From the day it opened in 1994 until the day it shut down nine years later, the New York club Smalls was a crucial incubator for young talent in the city’s bustling jazz scene. Its owner, Mitchell Border, charged a cover, much of went directly to the performers, but didn’t sell drinks or food (although patrons were welcome to bring their own). The focus was on the music. Loads of musicians worked there and formed important bonds, including pianist Jason Lindner and bassist Omer Avital, who’ve worked together ever since. They play Chicago tomorrow as members of the Anat Cohen Quartet; the show is a free kick-off to the Chicago Jazz Festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, and it starts at 6 PM.
The members of the Anat Cohen Quartet are part of a dynamic circle of broad-minded players who’ve been kicking around for a decade or so but only emerged as a force in the last couple years. Many of them, including Avital and clarinetist Cohen, are from Israel, but others hail from Latin and South America and other locales. For example, hot-shit guitarist Lionel Loueke, who plays Symphony Center tomorrow night with Herbie Hancock, is from Benin. Unsurprisingly, this international crew incorporates a wide array of sounds and styles, with post-bop as the foundation and driving spirit. Middle Eastern scales and Latin rhythms are the most obvious elements they draw upon, but the results are rarely predictable and never glib.
Lindner and Avital have been especially prolific of late. Just out on Anzic Records is Live at the Jazz Gallery by Lindner’s Big Band; it was recorded in November of 2005 and includes Avital, Cohen, her trumpet-playing brother Avishai, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon, and trombonist Rafi Malkiel, another Israeli. Linder’s compositions and arrangements are dense, and the abundant solos are carefully stitched within the pieces rather that simply strung along. Maintaining a big band these days is a daunting prospect; funds are limited, and it’s tough to keep players struggling to pay the bills on board for rehearsals and regular gigs, but Lindner has kept this group together for a dozen years, a fact that says plenty about the sense of community and the level of commitment for these musicians.
Late last year Lindner released Ab Aeterno (Fresh Sound World Jazz), a trio session with Avital and Venezuelan percussionist Luisito Quintero, which better displays his piano prowess. As he says in his liner notes, this project was started in part “to share the way in which the two of us vibe together on our instruments.” With Quintero sticking mostly to hand drums, there’s no question that the focus is on the pianist and bassist, who clearly have a rapport, playing off one another’s lines with a quicksilver grace. Lindner is a restrained, lyric player, and he never indulges in post-bop acrobatics, even on a reading of Bud Powell’s “Sure Thing/Glass Enclosure.” Several tracks feature Avital on the oud, and while the instrument’s twang clearly signifies music from the Middle East, his handling of it fits right in with the music’s flow. The album includes an extended, tender version of Avital’s “Song for Amos”—there’s also a lovely take on Lindner’s big band recording, but this one is far more intimate, with conversational interplay.
Avital covers similar ground on the recent Arrival (Fresh Sound World Jazz), albeit with a larger group—Lindner, drummer Jonathan Blake, reedist Joel Frahm, trombonist Avi Lebovich, and Avishai Cohen. In fact, he opens the album with yet another version of “Song for Amos,” which is harder hitting than the others. Here he shows off his muscle on the bass and gives the music a backbone. Avital’s also an excellent composer, and while some the arrangements are a bit too facile for my taste, the melodies are almost uniformly superb, filled with discrete episodes and long, winding development.
Finally, a scalding live recording from 1997 at Smalls has been recently issued as Room to Grow (on the Smalls label), a set that captures an earlier phase when Avital was more deeply rooted in soul-searching post-bop. He and drummer Joe Strasser shape the grooves for a potentially unwieldy four-member sax section (Gregory Tardy, Myron Walden, Grant Stewart, Charles Owens) that plays the shit out of the three tunes, with a Coltrane-style intensity. The rhythm section simply wails, with Avital tapping into the propulsive power—though not the sound—of Charles Mingus. There are only three pieces, but two of them clock in over 22 minutes. They all slay.