Pianist Rachel Z Brings a Great Lineup to Smalls Tonight

by delarue

We are in the most bizarre time for live music in New York history. At this point, a small handful of jazz clubs are leading the way back to normalcy, catering to all New Yorkers without apartheid restrictions. Among the herd of elephants in the room is the brain drain out of town, where all but the most obstinate or destitute among us got the hell out within weeks of the March 2020 totalitarian takeover. So there are all kinds of unexpected faces popping up where they might not have before the lockdown.

One intriguing show that might not have taken place at Smalls in 2019 is happening there tonight, April 2, where pianist Rachel Z and her band Orbits 4 wrap up their two-night stand with sets at 7:30 and around 9 PM. It’s a great lineup, with Steve Wilson on alto sax, Jonathan Toscano on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums; cover is $25 cash at the door

The last time anybody from this blog was in the house at a Rachel Z show was eons ago, at a Winter Jazzfest afternoon in the Carnegie Hill area, where despite the early hour she and her Trio of Oz treated the crowd to a thoughtfully energetic set whose high point was a biting instrumental cover of the Police’s King of Pain.

If you’re thinking of checking out the Smalls gig, one album that might offer a hint of what they’ll be up to is bassist Scott Petito’s 2018 release Rainbow Gravity – streaming at Bandcamp – which features Rachel Z along with a rotating cast of talent, mostly from the jazz world.

Petito tends to favor a a dry, blippy, slightly oscillating tone, plays with a lot of guitar voicings and has a flair for the cinematic. A lot of this material looks straight to about forty years ago. Case in point: the album’s opening track, Sly-Fi. which has an easygoing, period-perfect early 80s Crusaders soul/funk vibe. David Spinozza’s guitar flares in sync with Bob Mintzer’s tenor sax over David Sancious’ alternately light-fingered and atmospheric keys, with a cheery sax solo at the center.

That template sets the stage for much of the rest of the record. On The Sequence of Events, Rachel Z adds welcome gravitas with her spare, thoughtfully incisive piano, as the bandleader takes a snappy solo way up the fretboard. Balsamic Reduction is an echoey Fender Rhodes soul song without words set to a straight-up clave beat, livened with• Mike Mainieri’s vibraphone and Spinozza’s chipper flamenco/blues solo. The group revisit a similar vibe – pun intended – a little later, in the album’s title track

The Sanguine Penguin is a brisk postbop swing jazz tune, Petito doubling the bright riffage from Mintzer and trumpeter Chris Pasin over Peter Erskine’s subtle drum accents, a cleverly leapfrogging piano solo at the center. Masika is both poignant and funny, Petito playing guitar lines through a flange and a sitar pedal over an otherwise unexpectedly brooding, west African tinged theme.

He and drummer Jack DeJohnette team up to build suspense in Dark Pools, an ominous soundscape. The group go back to a rather dark take on Hollywood Hills boudoir funk with Helicon, then work a pleasantly sleepy, twinkling groove in Lawns. Petito winds up the record with a gamelanesque duo with DeJohnette.

Fun fact: the album title is a concept from quantum physics which posits that the universe is more the result of a big drift rather than a big bang. The corollary is that its ever-increasing expanse may be more hospitable to life than we previously thought.