This series of recordings documents the evolution of the seminal Omer Avital Sextet and is drawn from an archive of recordings made by me from 1995-1997 at Smalls. The first volume, Asking No Permission (SRCD-0011), was representative of the first six months of the Omer Avital Sextet from early 1996. Here in the second volume we move to the next phase in the group’s development, beginning around June 1996.
By late 1996, band members Ali Jackson and Mark Turner were getting to be heavily in demand for outside commitments, and correspondingly less available for weekly performances at Smalls. To suit the requirement for sustained involvement as well as strong playing, Avital cast drummer Joe Strasser and tenor player Grant Stewart to his ensemble to replace Jackson and Turner. This recording was made some time in the period between December 1996 and March 1997, though the exact date is presently unknown.
The disk title Room To Grow comes from the headline of an article by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times on March 9th 1997, which reads: ‘No Labels, No Marketers, Just Room To Grow.’ This is an apt way to describe the development of the Avital group during this period. The steady weekly ‘ sometimes twice weekly ‘ gigs at Smalls afforded the band the means to keep developing. The prolific 26 year-old Avital was moving forward rapidly, arriving at Smalls almost every day with new tunes as well as new interludes, countermelodies, shout choruses, and backgrounds for existing works. The music during this phase is characterized by some new influences and a corresponding shift to larger pieces and longer forms.
During this period Avital was drawing on influences from modern Western music, including 20th century classical composers, and from Middle Eastern and Indian music. Avital notes that the idea of theme and variations as a way of organizing music here comes from western classical music, noting especially the influence of operatic forms. The saxophones are often used here as a choir or chorus. Listen for example to the opening of ’26-2’ which was intentionally written like a chorale. The ensemble writing was used mainly to set the stage for soloists as the characters in Avital’s dramas. Drawing on ideas from Middle Eastern and Indian music, Avital encouraged each soloist to take time patiently to say what needed to be said, or, in Avital’s words, to ‘testify.’ Avital says he wanted the soloists to have room for everything on what he calls ‘the long journey.’
The resulting music has honesty. The musical occasion I think compels honesty. Avital sets the stage musically and accords each soloist the full space, and thereby also his full trust, while the audience and the other members of the group bear witness. [Whosoever is given the rudder is entrusted to not run the vessel aground.] This in turns imbues the soloist with a sense of responsibility. So the sense of ‘testimony’ is palpable. Furthermore, with the player able to discard and re-institute conventions freely, the listener has to abandon expectations, leaving little recourse in anything except attentive innocence. I suspect this too compels the soloist to be honest in somewhat the same way that one feels compelled to speak honesty to innocence.
Avital, Tardy, Walden, and Owens had been together at this point for nearly two years, rehearsing and playing constantly. I praised them at length in the notes to the first volume of this series, and that applies to this volume a fortiori. The newer additions, Strasser and Stewart, themselves veterans, assimilated into the group quickly and by the time of this recording they had been performing the material already for months. Both are extremely talented. Strasser has impeccable time and feel, and can instantaneously summon up everything from a patter to a thunderous climax in a way that suits Avital’s dramaturgical sensibilities perfectly. Stewart has a masterful command of all the traditional forms of melody and harmony, and here he spins remarkable lines that ring with truth. The basic character and workings of the group had been well refined by this time and the complex arrangements had been internalized to the point where they are everywhere rendered fluidly on this recording. The group is like a six-piece orchestra that can travel fast and turn on a dime. They create the kind of excitement that one sometimes feels in the presence of a great working group that has an entire repertoire of surprise moves that they are able to coolly spring on you.
I say here again that this group exemplifies the better of the newer jazz styles both in its artistic integrity, and in the way that it integrates new elements in a natural way without sacrificing or simplifying the form, and without merely copying what came before it. This is an achievement that has not been equaled many times in the ten years since this recording was made.
Luke Kaven, November 2006
Review by Mark Keresman
Beginning as a New York City club and evolving into a label, Smalls is where jazz–acoustic, straight-ahead, uncompromising, and/or mellow–thrives. Bassist, composer, and Smalls “regular” Omer Avital, leads a six-member ensemble specializing in some fascinating, challenging, and ultimately exhilarating music. Whether performing originals or interpretations, Avital’s approach draws upon many influences: small-group, hard bop, and avant-garde jazz, as well as European classical music and sounds of India and North Africa. Recorded live, with each selection averaging 20 minutes, ROOM presents expressive, unfettered soloing and inspired arrangements.
Review by J Hunter
In 1996, the Omer Avital Group was in transition. Due to their increasing workload outside the band, Avital was forced to replace original members Ali Jackson and Mark Turner. Losing musicians of that quality would have crippled other groups; but if Room To Grow (recorded live at Smalls the following year) is any indication, the band didn’t miss a beat when drummer Joe Strasser and tenor player Grant Stewart took their places.
Room To Grow has only three tracks’one original (Avital’s ‘Kentucky Girl’) and two standards. That’s not a very varied menu, and leaves the band open to charges of over-indulgence. However, it becomes abundantly clear that the Avital Group is all about exploration, with each soloist getting the space to make his mark and apply his voice to the matrixes Avital creates. The results are never boring, and often breathtaking. The opening of Coltrane’s ’26-2′ is re-cast as a soaring choral piece, with the all-reeds frontline performing the vocals flawlessly, and taking the spirituality in the piece to another level.
Avital unaccompanied is a wonder, and he visits that space often; both ‘Kentucky Girl’ and Cole Porter’s ‘It’s Alright with Me’ are prefaced by Avital solos. With the former, it’s a great introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Avital’s singular tone, which remains aggressive and engaging even when he plays on the softer side. His solo transitions into a loping melody that feels like an undiscovered Mingus blues. On the Porter composition, Avital communicates the sadness of the protagonist, who may say it’s alright that his lover wants to leave, but deep down, the loss is as heavy as an anchor. This position is echoed by Myron Walden, whose haunting alto amply demonstrates the anger that goes with loss and loneliness.
Walden shows a penchant for risk that is nowhere to be found in his work on The Source (World Culture Music, 2006), Kendrick Scott’s debut as a leader. Here, Walden repeatedly steps out on the edge and screams like a banshee. It’s just one of the many highlights served up by a phenomenal front line anchored by four saxophones. That instrumental makeup should sound like death, but the arrangements are as varied and vital as you would get from a traditional big band configuration. It helps that Gregory Tardy mixes things up: his clarinet on ‘It’s Alright’ adds to the old-school feel when Avital’s arrangement changes from raucous exploration to bubbling traditionalism; and Tardy’s flute adds a piping tone to the choir at the start of ’26-2.’
Given the size of the venue, seeing the Omer Avital Group at Smalls must have been like going to the foot of the Empire State Building and looking up. Room To Grow is the second release chronicling the evolution of this towering unit. It’s a good thing club owner Mitch Borden kept the tapes, because this is a band that needs to be remembered.