dtrcd131.jpg (35233 bytes)

Tim Armacost - Live At Smalls


Tim Armacost - Tenor/Soprano Sax
Tom Harrell - Trumpet/Flugelhorn
Jonny King - Piano
Gerald Cannon - Bass
Shingo Okudaira - Drums

1) Tim introduces the band... (0:58)
2) Libra (10:48)  Gary Bartz
3) Tenor Vibe (11:20)  Tim Armacost
4) Invisible (11:11)  Tim Armacost
5) Whistling Away The Dark (9:41)  Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer
6) Hank's Other Bag (12:32)  Hank Mobley
7) You Don't Know What Love Is (9:26)  Don Raye & Gene D. DePaul
Total Time 67:40

Listen to CD Tracks

     Jazz, a music of the moment, is ever in flux. In these last years of the 20th century, there’s been a commingling of some of the styles that have been dominant: the complex melodic strands of bebop, the highly stylized harmonic constructs typified by Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and the loosely structured, often ‘free’ settings favored by Ornette Coleman, et al.. Now numerous modern players, from major leaguers like Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano and Tom Harrell to rising stars such as Antonio Hart and Tim Armacost, are taking aspects of these musical avenues and combining them, seeking new and exciting ways to play.

    Armacost, the scintillatingly musical 35-year-old saxophonist-composer-bandleader who has deep roots in jazz’s past yet has his eye and ear upon jazz’s future, has expanded his jazz vocabulary via fresh approaches to harmony. The mature and polished tenor and soprano saxophonist with the bold-then-tender sound, crack technique and supple sense of melodicism was steeped in the basics of bebop-based harmony during three years of study in Southern California with vibist Charlie Shoemake. Then during a seven-year post-baccalaureate (Pomona College, Asian Studies, Magna Cum Laude, 1985) residence in Europe, while head of the saxophone department at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam, Armacost furthered his exploration of harmony. “It was my main thing,” the Los Angeles native says now. “Through a lot of thinking and experimenting, I started to realize that you can use any chord for a substitution for any other chord; where the substitution is going determines whether it works or not. I saw the possibility for a new harmonic freedom.”

    When Armacost moved to New York in the early ‘90s, he found a group of like-minded players at jam sessions at the Dean Street Cafe in Brooklyn, among them altoists Hart and Justin Robinson and drummers Bruce Cox and Ali Jackson. Many of these musicians continued their explorations during jams at Smalls, when that Greenwich Village jazz haunt located on West 10th Street just off Seventh Avenue opened in 1994. Gradually, Armacost wove this new harmonic attitude into his already appealing improvisational style. “Having studied the logic and grammar of harmony with Charlie Shoemake and now to be able to use it a freer way is really exciting,” he enthuses. “That’s become the new plateau in my musical life.”

    Live At Smalls, the dynamic album which was made in the intimate basement room on December 6-7, 1996, brings Armacost’s accumulated musical growth to a greater public for the first time. “A lot of what I learned in that period comes out on this record,” he says. “And while Live At Smalls was recorded over a year ago, this pretty accurately depicts the current state of my playing.” The album, the leader says, was also a 15-year dream come true on two fronts: documenting himself in front of a live audience and recording with Tom Harrell, one of his favorite trumpeters. Smalls was an ideal location for Armacost, because, beyond those jam sessions, he had his first New York headlining appearance at the club on April 21-22, 1995, and has worked there as a leader three times since–the third is Live At Smalls, the latest in December, 1997. He reveres the room, and owner Mitchell Borden.

    “Mitch is like one of us. I love the guy,” says Tim with obvious sincerity. “He’s provided a unique environment to play in, and there’s a level of audience focus in that room that I don’t experience at any other club. Part of it is there’s no alcohol served [with a $10 admission, unlimited free juices and other non-alcoholic beverages are available], partly it’s the intimate nature of the room. Another thing is that Mitch has managed to attract a young audience; there’s always someone in their ‘20s in there.”

    I was there when Armacost brought the ace crew of pianist Jonny King, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Shingo Okudaira (all longtime associates) plus Harrell into Smalls that December, 1996 weekend. And I saw that the compact club’s chairs, couches and banquettes were packed with listeners of all ages, musicians and fans alike, enthusiastically soaking up the sounds, of which six prime selections are included here. There was a sense that the listeners were really into what was happening on the bandstand–check out the audible crowd response on these tracks–and it seemed clear the musicians knew it.

    The six titles that make up Live At Smalls are mostly tributes to heroes of Armacost, which include John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Hank Mobley and Gary Bartz. “The choice of these tunes had a lot to do with musicians who helped form my aesthetic,” he says.

    The first of these dedications is to alto saxophonist Bartz via his “Libra,” played here with consummate brio. This is a 32-bar, two chord (F & G) variant on Miles’ “So What” and Coltrane’s “Impressions,” recorded by Bartz on his debut Milestone album, Libra, in 1967. “I’ve always been interested in studying instrumentalists other than tenor players, because you learn to do things that are not tenoristic,” says Tim. In the same way, “Gary assimilated Trane’s language onto the alto and made it something of his own. He’s one of my favorite improvisers and has had a powerful effect on me.”

    “Libra” is a good example of the type of harmonic exploration of which Armacost has spoken. In the saxophonist’s solo, one hears numerous brief modulations into other keys, forays which ultimately return to the home key. Pianist King is a perfect rhythm section mate for this style, listening keenly and following the leader when he shifts harmonic base, and elsewhere providing a flexible harmonic foundation that encourages substitutions. Armacost singles out Harrell’s solo here, saying simply, “It puts a chill in my spine.”

