Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2017: Neil Watson

Spike Wilner Quintet: Live at Small’s

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In the middle of March, Winnipeg welcomes pianist Spike Wilner to headline the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series. His prowess at the piano is highly respected in the jazz world. Whether it’s stride piano from the 1920s, the exhilarating and highly impressive bebop style from the 40s, or the more burning hard-bop style from the 60s, Spike is at home across all of these styles. 

As if being an incredible jazz pianist wasn’t enough, imagine also being the owner of two of the hottest jazz clubs in the world in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. Well this perfectly describes Spike Wilner—jazz musician first, entrepreneur second. 

Small’s was founded in 1993 by Mitch Borden and quickly became a hugely popular club on the underground jazz scene. It became known for the incredible musicians who graced the stage, the “small-ness” of the place and the grungy nature of the club. 

During a time when business had slowed due to post 9/11 problems and an indoor smoking ban in NYC, Spike, who was already a part of the family of great musicians who frequently played at Small’s (opened in 1993 by Mitch Borden), had an opportunity to buy the club with his partner Lee Kostrinsky in 2006. With a raised cover to only 20 BUCKS (previously $10), a newly acquired liquor license and a subtle but much needed cosmetic makeover, Small’s was revived and shortly became popular once again amongst young hipsters, jazz die-hards, jazz newbies, some of the fat cats of society and a spirited college crowd. 

In pursuit of a way to share the incredible performances at the club with a wider audience, Spike innovatively began live- streaming the shows to viewers all over the world. This is an innovation that has since been copied by other jazz club owners and has raised the popularity of Small’s around the world never before seen in jazz. 

In 2014, Spike and his partners had an opportunity to open yet another jazz club literally just one block away that would serve as the yin to Small’s yang. Mezzrow was opened in 2014 and is more of a classy, quiet and polished listening room (still quite small!) that features piano trios, often with no drums. While Small’s can get a bit raucous (especially on weekends), Mezzrow audiences are always quiet and attentive. Both of these clubs have been incredibly successful and feature many of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet. Amongst the musicians who frequently grace the stage at these venues are Joel Frahm and Ryan Kisor. 

Joel Frahm is the type of musician that all other musicians look up to and admire because he is a virtuoso who makes incredible music in any setting he’s put in. He can play the sweetest and most lush ballad, play an incredibly complex and angular modern bop solo then rock the house with the raunchiest blues you ever heard. Every solo he takes seems like a masterpiece yet there is always an element of humor and fun present.

Ryan Kisor is one of the most respected jazz trumpeters in the world. A long-standing member of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for over 20 years, Ryan is comfortable playing in the old-school swing style in the spirit of the ever-expressive Ellington trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams. He is also very comfortable playing in more of a high-flying hard bop manner of the 60s like Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard. Ryan’s solos are deeply compelling, highly thoughtful, and always delivered with a beautifully warm tone.

The hard bop sounds of Spike, Joel and Ryan will ensure that you feel like you are sitting smack dab in the middle of the hottest jazz clubs on earth: Small’s. If you’re looking for a glimpse behind the scenes, check out masterclasses with Spike and Joel the day before.

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