Butterfly Garden @ Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA – 2017

Something wonderfully beautiful, simple, and mesmerizing is currently happening at Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory.  The 120 year old facility’s Stove Room has been transformed into their annual Butterfly Forest.  This year (and maybe in years past ?), a incredible ambient soundscape entitled Kaleidoscope was created by CMU students that plays throughout the entire room and greatly enhances the experience.

From the Experimental Sound Synthesis website:

The students in this course designed their sonic compositions to support and uplift the experience of visitors walking amongst the butterflies. They also wrote code that makes their sound pieces into “generative” compositions – the sounds that one hears are created through algorithms that produce continuously changing sound experiences.

I was there on the 4th of July with family and friends and if it wasn’t for the heat (Phipps IS a giant greenhouse!), I honestly could have stayed in this room all day.  I’ve been to Phipps many times and this is one of the best (if not THE best) things I’ve ever seen there. The exhibit runs though September and I will definitely be back for at least one or two more visits. It’s a truly serene and meditative experience.  Here are a few of the compositions from Soundcloud.

Jazz Live International Festival 2017 – Pittsburgh, PA

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This year’s edition of Pittsburgh’s annual Jazz Live International Festival happened last weekend.  There were actually a few people I wanted to check out once again this year and even though I missed Roy Ayers, which was a huge letdown, I did manage to make it down to see a few things on Sunday.  Last year, I decided that the best way for me to cover my experience at Jazz Fest is to make sort of a list of thoughts/comments/observations in no particular order.  Here we go…

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Chico Freeman‘s set was good, but it was more traditional than I expected.  I’m not sure why I expected a more adventurous set of tunes. Maybe it was because I knew Freeman had recorded some records in the late 70’s?  Unfortunately, during his set, the heat was a distraction. It was HOT! People were pretty much crowded within any shady area that could be found.  Half of those people found a good use for their program brochure and fanned themselves through the entire performance.  I always hate it when the first thing that comes to mind regarding a musical performance was something completely unrelated to the music. But sometimes it’s just hard to ignore. But his set was cool.  I love the vibraphone and Warren Wolf sounded great.

The Bad Plus were really good.  This was my first time seeing these guys. I don’t always like piano trios, but sometimes the format can really be put to great use.  I dug their intensity and sense of humor. Also, I may have just gotten accustomed to the heat by that point because it seemed to be not as much of an issue.

Tia Fuller was a pleasant surprise.  After a surprisingly quick tear down and setup, her set followed The Bad Plus’s on the same stage.  I honestly had no idea who she was and would have guessed she was a vocalist based on my knowledge of the past booking tendencies of this festival.  Shame on me.  Tia is a incredible saxophonist who led her quartet through a wide variety of material.  Despite (or maybe partly due to?) the heavy rain during her set, I really enjoyed it. It was a nice soundtrack for watching my daughter and a friend splash around in the puddles. And I really do love musical surprises so this was a nice treat.

• After a short trip home, I was able to make it back downtown for Hudson’s set.  Hudson is a “super group” quartet made up of John Scofield on guitar, John Medeski on keys, bassist Larry Grenadier, and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette.  The set, just like their new self-titled album, was full of interpretations of classic rock tunes.  While most were instrumental, a few featured a verse or two by DeJohnette.  These guys seemed to be having alot of fun with this material.  It seemed fairly loose and unrehearsed which, to me, is an ideal scenario for audience to experience a group of players like this. Highlights include The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek”, a beautiful take on Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” (video above), and a perfectly timed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” which came, you guessed it, right as the rain moved back in to soak the audience.  The crowd for this set, which seemed slightly younger and more on the “jam band” side of the jazz world, was having a great time at this.  So much so that when the band finished at about 8:25, nobody (myself included) wanted to leave.  John Medeski had to come back on stage and say something like, “We’d love to play for you all night! But there is a curfew and we have to go. Good night!”

• As I’ve been saying for several years now, this festival could use some more variety. It’s hard to complain about a festival that is totally free without sounding like an asshole. But…….”Jazz” is a really loose term and a wide variety of music falls under it’s umbrella.  I feel as though this festival is still geared toward an older audience.  It’s hard to tell if the audience that shows up to these year -after-year are older BECAUSE of the music on display or if the acts brought in are catering to an predetermined/anticipated older audience?

• One of these years, I’m going to literally attend the entirety of one of these festivals.  Like really do it right with the fold-up chair, maybe a cooler full of beer & water, and just see every single act…even ones that I don’t particularly enjoy. Someday.

• For another (and much more in depth and well written!) report on the festival, be sure to check out Mike Shanley’s blog.  I ran into Mike during the aforementioned sweltering Chico Freeman set. He was there earlier than me and caught some things that I missed.

Sound/Unsound – 6.10.17 – The Space Upstairs (VIDEO/PICS)

Sound/Unsound:
Ben Opie – saxophone/electronics/samples
Josh Wulff – guitar
Dave Throckmorton – drums

Saturday was my friend Ben’s birthday.  Coincidentally, Saturday was also the night of a Sound/Unsound show at The Space Upstairs, which is literally a block from Ben’s house.  So, it was a pretty natural fit to get a few people together for a little pregame and then walk over to the show.

My appreciation of Ben Opie and Dave Throckmorton has been well documented on this site.  But, this was my first time seeing them with guitarist Josh Wulff under the name Sound/Unsound.  I had seen Wulff in a somewhat similar project a few years ago with Throck entitled Smash Your Wagon.