    “Tenor Vibe,” though also a powerful modal piece in minor with three 16-bar sections, is lyrical in substance. The tune’s inherent song-like center leads the participants to offer melodic-based improvisations; even King’s comping rarely strays from the home key of G minor. The selection was initially written on computer by Armacost (that’s where he does all his composing these days) to be played with the harmonica player-vibist Hendrik Meurkens, with whom the leader has recorded. King’s outing, with its tuneful yet driving quality, grabbed the leader. “I love the story Jonny tells,” he says. “I think the opening is intelligent and melodically logical, and I liked the climax so much I used it as the basis for a big band arrangement.”

    “Invisible,” a mainstream-leaning tune that employs a chromatically-ascending chord progression, was Ornette Coleman’s first studio recorded piece. Made on February 10, 1958, it’s included on the classic Contemporary date, Something else!!! Armacost had first heard Ornette's music as a teenager and later studied with ex-Coleman trumpeter Bobby Bradford at Pomona; still, it was just before Tim left Amsterdam for India in 1992 for a year of study that the avant-gardist’s music made sense. “I fell in love with his melodies and the emotional quality of his playing,” he says. “This tune is just a ball to play,” a remark proven true by the penetrating solos from all on board.

    Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s gentle waltz, “Whistling Away The Dark,” came to Tim’s attention through singer Abbey Lincoln’s 1983 Enja album, Talking To The Sun. “The recording’s one of my favorites and is on my Desert Island Discs list on my website [www.jazzcorner.com/armacost.html],” he says. “This tune had a certain melodic quality that I thought Tom’s flugelhorn [he plays trumpet on all other tracks] would sound really beautiful on,” Tim goes on. Turns out he was right. “Tom plays an absolutely gorgeous solo on this. The melody at the top of the third chorus could be a new melody for the tune, it’s that beautiful.”

    The decidedly fast “Hank’s Other Bag” was written by the wondrous tenorman and composer Hank Mobley. This is from another favorite album of Armacost’s, Mobley’s 1996 Blue Note date, A Slice Of The Top, one of the hornman’s most modern-leaning, and provocative recordings: all of the compositions were written while Mobley was in prison on drug charges. “There’s a raw quality to Hank’s playing here, it’s his most fiery session,” says Tim. Unusual in that it’s a 14-bar blues (instead of the expected 12 or 24), “Hank’s Other Bag” is in C, and has a one-bar modulation to A Flat at bar 13 before returning to C to close. This upward chordal movement of a major third is the same motion that Coltrane employed on “Giant Steps.” “Hank‘s Other Bag” is also the only tune on the recording where Armacost plays soprano, a horn of which, like tenor, he has complete command.

    Live At Smalls closes with the slow and dramatic “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” made famous in jazz circles by Rollins’ rendition on his superb 1956 recording, Saxophone Colossus. “This is one of my favorite ballads to play,” Tim states. “I heard it for the first time years ago, but it was when a student brought it in at Sweelinck that I understood Sonny’s rhythmic complexity; I found a new layer of meaning in that solo.” Armacost also cites his cadenza on the number as another prime example of his expanded harmonic awareness. “I was basically free-associating, harmonically,” he says. “I heard a key and played it, then I’d hear another key and play that.”

    When an album sounds as good as this one does, it makes it easy for a leader like Armacost to bask. “Like I said, it’s a dream come true,” he begins. “I’m very happy with the level of improvising from everybody in the band, and with the balance of moods. I’m really excited to have recorded these tunes; I feel emotionally connected to them.”

The tall, lanky Armacost, a husband and father (to Niki and Zachary–born April 29, 1997–respectively), cites the period from summer, 1996, the time of his American debut, Fire (Concord Jazz), to winter 1997-98, when this album was issued, as a wonderfully productive, even breakthrough year-plus. Among the 1996 highlights were his gig as a headliner at the Jazz Yatra Festival in Bombay in November, 1996, which followed a three week tour of Japan (where he has been traveling since he was an exchange student in college). In India, Armacost appeared on a bill that also included Mike Stern and Carmen Lundy. “That was my first time leading at an international jazz festival, and for me it was kind of a homecoming. It was fantastic to go back for the purpose of performing,” says Tim, who from 1992-3 studied Indian rhythms in New Delhi with tabla master Vijay Ateet. Back in the states, Armacost climaxed the year by recording Live At Smalls.

    1997 included several trips to Europe, both with the co-op, NY-based Intercontinental Jazz Trio (with bassist Joris Teepe and Okudaira) and as a member of Ugetsu, led by German bassist Martin Zenker. (Armacost has recorded with both bands). Armacost also toured Japan as a leader, as he has for many years. Recordings with Ugetsu, IJT and as a leader bring the total number of his album appearances to 19.

In the states, he had more than occasional gigs with Russian expatriate trumpeter Valery Ponomarev and many as a leader. In particular, he made his first U.S. festival appearance when he performed at the Berkshire East Jazz Festival in Massachusetts in July. Also, there were regular Tuesdays from April to August at @Cafe in New York with a piano-less quartet, and a very special weekend at Smalls in December, where the band comprised Dave Berkman, piano, Ray Drummond, bass and Billy Hart (who played on Fire), drums. “That was a great experience for me,” Tim says. “The music was on a new level. I want to make that happen more and more frequently.” With the kind of melodically rich, harmonically forward-moving playing we have on Live At Smalls, no doubt it will.

    Zan Stewart   Contributor, Musica Jazz, Down Beat   January 4, 1998