There’s a long, rectangular box at my feet. It’s my saxophone. Do I have the cojones to take it out of the case and play it? Not bloody likely! This is Smoke, the toughest jam session in town.
There are other sessions around the city: Small’s, at Sheridan Square, has become a wee-small-hours Village institution, and lately, the dazzling guitarist Joe Cohn has been leading a trio at Rachel’s (around the corner from Birdland) with which no less than Frank Wess himself frequently sits in. But I haven’t found a jam that’s as consistently rewarding and as well-run as the Monday-night blowfests up here on Broadway at 106th.
For the first hour, the talented tenorist and composer John Farnsworth leads his quintet in conjunction with a pre-announced guest star—most recently trumpeter Eddie Henderson and trombonist Steve Turre. Then at 11, the games begin: Players on all instruments—but generally at a very high level of competence (which leaves me out)—sign up to be called to the bandstand. There are students, amateurs, professionals, Broadway pit musicians, and bar mitzvah and club-date dudes who come to blow off a little steam—or smoke, as the case may be. (The place is well-named; after a few hours, it’s impossible to get the smell out of your clothes, or hair if, unlike me, you have some.) There’s also your occasional living legend—Harold Mabern, a blues and bebop pianist to be mentioned in the same breath as Barry Harris or Hank Jones, comes in regularly and turns the session into a master class, as does fellow Memphis giant George Coleman.
There’s never a shortage of guitarists or drummers. However, it seems as if they can never get enough piano players. One night, Mabern and Kenny Ascher, a great studio keyboardist (and Muppet Movie co-composer) rarely seen in clubs, switched off. Most recently, Heather Bennett, one of the most promising bop-and-beyond players of the younger generation, was reluctantly tethered to the Steinway for three hours. One set signified virtually the only time I’ve ever been in a club where three trombonists were on hand; last Monday, trumpets predominated. I came in as two trumpet-tooting guys named Jones tore “Caravan” to ribbons. All the brassmen seemed determined to cut Freddie Hubbard a new butthole, pushing the horn to extreme limits of loud and fast; Bennett then showed them they could be interesting and intense without shattering every eardrum in Harlem. After a Charlie Parker blues in C—everybody knew the chords but nobody knew the title—a harmonica player led the collective through “All Blues.”
The club’s two biggest stars—tenor Eric Alexander and the imposing keyboardist David Hazeltine, who have featured nights on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively—also frequently make the Monday contest. They have two new albums out, one together, Hazeltine’s The Classic Trio Meets Eric Alexander, and Alexander’s Summit Meeting, which pairs him with Harold Mabern. Both offer the kind of neo-neo-hardbop you can hear most nights at Smoke, a combination of originals, jazz and pop standards, and some reworkings of composers not often found on jazz albums, such as Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder, and Jimmy Webb. Alexander’s big, Dexter Gordon-like tone and his endless flow of ideas make both albums—as well as his Tuesday meetings with organist Mike LeDonne—essential events.
On the nights when I have my C-melody with me, I’m actually hoping Hazeltine and Alexander won’t show up. I have enough troubles without them stomping on my sorry ass. For now the horn stays in the case.