Once a week musicians gather at Smalls to explore sonic space
In a city overflowing with corporate-owned, flimsily themed nightspots, independently owned Smalls stands out from the crowd. Holding court on a neon-drenched corner of Soi Suan Phlu for over two years now, the eccentrically decorated, three-story bar has steadily built a reputation as the place to be if you’re not particularly drawn by ladies’ night, models night, girls on swings, a hundred brands of craft beer, and other marketing gimmicks.
Where other bars focus on elaborately-fashioned mixology, Smalls takes pride in its hand-carried selection of bourbons, served with a minimum of fuss by efficient and personable Canadian barman Danny Yeung. Spirits are dispensed in stout New York-style 45-cl servings rather than the wimpy European 30-cl pour. Absinthe isn’t just a flavouring for obscurely named drinks; it’s served with the proper utensils and fountain. Meanwhile the kitchen serves everything from salads to burgers until the bar doors close well after midnight.
The bar nearly doubled in size last year when walls were knocked down to access an adjacent vintage shophouse, making more room to showcase Smalls’ extensive permanent collection of local and international artwork. Smalls doesn’t host exhibitions, nor is art accepted on concession. Every piece is purchased directly from the artists.
A similar purism applies to the music policy. When David Jacobson—the American who kicked off the once-flourishing Sukhumvit 11 club scene when he opened Q Bar in 1999—left the dance-club world behind to join forces with French partner Bruno Tanquerel to establish Smalls, one of the first things they focused on was an independent, non-commercial music policy.
“Our music doesn’t pander to lowest-common-denominator trends,” says Jacobson. “Our house DJs—Scott Hess on Thursday, Mike Ailin on Friday, and Justin Mills on Saturday—are professionals who we work with because we trust their taste. They’re in charge of their material and encouraged to be as eclectic as possible.”
On nights when there’s no DJ at the podium, Jacobson airs his own playlist that is comprised mostly of jazz, with occasional RnB tracks. The selection avoids moldy jazz standards, instead offering compositions that Jacobson, a native New Yorker who grew up around the avant-garde jazz greats of the 60s and 70s, is still passionate about. There’s probably not another bar in Bangkok, including so-called jazz venues, where you’ll hear Eric Dolphy or Archie Shepp.
A few months after it opened, Smalls took the radical step of inviting live jazz ensembles to perform every Wednesday night. Sparsely attended when it first started, the Wednesday jazz night has evolved into one of the bar’s biggest weekly draws. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that there’s nowhere else in town, including dedicated jazz venues, where jazz makes a bigger splash than at Smalls on Wednesdays.
“Our idea from the start was to seek out only extremely advanced jazz musicians,” says Jacobson, “who don’t perform standards but rather improvise freely at the highest level. That’s the whole idea.”
Wednesday nights are in fact more of a jazz loft, in the 1960s New York City tradition, in which a rotating roster of musicians meet to explore sonic space. Three loose-knit ensembles alternate week to week: Quince Factory, led by Thai saxophonist and jazz educator Pisut Pratheepasena; the Pong Nakornchai Quartet helmed by effervescent drummer Pong Nakornchai; and Stella Space. Twice a month, American guitarist Dan Philips—called “one of the most original guitarists and composers currently on the jazz scene” by www.allaboutjazz.com—holds forth with his own quartet. Phillips recently returned from a lengthy sojourn in Chicago, where his US band Chicago Edge Ensemble recorded the well-received album Decaying Orbit (2017).
“David lets me play what I want,” explains Philips, “which in my case is sometimes freely improvised music. Most clubs in Bangkok are commercial only in orientation and don’t consider music an art form.”
Guest artists, both local and international, bring plenty of surprises. One of the most popular regular guests is Danish saxophonist Jakob Dinesen, who has performed with many world-renowned musicians. Easily the most versatile of the Smalls visitors, Dinesen is as comfortable with soulful RnB ballads as he is with bebop and free jazz. A recent Wednesday night saw Hong Kong veterans Bernard and Chris Carpio (brothers) sitting in on saxophone and piano.
“David has been with a lot of my heroes in the so-called free music scene,” Dinesen remarks. “His great stories always inspire me to go on stage and channel those spirits in his beautiful venue. It’s the only place in Bangkok that encourages musicians to play abstract, to go for the unknown, the subconscious truth within us. The artsy decor and open-minded crowd makes for one of the most inspiring places to create music in Southeast Asia.”
None of the three regular bands sounds like the others, and in fact the free jazz orientation means that no two Wednesday nights sound even remotely the same. This is no doubt why there’re so many regulars among the audience every week. Smalls’ jazz nights assure you that, as long as you like your music wild and spontaneous, you’ll never be bored.
Each Wednesday is another leg on a long and challenging journey, replete with steep descents, hairpin turns, off-highway navigation, and near-breakdowns.