Live Report: Avi Rothbard Trio at Smalls Jazz Club

Avi Rothbard Trio
with Jay Leonhart (bass/vocals) and Tomoko Ohno Farnham (piano)
Smalls Jazz Club
22 June 2015

Israeli-born guitarist and composer Avi Rothbard has earned his stripes in the relentless music scene of New York, where he has lived since 1999 and where his talents have found their way into a range of projects. With such a full palette already on his own, only those musicians with the right sensibility will do for bandmates, and a trio performance with bassist Jay Leonhart and pianist Tomoko Ohno Farnham at Smalls in June of 2015 was just what the doctor ordered in this regard.

Over the course of two richly varied sets, Rothbard and friends managed to balance their idiosyncratic strong points within a smooth group unity. Each musician brought a distinct signature to the stage without ever clashing for dominance. Farnham’s compacted, cellular approach to soloing, for instance, tapped the flavors of old-timey jazz to everything she touched. Whether comping beneath Rothbard’s leading tone in Randy Weston’s “High Fly” or bringing nostalgia and joy to the music of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Baron, she maintained a free, conversational tone. She further showed her inventiveness in Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphy Dance,” for which, in tandem with Rothbard’s sensitive touch, she spun fresh colors from the older threads.

Rothbard, for his part, stretched each tune until it fit like a favorite shirt. As composer, he spearheaded some of the most impressive turns of the night. Three originals—“Eye Talk,” “Twin Song,” and “Minor Impact”—acted as vibrant springboards for the band’s communicative potential, each more appealing than the next. With moods ranging from lyrical to blinding, they had an overall ductile quality that adapted itself to the themes at hand. As technician, Rothbard bared his chops on the theme from I Love Lucy, an unexpected highlight made all the more brilliant for its arrangement and virtuosic energies.

Overall, the drum-less roster allowed the band members to revel in open improvisational spaces. Leonhart was particularly on point in this regard, his playing so percussive that the sticks and skins were hardly missed. A fixture in the New York jazz club scene, Leonhart sang not only through his instrument but also along with it, offering two originals of his own—a self-deprecating blues called “Joy” (another fine vehicle for Farnham) and a humorous ditty about sitting next to Leonard Bernstein on a plane—and a lighthearted take on “Cool,” from Bernstein’s West Side Story.

With so much to appreciate in terms of execution and variety, the Avi Rothbard Trio delivered exactly as advertised, plus a few surprises thrown in for good measure, for a thoroughly enjoyable summertime gig that was the very essence of cool.

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