On the weekend of April 28, Emilio Solla brought a heady blend of jazz and distinctly Argentinian music to the intimate setting of Smalls in the West Village. At Smalls most of the seats are the standard issue kitchen chairs, and there really is no stage. The effect is one of simplicity and charm complemented by warmth and enhanced intimacy due to the lack of separation between the musicians and audience. In fact, only when Senior Solla emerged from the audience to take his seat at the piano in the back of the room did I know who he was. Slowly the rest of the band emerged from the audience to join Solla at their stations until all musicians in Solla's group, Tango-Jazz Project, were accounted for. Rounding out membership in the ensemble were Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone and flute, Chris Cheek on soprano and tenor, Victor Prieto on accordion, Pablo Asian on bass, and the versatile Jeff Ballard on the tubs.
The band immediately tore into a sort of chamber tango with Solla looming large even while looking on from his remote position at the piano. Victor Prieto led on the accordion, accompanied by timely punctuations on the bass. Something seemed amiss, however, as the drums erupted, playing in a completely different meter from that of the subdued chamber jazz led by Prieto. I doubt I was alone in fearing something had gone terribly wrong. Instead, to the relief of us all, it soon became apparent that surprise is one of the more striking elements that Solla employs in his compositions.
Solla had written all of the music the night of the performance, and his opener was at once arresting and particularly picturesque. The drums, when cued to come in and take the lead, evoked the sounds of a street parade shattering the subdued and deliberative tango while forcing the musicians to begin from the drummer's insistent, undeniable initiative. At last, the ensemble settled into a modern, vamp-driven jam. Despite the feeling of extemporaneousness, the piece was a well- rehearsed suite that blended some Argentinian forms with a style somewhat reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's European quartet with Jan Garbarek.
For the first two pieces, the piano was largely in charge, introducing looping motifs that reverberated throughout the room, only to be intensified by the auxiliary of saxophones and flute. Borrowing folk motifs typically introduced by Solla on the piano, the players put them through their own filters and created richly textured and layered sounds. Various instrumental clusters shifted in and out of this musical amalgam until, at some point into the third pieceand this was quite startlingthe music just stopped. Again the playful Sr. Solla had caught his audience off guard. The cozy basement environment at Smalls, added to the intimacy of Solla's music, made this Brechtian moment all the more remarkable. When I noticed that the saxophone player was sitting just a couple of kitchen chairs over from me, I felt that Solla had physically brought the audience on stage, or rather, that he had turned Smalls itself, audience and all, into the performance space. It was a special moment, and Solla grinned as he started up the band again.
In the fourth piece, the band took up a quick motif and passed it around, from piano to accordion to bowed bass, sometimes playing it together, sometimes in quick secesssion. For many in the audience, this piece likely proved the highlight of the evening because of the smoking solo by Victor Prieto on the accordion. But actually it was Solla himself who stole the show. His striking presenceplayful yet clearly serious about his gameinvoked a couple of noteworthy apparitions at Smalls that night. At times it was the spirit of Piazolla, especially in the more tango-tinged pieces, that was conjured up. During other moments, the animated Solla summoned forth none other than the ghost of Mingus, as he forcefully commanded the band, prodding them on and exhorting his audience, while creating more mischief on stage.