The Flail is comprised of five veteran jazz musicians whose diverse paths to pro status brought them all into league together at the New School of Jazz in the late-1990s. Tenor saxophonist Stephan Moutot hails from France; trumpeter Dan Blankinship is from Virginia. Bassist Reid Taylor was born and raised in Jacksonville, FL, while the other two-thirds of the rhythm section is from Pennsylvania: pianist Brian Marsella is from Philadelphia, and drummer Brian Zebroski is from Pittsburgh.
The band’s first album was recorded live in France in 2002, as was their second. Live At Smalls is their fourth, part of a long series recorded at the venerable Greenwich Village establishment, the most recent ones released on their own in-house smallsLIVE label. It’s a great idea, for so many reasons: It helps promote the club while generating new revenue streams for its business; it gives more jazz artists a chance to record in a very conducive setting, and more recordings mean more money for the artists; it gives jazz fans more opportunities to feel the excitement of an always-vibrant NYC scene that most of us are lucky to catch a couple times per year, at best.
Condensed from the cream of a two-night stand at Smalls on October 8-9 of last year, the album captures the group in their element, playing for a strong, responsive crowd of knowledgeable jazz fans, of whom surely a few were musicians themselves. When musicians take the time to listen to other artists’ material, especially in such a busy and competitive arena as the world’s jazz capital, it speaks directly to chops and respect. One thing is clear: these guys certainly play like men who’ve gotten to know their collaborators really well. To borrow the phrase so well-employed by Dennis Cook is describing this band, they play with “seamless, telepathic grace.”
The album opens hot with Taylor’s “Mr. Potato Bass”. (Due to author error and editorial lead-time, the tune may be referred to in the Arbus story as “Mr. Potato Head”. Sincere apologetics extended, in advance.) The author’s metronomic bass lines remind me of Lennie Tristano alum Jeff Morton on “Line Up” laid under Marsella’s modernist intro; the horns jump in to reiterate the theme, before dropping into more of a walking tempo just long enough to offer some contrast before returning to the theme, cruising along for nearly 12 minutes. It’s a good example of how quickly this group can shift moods, with nary a skid-mark, without losing the groove.
Marsella’s “Better Watch What You Wish For” starts out like a hard-boiled mid-‘60s movie-detective theme song, with a choppy piano line from the author, taking abrupt turns into Spanish melodies and Klezmer rhythms. Think Argerich guesting with John Zorn, if both were feeling playful. The frontline drops in with some stellar counterpoint around the five-minute mark. “A Sunny Day In Mongerville”, written by Moutot enters on a note-perfect parallel to the John Coltrane’s epic Feb. 1967 sessions, the ones that would later yield “Interstellar Space” and (more to the point), “Stellar Regions”. It then returns to the loping groove in which they tend to habitate, but not before a nearly three-minute drum feature for Zebroski, who sounds like a cross between Elvin Jones and Shelly Manne—that’s a compliment, by the way.
“Light At the Beginning of the Tunnel” is a jaunty three-minute romp across free-jazz terrain, high-spirited and herky-jerky; one almost assumes it to be their idea of a self-deprecating intermission theme—but then, two minutes in, its gets down to some serious metacarpal manipulation from Marsella, who wrote three of the album’s eight songs. His fleet fingers are crucial to keeping this textural tightrope act unsplattered on the concrete. The rhythm section, in general, come across really well here.
“Long Neck Beast” (co-written by Taylor and Blankinship) runs 13 minutes, but that’s part of the appeal of this format—space. Five of the eight songs run in excess of ten minutes, which would probably not fly in any contemporary studio setting. Moutot shines in a lengthy lung-stretching solo, before Blankinship down-shifts back down to cruising speed. If the Flail’s method has any maddening aspects, it could be only that they don’t always stay in a particular groove long enough to appreciate it; just when they’ve got you, they switch it up. It can be like almost catching a butterfly.
“Open Wound” is the first track that could be properly called a “ballad”—the first to even linger on its constituent traits for more than a few bars. Author Marsella leads the way, pulling his comrades through languid laps around his melody. The frontline brings up more of the counterpoint they do so well, while Taylor’s solo with the rhythm brings to mind the master of this mood, the late great Scott LaFaro. It is music for listening to while sitting in the dark with a drink and a nice cigar (which may be intact, or split open and filled with something else), savoring the quiet before the storm.
Zebroski’s “We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet” could, itself, qualify as a storm, depending on what kind of instruments you’re using. It opens up in full Second Line mode, shifting into earthy soul jazz strains before modulating between the two. The diversity of the members’ experiences is reinforced with a track like; it would be hard to imagine that this track and the one before it were recorded by the same band, let alone probably in the same night. But disbelief is easily enough suspended here.
The album closes quietly, lounge-like, on cocktail-jazz notes with hints of Bossa Nova and the Cha-Cha. Taylor, whose earliest musical influence was Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, wrote “Under the Influence of Stereolab”, and it actually evokes the feel of one of the most influential bands ever without touching too directly on the musical elements. It’s like eating a Stereolab-flavored Jelly Belly that, once eaten, makes you feel like you’ve just listened to one of their albums. After the heavy-duty jazz they’ve laid on you, the closing track is like an after-dinner mint, easing you smoothly into silence. All in all, a very good effort by an outstanding young jazz group; like most of the smallsLIVE catalog, this, too comes well-recommended.