When a friend wanted to go to Smoke Wednesday night, I instantly agreed even without knowing anything about who was playing aside from the percussionist (nobody goes to a gig for the percussionist) and vaguely remembering the saxophonist's name . But the kind of jazz booked at Smoke, though not always transcendent or innovative, is a guaranteed fun time. Wednesday proved no exception, and better than the norm.
The loosely defined know-it-when-you-hear-it genre of soul jazz didn't used to get much respect (not pure enough for jazz snobs, not pop(ular) enough for the masses), though a generation of crate-digging DJs and compilers has managed to somewhat change that over the past decade. But really, what's not to like about guys with jazz chops playing funky soul and blues? Their harmonic sophistication allows them to take the familiar chord changes into more interesting places, but the soul and funk grooves (with the occasional Latin rhythm for variety) keep it all grounded and propellingly infectious.
Like any genre, though it's not automatic. Some are better than others. Some get too slick and lose the necessary grittiness. Veterans Kenny and Everett Brawner and their associates were several cuts above the norm. In the first set, they proved their jazz bona fides with versions of Miles Davis's "All Blues" (with Oscar Brown Jr.'s lyrics - singer/pianist K. Brawner having worked with OB and co-written "New York Neurosis") and Horace Silver's "Senor Blues." In the second set, things got funkier, but there was still room for a hard-grooving take on Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance" in between "I Put a Spell on You" and "Compared to What." And lest you think this was just a bar cover band, there were more than a few soulful Brawner originals, most from the group's 2006 CD, This Is Where You Wanna Be.
Kenny Brawner has a rich, earthy baritone voice that's equally at home in jazz or soul, and a conversational delivery that puts across his down-home lyrics with a warm friendliness. Sticking to a Roland synth's electric piano settings (Wurlitzer and Fender-Rhodes), he stakes out a middle ground between Zawinul, Sample, and Tee, with plenty of chops but an equal amount of taste. Everett Brawner, on electric bass, abjures all flashiness but holds down the bottom with grace and style. Drummer Tyrone Govan was quite the showman with his stick twirls and effusive fills, but totally in the pocket and impressively powerful without ever overwhelming. Percussionist Victor See Yuen most often played conga and was quite the tireless virtuoso.
Surprisingly, the electric guitarist, Luca Tozzi, is from Italy, but has more than mastered a variety of assimilated styles - Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and a sort of Otis Rush/B.B. King blues amalgam. Though the least distinctive of the soloists, he fulfilled his role in the music with panache. Tenor saxophonist Charles Davis was the most impressive soloist, both technically and stylistically, with bebop's dexterity married to R&B's sweaty intensity. Trumpeter Melvin Vines wasn't quite at that level; he was sweetly melodic on the few ballads, but when soloing on uptempo tunes, he frequently leaned heavily on repeated notes and sequential patterns that had a certain rhythmic flair but not enough variety, and his intonation could be better at high speeds. No matter, he was more than adequate, and when he and Govan harmonized, which they often did in the texturally rich arrangements, they were totally in synch. The whole band had that paradoxical tight-but-loose rhythmic cohesiveness that comes when gifted musicians work together a lot in this context. It was the most fun I've had at a show this year. - Steve Holtje
Smoke is at 2751 Broadway between 105th and 106th Streets.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.