs plenty of range.
For my money, Nelson is the finest thing on the record — constantly daring the music in a more interesting place, seeming to have been imported from the Eric Dolphy Out to Lunch album, a Bobby Hutcherson for our era. His ballad feature, “Lush Life”, is a song you think you’ve heard often enough — but this version shines all over again.
Jimmy Cobb is now 85 and the veteran of so many great records that the mind boggles. But he’s still at it. The Original Mob revives “Cobb’s Mob”, which today is a real all-star band with Brad Mehldau on piano, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and John Webber on bass, though the group began when each was a student of Cobb’s at The New School. This the only of the Smoke Sessions that was not recorded before a club audience but simply used Smoke as a recording studio. It makes a difference: the band sounds “cooler” than the others on these first six releases.
But it is still a distinguished record. The opener, “Old Devil Moon”, gets a prattling Latin groove from the leader, alternating with splashy swing on his cymbals. Bernstein tends to play elegant, legato lines with a fairly plain, round tone. His improvisations are logical and elegant. And while Mehldau’s solos make plenty of sense, he is more likely to surprise you here: composing lines that twist, contort, leap. An uptempo version of “Stranger in Paradise” is a standout, and the Cobb original “Composition 101” is a straight-ahead delight — a quick walking tempo and chord changes that invite total freedom. Cobb’s ballad, “Remembering U”, is another sweet spot. Who knew he could write?
The Familiar is Just Fine
Every note on these six records walks the line between familiarity and surprise. It all sounds familiar because the formula that makes this music work — good songs, inventive arrangement, confident and propulsive improvising, a certain soulful tone that comes from the gut — epitomizes what has given jazz longevity and force over time. But it’s still fresh — Smoke Sessions isn’t releasing historic jazz: these are not “museum piece” recordings or recreations. These bands mix old and young players, various styles, different instrumentations, but the common language is the soulful and modern jazz that musicians are most likely to play on any particular night in a New York jazz club.
This is the good stuff, even if it doesn’t break any rules or discover new territory. And that’s okay.
It’s the gold standard, but it’s not locked into a frame. It’s alive on Smoke Sessions Records.