Live At Smalls
Release Date: May 3, 2024
Label: Cellar Music Group

Live At Smalls, showcases Jack Walrath's tremendous compositional prowess and the exceptional interplay of his ensemble. Produced by Cellar Music Group and the Smalls Live Living Masters series, Live At Smalls revels in innovation and collaboration, as Walrath explores original compositions with a focus on the quintet instrumentation. The album features an all-star lineup including Abraham Burton on tenor saxophone, George Burton on piano, Boris Koslov on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums.

Heralded for his work with Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, and an array of other musical luminaries, on Live At Smalls, Jack Walrath is lauded for his original compositions. The pieces featured here culminate experiences wrought from Walrath’s 5-decade career, harkening back to previous collaborations with one foot firmly planted in modern innovation. The album showcases Walrath's diverse musical influences, from experimenting with blues forms to incorporating African sounds and ideas. Tracks like "A Bite in Tunisia" and "Grandpa Moses" demonstrate the band's ability to explore different tempos, forms, and musical concepts within the jazz framework.

Walrath notes, “The main concept behind this record is the instrumentation. Most of the major innovations in jazz music occurred with this kind of group format and size. I also wanted to play with these particular musicians. This is absolutely a group. This is not just a bunch of musicians who came together for a recording session. And as far as I’m concerned, these are some of the greatest musicians of their generation. This band has been together since 2012, and with this recording, I wanted to explore different ideas with my compositions.”

The bandleader and composer gives his musicians the latitude to explore and roam free on these remarkably innovative compositions. With an arranger’s ear, Walrath participates in the highest form of interplay, playing only what will serve the composition as a whole, and his bandmates follow suit.

The album begins with Walrath’s “Roadkill”, initially featured on his 2010 release Heavy Mirth. The deeply swinging tune features stellar solos from bassist Boris Koslov, tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton, and from the bandleader. The piece sets the tone for an album of musical communication on the highest level. Tracks like "A Bite in Tunisia" and "Grandpa Moses" demonstrate the band's ability to explore different tempos, forms, and musical concepts within the jazz framework. “A Bite in Tunisia” makes use of African sounds and rhythms with contemporary jazz harmony to create a sound that is decidedly fresh. The shifting tempos and dynamics “Grandpa Moses” harken back to Walrath’s days with Charles Mingus. 

Mood For Muhal” undoubtedly pays homage to Walrath’s long-time collaborator Muhal Richard Abrams. This atmospheric composition features a wistful melody performed by Walrath and accompanied by tenor saxophone swells. George Burton offers a contemplative melodic musing, masterfully building dynamics to climax just in time for Walrath’s solo. Walrath’s motific solo is a masterclass on thematic improvisation. In the soloist’s own words, “I think one of the problems that I have with a lot of jazz nowadays is that people play the “changes,” and run a lot of patterns and scales that sound right. But you’ve got different choices with scales and for me, I like variations on the melody, theme, and variation. If you look at Thelonious Monk’s favorite saxophone players, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Rouse, they both used the tune and the melody for the basis of their solos and didn’t just run scales or patterns… That is what my band and these musicians on this recording do. Why play a melody on a tune if you are not going to use it?”

The album’s concluding piece harkens back to the sound of Miles’ second great quintet. “Sacrifice” begins with a vibrant drum solo from Donald Edwards, leading into an angular tenor saxophone solo from Burton with background figures from Walrath and stellar comping from George Burton. The band brings their dynamics down, leaving room for Walrath’s melodic lines to grow. Grow it does, with Burton’s piano work bringing the solo to a climax. A piano solo follows with frenetic melodies, leading the horn section into the piece’s dynamic melody section. This masterstroke is a fitting piece to close out an album celebrating Walrath’s inventive and singular sound.

Live At Smalls firmly cements Jack Walrath’s stature as one of the great composers and improvisers of our day. At 77 years old, the bandleader suggests that playing this music “keeps you alive” and remarks, “I will go kicking and screaming and still searching for the lost chord!”

MATT MICUCCI
JAZZIZ
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