On what I had thought would be the last of my four nights in New York City, it was back to Smalls for a double bill of the Davy Mooney Quartet and the Ari Hoenig Trio (pictured above). I wanted a good spot for the night (well, Smalls is rather small, so nowhere is all that far from the stage) so got there early and nabbed a seat along the left (facing the stage) front wall, where I could reach out and touch the pianist. Well, there was no pianist the first set, but you get the idea. It had been a hot and muggy day in the city, and Smalls had the air conditioning on full blast, which was a bit uncomfortable when the evening started, but as the place filled up, and the air conditioning level was lowered from "Arctic" to "cool," things got much better on that front. You have now heard the total sum of any slight complaints that I might have about Smalls Jazz Club.
I only became familiar with Davy Mooney due to his recent CD on Sunnyside Records, Perrier Street, which I was quite impressed with and gave a good deal of airplay to on Kansas Public Radio. For this show, he had two players from the album, the fine young bassist Matt Clohesy and tenor saxophonist John Ellis, who I've dug for a number of years. For the Smalls gig, the drummer was another well-regarded player, Mark Ferber.
Mooney kicked off his first set with a relaxed mid-tempo number, "Crimson." Mooney's playing is quite liquid, with a soft tone, and with mostly single notes and not a lot of chording. He's very much the melodist, and his playing draws you in slowly rather than grabbing you by the lapels. Ellis's tenor sax had a dark, slightly astringent tone, and on this number he also played in a very legato style, punctuated with fairly long silences. Ellis particularly focused on exploring the lower register of his horn. The bass and drum solos were each backed by quiet guitar chords, and Ferber's drumming was also backed by an insistent pedal point by bassist Clohesy that caused John Coltrane's "Equinox" to pop into my mind.
From there, Mooney went into a slow, gorgeous guitar intro, with a nice use of reverb, to his lovely tune, "Phelia," as Ferber switched to brushes on the drum kit. While Ellis started his sax solo as a slow and rather deliberate exploration of a wide range of harmonic possibilities, with lots of space between his phrases, he built the intensity, with that intensity matched by drums and bass. When Mooney finally took his guitar solo, he played lots of long phrases, often across the bar lines. After two numbers from his new CD, Mooney turned to an older tune, "Wrinkles," where he turned up the heat and the tempo, alternating guitar riffs with snatches of melody. His solo was still quite liquid, with long single note runs and a sound that reminded me a bit of John Abercrombie at times. Meanwhile, Clohesy and Ferber really pushed him, with very fast walking by bassist Clohesy and some provocative bombs being dropped on the drums by Ferber. Tenor saxman Ellis built a solo around a couple of short, three or four note figures, alternated with furious runs, before he ended up trading eight-bar, and then four-bar phrases with Mooney and Ferber.
Mooney showed off his singer-songwriter side on "All of Her." While the fine newcomer Johnaye Kendrick sings this on the CD, here Mooney did the vocal himself after meditative intro by guitar and sax. The song had a slight Brazilian feel, and Mooney's singing a bit of an alternative rock or pop tinge. An absolutely drop dead gorgeous bass solo by Ferber on this
Davy Mooney Performs "All of Her"
But the highlight of the first set was the title track to the CD, "Perrier Street." Mooney explained the title, which referred to the original location of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which Mooney and many other great New Orleans musicians attended, and the song was a dedicated to legendary music educator there, Clyde Kerr, Jr., who died in 2010. The piece was one with a lovely, almost wistful, laid back swing, and a great way to end the set. I was a bit surprised to find out that Mooney was from New Orleans, as there was no trace of a "N'awlins" accent in his voice. When I mentioned this to him at break, he explained that his family was not from New Orleans, but had moved there when Mooney was a child when his father took an academic position there. As it happened, I ended up meeting Mooney's father, a professor of Shakespeare now retired and living in Maine, when I went up the steps to warm up a bit on a lovely Manhattan evening. Mooney has quite the creative family, as I also met his sister, an MFA candidate, and heard that his brother was the noted author Chris Mooney.
The second set was also quite fine, with highlights including the catchy "Swing Set," from the new CD, the lovely ballad "Once was True," and the terrific closing number, "Shuffle Step," which really brought out the New Orleans in Mooney, and especially in saxophonist John Ellis. I had known Ellis was from New Orleans and had seen him in the past with his band Double-Wide, which has a pretty fair funk quotient, as did this tune, with Mooney's guitar intro over a heavy back-beat on drums. Ellis really pulled out all the stops on this one, with an absolutely exhilarating tenor sax solo. This number would have been great for shakin' it on the dance floor, had there been one!
The musical intensity picked up from there with the second band, billed as the Ari Hoenig Trio, but in reality a cooperative band usually just called PHM, for pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, drummer Ari Hoenig, and bassist Francois Mouton. I'd seen Pilc and Hoenig before with a different bassist, and remembered that gig from seven years ago for a combination of intensity and precision. But even that did not prepare me for the breathtaking nature of this set.
