Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls
From the faux chic cover and the name "the Jazz Underground" I expected this either to be another tired smooth jazz / funk record, or an exploration of today's avant-garde. It is neither. Instead, this is mainstream jazz played with energy and verve.
The Jazz Underground is not a group, but an interlocking series of groups who performed these tracks at Smalls in New York City between July 3 and 6, 1997. Bassist Omer Avital, for example, appears with his own Omer Avital Group, the Charles Owens Quartet, and the Jason Lindner Big Band. Owens is in the Avital and Lindner groups as well. Then there's another set of personnel including altoist Zaid Nasser and pianist Sascha Perry.
The music is immediately accessible. Avital's features, "Kentucky Girl" and Frank Loesser's "I've Never Been in Love Before," feature the interesting configuration of three tenor saxophones, an alto, and bass and drums. All these reeds make for a sonorous feel, accentuated by tenor man Joel Frahm's solo on "Kentucky Girl" and Avital's dominating, fluent bass.
The Charles Owens Quartet is a straight-ahead quartet featuring Owens on tenor, Avital, Lindner on piano and Daniel Freedman on drums. "Scenic Roots" is an up-tempo number carried off with particular aplomb; "Losing Victory" is more relaxed. Owens plays brightly on both, and Avital's fleet and demonstrative bass is again worthy of note.
The Lindner big band's "Hexophony" is Latin-tinged, and massive. The disc closer, "Phat," opens furiously with Freedman pounding away on drums, but then abruptly becomes urbane and even-tempered. Lindner is a sensitive and highly accomplished pianist; the solos are well-integrated.
Zaid Nasser opens "Everything Happens to Me" with a highly affecting unaccompanied alto; his tone is sweet, rich, and ingratiating – he could be playing in 1948, except for a bit of Dolphyan whirling.
That leaves the smooth (not Smooth) and bright septet, "Across 7th Street," and their equally inviting "The Kettle is Whistling." Joe Magnarelli's trumpet solo is right on the money, but John Mosca's trombone takes the honors.
The purpose of this disc seems to be to show what great music relative unknowns are making in New York City these days. Well, it IS great music. One may hope that these groups will get many more chances to document what they're doing at Smalls and elsewhere.