Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Ode to Smalls

This afternoon I was reading a post from George Colligan's blog, jazztruth (, about the charming jazz club Smalls, in the West Village. I went there for the first time this summer to see the stride pianist Mike Lipskin.

Smalls--with its rug-draped walls, cheap Sapporo, and folding chairs arranged before the stage--might be the best jazz club in New York City because it is so unpretentious and rustic and bizarre. If you go, try to spot the gray cat sometimes ambling about the stage during a performance.

I happen to have written a review of the Mike Lipskin show I saw, so I figured I'd rehash it here, to give you a portrait of Smalls which now hangs fuzzily in my mind:

Striding Through Songs with Ease, Solo Piano at Smalls

The pianist Mike Lipskin, who came from San Francisco to perform at Smalls in the West Village, seemed familiar with the audience on Monday night. “We’re closed,” he muttered, as some walked in a few minutes before the show.

The performance felt mildly vaudevillian. The subway rumbled subtly beneath the floorboards and a longhaired gray cat ambled about the stage as Mr. Lipskin played stride piano and deadpanned one-liners between songs.

“Stride piano’s like touch-typing,” Mr. Lipskin said, referring to the high level of muscle memory stride pianists must have in their hands. He sipped from his drink and thought for a moment: “Except you have to use a different font.”

Mr. Lipskin—who studied with Willie “The Lion” Smith and referred to the stride innovator as “a dear friend, a second father”—presents himself as a perpetual student of the Harlem stride tradition. But he is more than that.

Mr. Lipskin performed stride tunes by Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. He adapted Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael tunes to the stride style—a steady left-hand four-beat pulse interlaced with improvised right-hand chords—such as “Caravan,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” and “Skylark,” which were recast as locomotive etudes.

He played a bit of Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” stopped, and began Willie “The Lion” Smith’s version, explaining first how Willie had made it his own. And it was Willie’s own (as Mr. Lipskin exhibited well)—with fierce bass-note stabs and a melody that respectfully hinted at its origins but resolved differently.

He seemed to stare at his hands when he played. But if stride piano is anything like touch-typing, it couldn’t have mattered where he looked. Perhaps he was reading the music from his head.

After spotlessly navigating James P. Johnson’s “Keep off the Grass,” Mr. Lipskin remarked, “I think that was written at three pm on July third, but I’m not sure,” mocking the sometimes-annoying obsessiveness of jazz scholarship. His jokes were self-contained, and he never smiled or laughed at them, even as the audience did. He only smiled after each piece. He’d finish playing, turn around to face the crowd, smile, take a sip from his drink, introduce the next song, perhaps tell a joke, and then begin to play again. He had an agenda.

Everything was pleasantly compartmentalized. He played his own tunes, too: stride with corky lyrics. In his tune “Could Be You’re Falling In Love,” he sang, “Time passes by / like the lifespan of a fly / could be you’re falling in love.” His voice was gravelly, not too resonant, and mostly on key. For one low note, he had to reach way down to the bottom of his throat. He sort of got it, and the audience laughed. He kept on singing.

You almost didn’t want him to be a great singer. He sang charmingly, and picked his songs wisely and wittily. He didn’t overcompensate.

He played unpretentiously, without long, introspective endings that often draw too much attention in solo jazz-piano performances. At the beginning of the second set, he informed the audience that he would be lecturing at Jazz at Lincoln Center the next day. “We’ll be discussing interest rates from 1956 to 1957,” he said.

As Mr. Lipskin began “In A Sentimental Mood,” with elegant descending bass notes, the gray cat was making its way up the bass drum in the corner of the stage.


  1. Hi,

    I really enjoyed your review here. I'm a recent college grad with a love for I moved to Chicago. I was a music major, but could never master the jazz style, so whenever I have a spare buck (which is rare), I'll head to a jazz club and soak it all in. It's great to see other people my age really enjoying the best music out there. Your research experience sounds fascinating.
    Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. Thanks a lot for reading, Cristin. It's nice to know there are people out there who want to read about jazz.

    I look forward to writing more...