Steve Davis Quintet, Live at Smalls

Smalls is, well, a small jazz club in New York City’s West Village and, while far from the most comfortable establishment in town, it’s certainly among the most authentic and dedicated. The cover is cheap, the audience is youthful (two facts that are probably related), the musicians are usually the best up-and-coming players, and established masters sit in now and then too. (Last week, Albert “Tootie” Heath played drums with the Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson.)

Smalls’ owner, Spike Wilner, has started a new CD label, called Smalls Live, featuring (as might be guessed) sessions recorded live at the club. Six discs are out at the moment, they’re all called Live at Smalls, and the best I’ve heard—one of the most satisfying jazz albums of the year generally—is by the Steve Davis quintet with Larry Willis.

Davis is one of the richest-sounding trombonists around: warm in tone, fleet-footed in rhythm. Willis is a veteran pianist who made his first album on the Blue Note label in the mid-‘60s and, over the decades since, has developed and polished a burnished sound, part clanging block chords (a la McCoy Tyner), part swaying gospel, part romantic soul.

The album—which includes such standards as “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Nature Boy,” and Strayhorn’s “Daydream”—has the feel of a very good old Blue Note album by Art Blakey or Jackie McLean: no coincidence, as Davis played in latter-day versions of both men’s bands. The band—which also includes Mike Dirubbo on bass, Gerald Cannon, and Willie Jones III on drums—is buoyant, piercing, in a groove, and full of verve.

The label’s engineers, Glen Forrest and Ian Hendrickson-Smith, use ribbon mikes and soften the multi-track digital with analog mixing. They’re not 2-channel minimalists like Luke Kaven, proprietor-engineer of the Smalls Jazz label (which is not the same thing), and their sonics are a bit thin by comparison. (Kaven’s discs are audiophile-quality.) Still the sound is lively, dynamic, nicely balanced and tonally true.

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