Hoenig started the first number on brushes, while the pianist alternated snatches of melody with very abstract phrases. In what would become the norm for the evening, there was a lot of carefully calibrated percussive interplay between all the instruments. Hoenig switched to sticks as the intensity built, Pilc alternated very intense chordal runs on the piano with sections of swing. I had yet to pin down the tune; the harmonies sounded familiar one moment and not so the next. And then the time was doubled as the bass solo began, with Hoenig chattering away on drums. The tempo accelerated again during the piano solo, where my brain finally went "Aha! They're playing Cherokee!" After a dazzling, intense piano solo, the trio shifted tempo on a dime, bringing it way down for the bass solo by Moutin, while Pilc reached into the piano to pluck chords quietly behind him. And before the end of the tune, Pilc was making more than a few allusions to a Monk tune.
Whew! From there, a very, very quiet solo piano introduction to a standard I never puzzled out (at first, I thought it was "Skylark," but it was not). On this one, Ari Hoenig explored a lot of colors on his drum kit, starting with brushes, and then switching to mallets. It's hard not to be hypnotized just watching Hoenig play. he has a very expressive face, and it seems to mirror every change in the tempo or mood of the music. But then, Moutin took center stage, opening the next piece with a very abstract bass exploration which resolved into an almost Mingus like bass riff, while Pilc again plucked the piano and Hoenig entered, playing paradiddles as the tune took on an almost marching band like feel. Pilc's piano solo was dizzying array of snatches of tunes and rapid fire phrases that left me nearly breathless. I would hear a bit of one tune (Coltrane? something from A Love Supreme) but by the time I thought I had nailed that down, Pilc had tossed in several other tune fragments. Sitting just a couple of feet away, I had a good view of his right hand scampering over the keyboard or interjecting thunderous chords. About all I could think at that point was WOW.
The trio moved into a more quiet phase on the next number, where Pilic whistled as he played his piano introduction in what was a lovely piece, and quite the refreshing one after the overpowering number before. Hoenig again played gorgeous brushes, and Moutin beautiful, sonorous notes on the bass. By this point, I thought the tune might be "Sunday in New York," but this is not a trio that makes tunes very obvious! The drum solo on this one began with Hoenig playing just with his hands, in a musical conversation with chording by Pilc at the piano. As Hoenig switched to sticks, he engaged in a percussive dialogue with pianist Pilc, whose jabbing chords interacted with the now crashing drums. From there, it was into a bass and drums dialogue, which built in intensity and moved toward a near rock beat, and then the band brought the volume down, and down, and down, ending with the piano and drum equivalent of "air guitar" - the motions of playing with no sound whatsoever produced. The set concluded with one more dazzling display by Pilc at the piano. I thought I heard Monk and Coltrane and Gershwin in that one.
Pilc Moutin Hoenig - Nardis (Jazz, Improvisation)
At break, I had a really interesting visit with bassist Francois Moutin. Moutin, originally from Paris, had an undergraduate degree in engineering and a Doctorate in physics by age 24 - and then decided to become a professional musician. Three years later, he was playing with piano legend Martial Solal and later moved to the United States some 15 years ago. Pilc is also a Paris native now living in the United States. I had thought that drummer Ari Hoenig was also from Europe, but it tuns out he is from Philadelphia!
The second set began with a lovely bass introduction to what I think was "Lullaby of the Leaves." But, as was the case with this trio, bits and pieces of many tunes would pop up and disappear, especially during Pilc's piano solos, which here referenced "Speak Low," some Miles Davis number I could not pin down in my mind, and even a bit of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town!" Perhaps they realized that seasonal reference was a bit off because the next piece finally revealed itself as "Summertime," after a gorgeous bass introduction that reminded me of the sound of Charlie Haden. Of course, the trio was not content to just hang around in Summertime, as there was a bit of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" and then a shift, after a thunderous drum solo, to "I'll Remember April" with a great bass solo by Moutin backed just by the brushwork of Hoenig. Eventually, after a full blown drum solo, Pilc went into a blues riff on the piano, while Moutin walked on the bass and Hoenig went to an old fashioned ride cymbal. Suddenly, we had all been transported back to 1959 and the Wynton Kelly Trio for a bit.
The last piece began with very quiet, very gentle piano on a tune I recognized but did not know. After a long ballad tempo solo, the band shifted to a bit of a Latin beat as they increased the tempo and intensity before suddenly dropping back to quiet piano and bass solos and ending the evening on a gentle note. This PMH trio is certainly challenging to listen to, largely because there is so much musical information to process. But, it is also very rewarding to listen to, and the great variety in dynamics and tempos hold one's attention, and both the individual techniques of all three players and their very tight interplay were compelling to witness. This was, I thought, a fitting last set to my jazz visit to New York City. However, I would find out the next day that Frontier Airlines had other ideas, and there would be another night of jazz for me.