Small’s, in Greenwich Village, is not the place to find avant-garde free jazz. But it’s open past 1:00 a.m., with after-hours jam sessions that run “until closing,” which I assume means 4:00 a.m.
I’ve always romanticized the idea of staying out late in New York, catching multiple shows. So, the last part of my last night in New York recently was spent at Small’s. I was determined to crowd in and hunker down well past 1:00 a.m.
The cover is $20, but it gives you in/out privileges for the entire evening. For Manhattan, that’s not so bad. There’s no waitstaff — which you might consider a negative, but that also means you’re not pressured to drink. If you just want a warm seat and a place to hear jazz among friends, you’re all set.
The place lives up to its name — it’s small. More than 50 can fit in there, but some will be standing at the bar, some will have an obstructed view from the back rows of folding chairs, and a lucky few (or unlucky, depending on your POV) will be up front, smooshed against the band. A couple of people are literally in danger of bumping the pianist if they get up.
I arrived in time for the second set by Amanda Sedgwick’s band (actually billed as a showcase for pianist Freddie Redd), then stuck around for the jam session as planned. And the music did go late, late into the night, with a local cast of crazies jamming away and generously ceding time to anyone who’d brought their instrument (or in the case of piano/bass/drums, their chops). This wasn’t amateur hour. The folks who took the bandstand knew and proved that they belonged there.
Pianist Spike Wilner’s trio was nominally the band at the center of the jam. Wilner, also an owner and a manager of Small’s, let other soloing instruments join the stage — saxes, a guitar — and stepped them through “Misterioso” for starters. Typical jam-session fodder. The next track was a big surprise, though. Wilner started improvising like he was surveying the piano terrain, leaping all over the place, flipping in and out of rhythms while keeping a tonal feel intact. He’s an excellent pianist, fluid and ingenious. The saxophonists didn’t know what to do with that at first, and finally the jumped in with blaring, “Ascension”-like alarms.
This fit the mood well, but it also made me think. Free jazz players are typically informed by the jazz tradition; they’ve grown into their music through the classic sounds going back through Miles/Monk all the way to Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. The opposite tends not to be true: hard boppers don’t always know what to do when the familiar patterns get M.C. Eschered. A little knowledge of free improv could have served the saxophones well here. I don’t mean they would have played abstract, squeaky stuff. I mean that I was hearing some opportunities for more complex and tonal sounds to sit above Wilner’s creations. I think the chance was there, but they hadn’t built up the reflexes to take advantage of it.
But as I said, they were excellent players. A couple of the long solos really blew me away.
This being a jam session, players began cycling in and out after about three numbers (lasting about 20 minutes each), including Wilner himself. A couple of vocalists stepped in for a song apiece, one of them gussied up in a smart red dress for the occasion. I made it until a little after 3:00, then had to call it quits. The crowd was thinner but still strong, and my vacated front-row chair didn’t last long.
The Bay Area will always be my home, but some things can only be had in a place like New York.