Sound/Unsound is a change of pace from other Opie/Throckmorton collaborations Thoth Trio, Flexure, OPEK, etc. Here we find Ben Opie experimenting more with samples and electronic textures than playing alto sax.  Wulff’s effects-heavy guitar also pushes the project into much different territory.  I spoke with Throck briefly during the break and he commented that the band was little more groove oriented and more aggressive on this particular night than what can be heard on the CD they were celebrating the release of entitled 15728.  After buying and listening to the CD, I can agree that this was certainly the case.  The music on the disc (all improvised btw just like the music on Saturday night) is more subdued and textural and slightly darker. Check out Mike Shanley‘s review in the City Paper here.  Overall, despite the room being a bit hot and sticky, this was a great show.  Be sure to support these guys (and local music in general) by buying a copy of the CD HERE or locally from Juke Records in Bloomfield. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Employees of Funk – 5.13.17 – East End Brewing, Pittsburgh, PA

On Saturday, Pittsburgh’s East End Brewing held held a cool “Crafts & Drafts” event that served as a release party for the new Illustration Ale at their brew pub in Larimer.  Six local artists/illustrators (including one of my all time favorites, Mike Budai) designed the art for the bottles for the limited edition brew.

In edition to craft vendors and food trucks, live music was provided by Pittsburgh’s Employees of Funk. This was my first time seeing or even hearing of these guys and I was pleasantly surprised.  I really dug their style which had more of a raw groove than most brass bands I’ve seen.  I also really liked the song selection which consisted of songs by The Meters, Michael Jackson, and Herbie Hancock in addition to some originals. I’ll be looking forward to seeing these guys again sometime soon.

Peter Evans Septet – 4.11.17 – Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

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Peter Evans – trumpet
Mazz Swift – violin
Sam Pluta – live electronics
Ron Stabinsky – piano, synth
Tom Blancarte – bass
Levy Lorenzo – percussion, live electronics
Jim Black – drums, electronics

Last evening, I went to check out trumpet player Peter Evans and his septet at the Warhol Museum.  I really like the small theater/auditorium there and I’ve seen a few pretty incredible sets over the past few years.  The set last night was another to add to the list.

The most intriguing and over-arching element throughout the whole set, to me, was the combination/mixing/blending/balance of acoustic instruments and electronics.  This was obvious from the very beginning of the continuous 50 minute set. Mazz Swift (violin) and Sam Pluta (electronics/modular synth/laptop) started together for at least a couple of minutes before any other members played a single note. It was like simultaneously looking into the past as well as at a version of the future as depicted in sci-fi movies.  I thought it was somewhat fitting that the bass player wore a Star Wars t-shirt.  Some of the sounds created by Pluta throughout the night definitely approached R2D2 territory.  And I mean that in the best way possible.  At certain points within the set, one side of the ensemble would sort of take over the other (electro vs. acoustic), but they would always come back to a beautiful and interesting blend.

I really dug this show.  It was one where I found myself closing my eyes and just absorbing the sound in the room and it felt really nice. I’m not always the best at describing music or musical performances in a very technical or even interesting way.  It’s really all inside my head and difficult to put into words.  But, I like shit like this that makes me think about things like good/evil, past/future, yin/yang, chaos/bliss, etc etc etc. There were two shows I wanted to attend this week but I could only pick one.  Since I’ve seen Charlie Hunter a bunch of times (playing Club Cafe on Saturday btw), I’m really happy I got to see something new and truly unique.

The Necks – 3.3.17 – First Unitarian Church, Pittsburgh, PA

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Mystery, intrigue, the unknown, and discovery are all elements that are highly sought after when it comes to my musical tastes. This is especially true in a live setting. Some of my all-time favorite musical experiences have been ones in which I really didn’t know exactly what to expect from a performer. I was extremely fortunate to have one of these “all-time” type experiences this past Friday in a church basement in Shadyside.

The Necks are an Australian trio whose music can be described as improvised minimalist free ambient jazz. Even though they’ve been around for 30 years, I had never heard of them until I was handed a flyer by the show’s promoter after the Mostly Other People Do The Killing show at Alphabet City last month. After checking out their newest release, Unfold, I knew I couldn’t miss this show.

The two set performance brought upon so many thoughts and emotions that there’s no way that I could clearly or concisely put them into words in any sort of eloquent way whatsoever. The first 30-ish minute set started in a way that, to me, seemed like an intro or prelude. After a few minutes of anticipating a beat to drop or a melody to begin, I realized that that wasn’t at all what was happening here… and it was a beautiful and blissful “ahhhh” type of moment like “Ok. I get it.” The trio (piano, upright bass, and drums) just continued to slowly develop and deepen a groove, which was mostly implied but undeniably deep, like a groove within a groove, all without any sort of traditional drum beat. I found myself closing my eyes quite a bit, even though the room itself (with its industrial duct work and electrical lines contrasted with colorful hanging quilts and a stained glass window of fish), was almost as interesting as the music being created.

The Necks somehow are able to subtly tap into the frequencies and rhythms of the universe. The music is very primal, circular, hypnotic, spiritual and meditative. Within the hour (or so) long performance, they were able to cover a broad spectrum of human emotions from blissful joy and beauty to some pretty dark territory. When played together, their acoustic instruments often had a way of sounding electric. So much so, that I noticed a few people craning their necks or even standing up to decipher what was creating the sounds they were hearing.

The video below is a shot of the aforementioned duct work on the ceiling during the last couple of minutes of the second set. I normally would LOVE to share video footage of a show like this, but video and photography would not have been a good idea at this show. I felt it would have been highly irreverent and disrespectful and would have killed the intimate once-in-a-lifetime kind of vibe. So, I figured that it wouldn’t be too offensive to anyone if I simply recorded some audio while filming the ceiling above me. While this audio clip doesn’t do this show any justice whatsoever, it does give me something to look back on as a reminder of the incredible night. Enjoy.