Who Says Club Owners Can’t Play?
Most club owners who play music usually suck at it. The reason many of them open a venue is to have a place to play since nobody else will give them a gig. But once in awhile, you find a club owner who not only isn’t an atrocity exhibition, but actually has talent. Case in point: pianist Spike Wilner, impresario of Smalls, the well-loved downtown New York jazz institution. Wilner has a vivid, impressionistic third-stream style that draws as deeply on ragtime as it does on classic jazz, and on his latest album La Tendresse – out now from Posi-Tone – there are some genuinely breathtaking moments. He’s got a fast, liquid legato that can keep up with pretty much anybody in either jazz or classical, something he proved beyond reproach on his previous solo album, recorded live at the club. Here, his ragtime roots are in equally full effect: he covers Solace, and while he doesn’t try to put an original stamp on Scott Joplin, he also doesn’t embarrass himself. And the album gets even better from there.
He opens the title track, one of three original compositions here, with a rather stern passage featuring a lot of block chords that slowly develop outward into shuffling ripples that grow unexpectedly chilly and chromatic: if this is tenderness, then tenderness is scary. The second original, Silver Cord, also works a neoromantic vibe, slowly unwinding from tensely rhythmic to more cantabile, with a bit of wry Donald Fagen in the chords toward the end. Wilner reinvents Leonard Cohen’s – woops, Irving Berlin’s Always as a jazz waltz, building intensity with a delightfully vivid, ringing series of raga-like chords. He puts his own mark on Lullaby of the Leaves slowly and methodically, solo, from an expansive rubato intro, to a casual ragtime-fueled stroll and a playful classic rock quote at the end. Then he, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joey Saylor – who stay within themselves as supporting players throughout the album – scurry their way through a lickety-split take of After You’ve Gone, a showcase for sizzling, precise chops.
A couple of other tracks are far more pensive, notably purist takes on Ellington’s Le Sucrier Velours and Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie, along with a nocturnally bluesy, wee-hours version of Richard Rodgers’ Little Girl Blue. I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together gets a skeletal, practically minimalist interpretation that’s over all too soon in well under three minutes. There are a couple of short tracks here that could have been left on the cutting room floor and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it, especially a song from the Wizard of Oz, that – it’s awfully hard to resist a bad pun here – if they’d only had a clue, would have given up trying to redeem as ragtime. Speaking of the Wiz, there are several other quotes here from that soundtrack that are as mystifying as the inclusion of that particular cut. Otherwise, this is something that ought to bring together fans of ragtime, jazz and the Romantic repertoire, who will probably unanimously enjoy a collection by a musician who probably doesn’t need any more fans (club owners always draw hugely at their gigs, if only because the artists they book make sure to come out and be seen there) but deserves them anyway.