Interview and story by J Hunter
About half a block from 7th Avenue South in the West Village, Smalls is the NYC basement club of a jazz fan’s dreams: Pump in some cigarette smoke, and Django Reinhardt would feel right at home. Smalls lives up to its name, too; if impresario Spike Wilner ever decided to replace the benches audience members sit on, he’d probably only be able to fit four tables in the space before he reached the stairs. But size isn’t everything (or so I’ve been assured). Through his in-house recording label, smallsLIVE, Wilner has released a steady, consistently strong, quality-centric series of live recordings from artists like Cyrille Aimee (who is headed into The Egg in Albany on Friday, February 13), Bruce Barth (pianist with Michael Benedict & Bopitude), Ralph Lalama and Joe Magnarelli.
There are plenty of other hard-core players in the smallsLIVE catalog, which just added a name that should snap some heads around here in Greater Nippertown: Albany native and Albany High School alumnus Theo Hill.
Live at Smalls (the default title for releases on Wilner’s label) is the second smallsLIVE disc Hill is featured on – the other being an intense Smalls Legacy Band tribute to trombone legend Frank Lacy. Two other players on that date (trumpeter Josh Evans and drummer Kush Abadey) also appear with Hill on trombonist David Gibson’s wild Posi-tone release Boom! But Smalls is Hill’s first date as a leader, recorded at the club where he made his first foray into the NYC jazz scene… at age 16! So while this disc – the first major-label release by a Capital Region jazzer since Hill’s fellow AHS alum Stefon Harris signed with Blue Note – is big for our area’s scene, it’s positively huge for Hill, and the pianist responds with a set of originals and covers that’s just as big.