Joel Frahm Quartet – Live at Smalls (2011)

Photograph by Tory Williams

Tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm’s latest release Live at Smalls places the listener at the center of jazz innovation in New York City. You feel as if you were there at the legendary basement club of Smalls, sitting in one of their old and rickety wooden chairs with their infamous cat strolling leisurely by.

The album, which features Joe Martin (bass), Otis Brown III (drums) and the incredibly innovative Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), is highlighted by Frahm’s absolute lyrical mastery, and his musical dialogue with Rosenwinkel that permeates throughout the record.

Frahm, who attended high school in West Hartford, Connecticut, with Brad Mehldau and who was later roommates with Chris Potter at the Manhattan School of Music, has been a staple in the New York jazz scene for nearly two decades. He has established himself as a musical chameleon, known for his uncanny ability to adapt and perform at the highest level in any musical situation. He has recorded a duo set with Mehldau on Don’t Explain, recorded with Latin jazz pianist Manuela Valera on Vientos, played in the septet the Waverley Seven, and has worked with big bands such as the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Live at Smalls, recorded on February 28 and March 1, 2011, contains seven tracks — all but two which are Frahm’s originals. It opens with “Short Stack,” a medium tempo blues where all members of the quartet stretch out on their solos, and closes with Charlie Parker’s “Steeplechase.” “A Little Extra” is a more contemporary and free tune that drifts in and out of different tempos and meters. In a way, it’s a musical mosaic with each musician displaying different shades of color in their solos. Here, the communication between all the musicians is at a high, each feeding off one another and adding their own armaments to the tune.

“What’s Your Beat” is based in a funk and rock rhythm that really grooves. Frahm sings into the saxophone throughout his solo as it builds, eventually soaring to an expressive high. He’s followed by Rosenwinkel, who begins his solo with several sustained bass pedal chords, improvising over them until he morphs in to a semi-rock rhythm. And, although Martin and Brown are in support mode for much of the album, their contributions really stand out on this tune as they hold down the fort solidly.

“Song for Mom,” another Frahm original, has a catchy yet tender melody. Fitting in with the title, the song is sentimental and exudes so clearly feelings of nostalgia and gratitude. One of Joel’s strong suits is his narrative and storytelling ability on ballads. This is best exemplified by his interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” where at times his tone is so faint that it resembles a soft whisper that pierces through the skin and leaves a chill shooting up the spine. “Alert” is a more mysterious, ethereal, and floating tune with each musician adding their own inflections in a way that weaves in and out like a flowing dialogue.

Live at Smalls captures the energy of New York jazz with very strong performances by all — and particularly captivating solos from Rosenwinkel. We also see Frahm’s compositional prowess, with a range of diverse and innovative tunes. But most importantly, the album demonstrates Joel’s complete emotional vulnerability on the instrument, allowing him to communicate feelings in the purest form.

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David Greenberg

David Greenberg is a PhD researcher in music psychology at the University of Cambridge in England.He also plays saxophone in various groups including the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra. Follow him on Twitter: @dgreenberg7. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.