Joe Magnarelli at Smalls Jazz Club


On Thursday, February 13th, I went to a club performance at Smalls Jazz Club on 183 W. 10th Street to hear Joe Magnarelli on trumpet play a set with a pianist, bassist, and percussionist. The set lasted over an hour and was appreciated by a large

audience crammed into the tiny basement room. The songs performed were Mr. Mags, Waltz for Aunt Marie, Ruby’s Weekend, You’ve Change, and Home Changed. My overall impression was that the ensemble, particularly Joe Magnarelli, was fantastic but that I had trouble understanding what was going on in the music. The style of the group was more modern than what we have studied in class, so I did not know how to classify it or understand it fully. I did notice, however, that they used a contemporary version of the classic New Orleans style by using structured yet improvised counterpoint that was more dissonant and jagged than that from the early 20th century. In terms of the ensemble, Joe Magnarelli was clearly the leader of the group, as he stood in front of the other three members and always took the first and last solos of each piece. The other three players, however, each had their turn at taking solos, although the pianist clearly had more solos than the bassist and percussionist. I assumed that this allotment of solos occurred because the bass and percussion comprised the rhythm section, which by nature does not give many solos, while the piano and trumpet were the melody players.
The group, for the most part, alternated between faster, upbeat songs and slower, creamier songs. It was during the upbeat songs that I noticed the use of the New Orleans counterpoint. I immediately, however, took a preference to the slower pieces. I felt that the fast songs were too “busy” sounding (New Orleans style gone crazy), with each musician’s part sounding so different from the rest that any cohesiveness within the group was hard to depict. I also felt that the balance in the upbeat numbers was a little percussion-heavy, where the clanging of the hihat pierced through the rest of the ensemble, thus distracting the listener from the other parts. Furthermore, it was harder to pick out melodies and themes in the faster songs than it was in the slower songs, so I tended to understand the forms of the slower songs better.
I particularly appreciated the second song, “Waltz for Aunt Marie.” It was a soulful tune that allowed Joe Magnarelli to highlight his smooth, tender tone on the trumpet, which was a beautiful contrast to his brassier tone used in the faster songs. One part of the song that struck me was its tag: Magnarelli took an unaccompanied solo mainly consisting of an ascending scale and then ended with the group on the tonic of the key of the piece. This ending surprised me, for I usually expect a jazz number to end on an unpredictable note—i.e., anything but the tonic. I really appreciated that deviance from standard jazz practice, where a little classical influence was a nice touch to the piece.
I spoke to Joe Magnarelli after the set to compliment on his performance, particularly on his beautiful sound in the slower tunes. I then asked him how it felt to create such beautiful moments while his audience chatted away to such an extent that the people could not have possibly appreciated the sophisticated mood of the song. I asked him this because during the beautiful end of “Waltz for Aunt Marie,” I had trouble focusing on the music because of all the noise around me, thus rendering me quite agitated. I mentioned to him that I am a classical musician, so I expect complete silence when I perform or attend a concert, and I asked him what he thought of the difference in protocol between the two types of music. He responded that he cares only that his audience has a good time, so he does not want to appear too anal about the noise level in the club. I asked if he would ever tell an audience in the middle of set quiet down if the people were too noisy, and he said no, that jazz creates a more relaxed atmosphere than classical music and that noise level is something jazz musicians must simply deal with.
He was so nice and giving of his time that I was really thrilled to talk to him. He even asked for my name, and when I said Laura, he mentioned the song “Laura” and said he would play it for me if I ever came to hear him again. I was really touched by his kindness; it made the whole evening worthwhile. It also made me understand the love that exists within jazz, where the musicians play and improvise from their hearts and love the music despite any surrounding circumstances. Sometimes I do not have that same impression about classical music.
I cannot help to feel, however, that it is wrong to treat jazz as background music, such as many of the audience members at Smalls did that night. Perhaps people go to Smalls for its atmosphere and not necessarily for the music itself. I am not against the atmosphere that a small, cozy, jazz club creates; however, I feel the music should always come first and that that rule should hold for both classical music and jazz.

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