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Mojo’s Return: E.J Strickland quintet and Smalls

Marcus Strickland and Jaleel Shaw
Marcus Strickland and Jaleel Shaw, the frontline of the E.J Strickland Quintet at Smalls jazz club.

Last night saw us traveling to one of the last true jazz clubs, Smalls. Other venues may showcase jazz playing musicians, but I am wary to actually call them ‘jazz clubs’. The modern Birdland, which is spacious, comfortable even, and glitzy looking is more like a restaurant-bar that happens to feature jazz. The Jazz Standard is an appendage to the barbecue place Blue Smoke, and while the spectacular BBQ is certainly an incentive to go, comforts like food (or space) distract from the music. Smalls, on the other hand, has no pretensions to being anything it isn’t. It’s all about the music, everything else be damned. That includes not only such unnecessaries as glitz and food but also comfort and visibility. While I may not have been comfortable squeezed in next to a random stranger, and while I may not have been able to see the drummer-leader E.J Strickland through the frontline, my experience was wholly positive. The place exudes attitude and the music was excellent. Somehow I managed to never go to Smalls until very recently, a wonder given how great the calendar looks, and this was only my second time at the club. A great time it was though.

As I just now alluded, providing the excellent music was E.J Strickland leading a quintet made up of his brother Marcus on tenor and soprano saxophones, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Luis Perdomo on piano and Linda Oh on bass. Seated in the second row, I could see neither E.J nor Linda Oh on a regular basis, but I was in prime position to take it all in.

E.J Strickland
E.J Strickland visible briefly when Jaleel Shaw stepped aside.

Unlike at the Bad Plus show, the lighting in the club was largely not cooperative for taking photographs. With the exception of the pianist, no one was well lit, and without light photos just don’t come out. Yet I feel like these photos, indistinct though they are, capture the feel of what it’s like in the club. Everything’s dim. None of them are quite centered on the musicians because in order to get a clear shot, you have to crane over the heads of the people sitting in front of you. Smalls scores points for trying to alleviate the sightline issue by placing mirrors above the drummer and pianist, ostensibly to give the audience a view of their playing from behind, but, the nature of sightlines being what it is, you only get a clear view of the drummer or pianist if you are sitting in one of the handful of seats at the right angle to give you a view. The club is in a basement, there’s only so much to go around. Smalls has to be the most intimate club I’ve ever been to, intimate to the point of discomfort. Yet, on an existential level, strangely satisfying.

No doubt because of the quality of the music. This was a band of heavy hitters and they pulled no punches. The set was comprised of four long, sinewy E.J originals, sinewy both because of the length of the songs, padded out with long improvised solos, but in the quality of the band’s sound, particularly the sound coming from the horns. Marcus and Jaleel both tend to long, busy phrases, racing up and down the range of the horn. Under their well guided and virtuosic hands it can be very exciting. Anchoring the band was a rhythm section as active as the front line. E.J in particular was good counterpoint to the vagrancies of the horns, quick with a well placed snare or cymbal hit. Pianist Luis Perdomo was also in particularly fine form. As both a soloist and behind the band he was together.

Luis Perdomo
Luis Perdomo at the piano. Photo Credit: William Stone
Luis Perdomo
Watching his hands move backwards in the mirror was pretty trippy. Photo credit: William Stone

Anchoring everything was Linda Oh who was steady in the face of swirling melody around her. She only took one solo, unfortunately, a great reading of the title track from E.J’s “In This Day“, but she was a pivotal member of the band, grounding the group. Like E.J, she was largely invisible and impossible to photograph, but she had a presence in the sound of the band if not in my pictures.

Smalls is one of the more physically uncomfortable clubs out there (although, not nearly as uncomfortable as the Bluenote), but it is existentially one of the most satisfying. I eagerly await my next trip down.

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