Three exemplary recordings from the first decade of the 21st Century, all issued on Marc Edelman's Sharp Nine imprint, are closely tied to two important New York City venues. Alto saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith's Up In Smoke (2003) and Still Smokin' (2004) were recorded live at Smoke Jazz Club (formerly Augie's), an uptown bastion of Hammond B-3 organ combos, jazz-funk bands, as well as an abundance of no-nonsense, straight-ahead sounds. In Orbit (2006), a studio date by Planet Jazz, the sextet founded by the late Johnny Ellis and currently led by pianist Spike Wilner, was nurtured by weekly appearances at Smalls, the legendary, musician-friendly Greenwich Village nightspot.
These recordings are living proof that jazz based on traditional practices continue to sound fresh and vital in an age when the music is stretching in a myriad of directions. The personnel include significant mainstream players who are held in particularly high esteem by their peers: Guitarist Peter Bernstein, trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and Ryan Kisor, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, pianists David Hazeltine and Wilner, as well as bassists Barak Mori, Peter Washington, and Neal Miner. Hendrickson-Smith's records contain the enthusiastic blowing that one expects from live recordings, minus the customary excess. In Orbit is mostly dedicated to Ellis's unique, melodically rich compositions which lend themselves to improvisations of short-to-moderate duration.
Aside from unapologetic ties to swing and bebop, the common denominator of all three discs is drummer Joe Strasser. Although you'll search in vain for his name in critic and listener polls, Strasser is a one of a kind stylist. Joe has his own take on jazz drumming, his own sound, says Hendrickson-Smith, who co-founded The Hotpants, a funk band which was a mainstay at Smoke for several years, with Strasser. And that's the true mark of any musician. Spike Wilner regards Strasser as an artist at a very high level; so creative and so thorough. Everything is very meticulous and everything is musical. He's tremendously versatile and traditional in the sense that he's got a real foundation. I know his idol is Jimmy Cobb, then Philly Joe Jones and the classic bebop drummers.
Not unlike any tradition-minded trapster, Strasser's sound starts with the ride cymbal. The second he hits the cymbal, you know who it is, Hendrickson-Smith says. It's really crisp and exact. The cymbal beat contains just enough weight, pushing the band forward without taking up too much space. It drives an easygoing, medium tempo version of I Wish You Love, from Still Smokin', and works well with repetitive tom-tom and rim knock combinations. Tightly cleaving to Barak Mori's walking line, the light yet distinct cymbal is the most prominent part of Strasser's playing behind Hendrickson-Smith's solo on The Best Things in Life Are Free (Up In Smoke). Later on during Hazeltine's turn, he varies the ride cymbal rhythm, shifting into choppier patterns for a couple of bars.
A colorist who is mindful of the effect of each stroke on the band as a whole, Strasser mines the rest of the components of the drum kit with equal parts of efficiency and artistry. The snare drum snaps with authority yet retains a certain lightness. Throughout Ryan Kisor's solo on an up tempo Love For Sale (Still Smokin'), his edgy snare accents push the trumpeter, and he sometimes plays in unison with Hazeltine's chords. The tom-toms are tuned beautifully and often employed on heads and behind soloists, frequently in repetitive patterns that sound out in a bell-like clarity. Improvising second-line funk rhythms on Hendrickson-Smith's Jacob's Crib (Still Smokin'), recurring three and four stroke figures to the mounted tom-tom make a fine contrast to single and buzz strokes to the snare. Strasser uses the bass drum more sparingly, and it impacts in interesting ways, like comping rhythms that would normally be executed on the snare or in acute contrast to brush strokes on ballads. He animates parts of Wilner and Stewart's solos on Buttermoose (In Orbit) with prominent bass drum hits, including one pattern that marches across the pulse. Memories of You (Still Smokin') includes stimulating bass drum beats amidst sensitive brush work behind Hendrickson-Smith's rendition of the melody and Hazeltine's solo.
Both Wilner and Hendrickson-Smith speak enthusiastically about Strasser's rock solid time and his empathetic ways of interacting with other musicians. I love playing fast tempos with Joe, Wilner says. He just burns, but he's never out of control. It's so easy to play with him. He's on everything. You give him a glance and he gives you exactly what you want. Me and Joe have these weird, comping experiences that happen quite a bit, Wilner continues, where I'll comp an idea and he'll comp something elaborate at the same time-those great jazz moments. And it happens a lot. One of those moments occurs during the latter part of Wilner's solo on Ellis's The Squirrel is a Girl (In Orbit) when Strasser intuits one of Wilner's lines and tailors accents to it.
That's a tough tempo to keep rock solid, Hendrickson-Smith says of the slow-to-medium pace of Chelsea Bridge, from Up In Smoke. At the suggestion of David Hazeltine, Strasser played with sticks instead of brushes. Sounding perfectly at ease, his steady, patient ride cymbal leads the way. He adds significant touches, like repetitive eighth note triplets to the mounted tom-tom during Hazeltine's solo, that never get in the way or violate the spirit of Billy Strayhorn's composition. He's a consummate sideman, Hendrickson-Smith adds. Joe's always waiting for you to ask him for something, and never forces the tune in a specific direction. He's got the perfect balance between gut and brains. If somebody gives Joe something to work with, he's all over it. Conversely, Strasser knows when to stay out of the way. For example, he all but disappears during the early stages of Magnarelli's Dual Highway (In Orbit) solo, allowing the trumpeter to explore a floating melodic line without the slightest interference.
Apart from incisive playing on the heads and effective comping strategies, Strasser is a first-rate soloist who stays in close touch with the materials at hand. The thing about Joe Strasser is that his solos are unbelievable; they're really quite unusual, Wilner enthuses. Mommy, Mommy NO! (In Orbit) begins with a brilliant eight bar break. A repeated five note figure executed in unison on the bass drum and cymbal is answered by terse fills. Though the break is grounded in time and indicates a specific tempo, it nonetheless contains a slightly unsettled feel. When the band enters you realize that it's based on the composition's melody. That's stuff Joe came up with, Wilner replies when asked if the break is part of Ellis's chart. It's part of the level of authority that a guy like Joe brings to the table.
A two bar vamp played by Wilner, Bernstein, and Gill provides a foundation for Strasser's extended solo on Hampton Hawes's Sonora (In Orbit). Thickset rhythms to the tom-toms, snare and cymbals are bound up in the simple figure. He approaches the vamp from every conceivable angle, cleaving to some parts and leaving others exposed. In contrast to the rest of the track's fleet swing, Strasser sounds as if he's having a grand time thrashing about in the muck of his own making.