It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since SMALLS opened the crypt to some of the finest talent in town. I clearly recall my first visit when I brought along a six-pack and a friend. I’ve since lost track of the friend but the memory of that first night is vivid still: the dark descent to the Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit-hole of sound, getting swallowed up by the music until the last note dissipated into the dawn, the ascent to the glare of an early morning sun and the sudden realization that I had been changed in the night by the music.
Established in 1994 by Mitchell Borden, the club closed, re-opened and evolved on so many levels; a partnership with pianist Spike Wilner, a renovation, a liquor license, a record label, live streaming, an archival system and library and a new Steinway. The tables and chairs were long ago replaced with benches, reminiscent of a revival hall setting that makes you want to jump up and shout, “Hallelujah!”
Sharing Alice’s frequent desire for consumption — in my case, music — I escape to SMALLS at every chance. On this night I came to lose myself in The Joel Frahm Trio.
In any meaningful and enduring relationship, an exchange of admiration, respect and honesty is essential. Such are the virtues of this group. With leader Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Omer Avital on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums, this pack plays with a synergy often strived for but only occasionally attained by few. It is what makes good bands great and great bands soar.
And soar they did, opening with Mingus’ exhilarating “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul”. Frahm is thrilling, undoubtedly among one of the more important tenor players of our day. His association with dozens upon dozens of jazz legends has no doubt helped to make him the leader he is today: skilled and gracious, always generously and elegantly giving and taking with his stage mates.
Whether blowing a ballad or bop, Frahm’s playing is infused with deep, emotional intent. His tone is carefully crafted and his voicings beautifully articulated. With purposeful melancholy, he delivered a rich and complex rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s, “Darn That Dream”.
Avital shifted the mood with his original, “Flow” (based on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”). A respected leader, prolific composer and sought-after sideman, Avital’s playing is infectiously joyous and playful — something often vacant in most players of his instrument. While this tune showcased each member’s strengths, they managed to revel in the sheer fun of the interaction.
The trio interpreted Charlie Chaplin’s poignant, “Smile” with straight-forward simplicity. Pinciotti was a stand-out for me here. One of the many things I love about Pinciotti is his ability to paint vivid scenarios with his sticks and brushes. Though he played so sparingly on this piece, his carefully considered rests and silences succinctly conveyed Chaplin’s message.
I was surprised to learn that this trio had not played or even seen each in quite some time. But like old and true friends, they picked up right where they left off. These three undoubtedly share an immortal essence some would call soul. I call it musicianship at its finest. And a little bit of magic.
Joel Frahm – tenor saxophone
Omer Avital- bass
Anthony Pinciotti – drums/percussion
SMALLS is located at 183 West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, NYC and is open from 4:00 PM to 4:00 AM.
“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Article by Lisa Ellex