Pittsburgh Record Fest – Saturday 12/9/17

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Poster by Mike Budai

Record Fest is this Saturday.  Once again I (and a whole bunch of other great vendors) will be there selling all kind of records.  These are always a great way to load up on a nice variety of things…jazz, funk, soul, rock, garage, metal, hip-hop……you get it.  $3 gets you in the door.  Be there!!!

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Kamasi Washington – 11.27.17 – Mr. Smalls – Millvale, PA

It could have been the lukewarm reception I got from some friends when I mentioned this show. Or maybe it was the $30 price tag.  Whatever the reason, I did NOT expect to see a line wrapped around the building and down the stairs outside of Mr. Smalls Theater when I arrived at 7:05 last Monday night. Being somewhat of a cheapskate, I don’t like paying service fees when buying tickets and therefore I try to avoid them whenever possible.  What that meant for me on this chilly night was standing in a line for 20 minutes so that I could buy a ticket at the door and go have a few beverages at another less expensive establishment.  While I was mildly unhappy to have to wait in the line, it was SUPER cool to see people excited about jazz!  Think about that, about a hundred people in a line outdoors in November to get into a JAZZ show. It was truly remarkable. I will say that the performance by saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band were certainly worth the wait as well as the price tag.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t fall in love with Kamasi’s hugely successful 2015 release The Epic (Brainfeeder) or this year’s follow up Harmony of Difference (Young Turks), but I did appreciate them both.  I listen to a good amount of mid to late 60’s era jazz and, although he’s certainly no novelty act, to me these records didn’t really offer anything drastically new or different. Maybe I need to revisit. But what WAS drastically new and different for me was being in a large room (capacity 800) packed full of people to see a jazz group in 2017.  For that I was really excited and appreciative to be able to experience.

Washington’s octet offered a full variety of styles from swing to funk to R&B to 60’s-ish spiritual free jazz and everything in between.  This variety is undoubtedly part of the reason for the popularity. None of this music felt too traditional or stuffy nor was it too intellectual, abstract or mathematical …things that tend to bog down some other current jazz acts IMO.  The set included a mashup of the jazz standard “Cherokee” with Curtis Mayfield-esque funk rhythms.  There was also a shredding key-tar solo and an explanation of why he needs, not one, but TWO “incredibly dope drummers”!  His drummers (one of which was Ronald Bruner Jr., brother of bassist Thundercat) were REALLY good BTW. Overall, the vibe was great, the audience was attentive and diverse, and Washington even brought out his dad Rickey Washington who played soprano sax for rest of the show!  I’m really happy that I chose to attend and to experience this band first hand.  It truly was a beautiful night of music.

Roger Humphries & RH Factor – 10.6.17 – Sweetwater Center For The Arts

Roger Humphries – drums
Max Leake – piano
Ron Horton – trumpet
Lou Stellute – saxophones
Dwayne Dolphin – bass

A few weeks ago, I was invited by a good friend to join him for beers, burgers and jazz and it was a difficult combination to pass up.  We started things off with a few beers and some really good burgers out in Ambridge at the Bridgetown Taphouse.  The food was good and, having become accustomed to recent East End Pittsburgh pricing, the prices here were right!  The next stop was a short cruise down river to Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley for the jazz part.

For any jazz fan in Pittsburgh, not much else needs to be said about local jazz hero Roger Humphries and his all-star band, RH Factor.  If you are looking for that mid 1960’s / hard-bop / Blue Note / Jazz Messengers type of sound, these are the guys that will deliver every time.  On this particular night, they sounded REALLY good.  Not just their playing, but the actual sound in the room was incredible.  With the exception of a small amp for Dwayne Dolphin‘s electric bass, all of the instruments were acoustic with no amplification. There’s something about the concept of sound coming from just metal and wood that I absolutely love.  Of course I’m simplifying, but it’s rare and it’s amazing.

Through two engaging sets of music, some highlights for me were Lou Stellute‘s use of a soprano sax (which I had never seen him play before), as well as takes on “My Favorite Things”, one of my favorite Herbie Hancock tunes “Tell Me A Bedtime A Story“, and a version of Joe Henderson‘s “Mamacita” shown in the video above.  Also, I cannot forget the enthusiastic introductions by local artist/jazz singer/legend, Betty Douglas.

With all due respect to Sweetwater and the town (borough?) of Sewickley, it almost always seems like the people that come out to events here probably don’t make it out to see much live music.  Again, I mean no disrespect at all and I could be way off base.  The audience just always seems so incredibly appreciative and impressed by the music being presented and the audience on this night was no exception. To me, this certainly enhances the experience and makes for a more memorable night. Thank you to Alex, Shawn, and the Sweetwater staff for inviting me out.  As always, I had a blast and look forward to doing it again!

Jazzy Doubleheader (Bellevue & Thoth) – Saturday, 9.9.17

On Saturday night, I got to take in not one, but two GREAT jazz shows.  They were VERY different but both were absolutely top notch.  The first show was the Bellevue Jazz All-Stars, featuring Keith Stebler, Lou Schreiber and Wayne Smith, playing two sets of well-played bluesy soul-jazz standards. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I actually got to be the doorman for the night (free admission & free drinks)!

The second show was Thoth Trio playing at The Space Upstairs to a packed house.  I got the vibe that a bunch of the people were there for the dance/movement aspect that these Second Saturday events feature. I’d like to think that the trio opened up some young impressionable minds to a whole new world of music. Amazingly, the set list consisted of all Thoth originals, a rarity at jazz shows especially in Pittsburgh. Every time I see these guys, I feel like I am witnessing something extremely special.  Check out the video below of Thoth Trio doing what they do (“Myelin” from Thoth Speaks – 2007 OMP Recordings).  Incredible.  Full show at The Space Upstairs’ Facebook here.

 

 

Cliff Barnes Trio – 8.27.17 – Highland Park Reservoir, Pittsburgh, PA

Cliff Barnes – organ
James Johnson III – drums
Brett Williams – keys

Every year throughout the month of August, the City of Pittsburgh’s Parks Department holds it’s Reservoir of Jazz series in Highland Park.  These are really nice community events and a great way to spend a Sunday evening in the summertime regardless of who is playing.  A couple of weeks ago, a few friends of mine decided to round up the kids and some lawn chairs and make our way over to see the Cliff Barnes Trio.

Out of all of the music scheduled this year, Cliff Barnes was truthfully the only artist I was really hoping to be able to see.  I’ve seen him play a few times in an organ trio with Dan Wilson and Dave Throckmorton and I really like his soulful approach.  I wasn’t sure who Cliff would bring to round out his trio but I knew the show would be good.  What was totally unexpected (and TOTALLY welcomed!!!) was a trio consisting of two keyboardists, one of which was Brett Williams!

This non-traditional lineup was not afraid to push boundaries and take things a bit out of the box, something that doesn’t always happen at these.  As I walked to the stage area from car, they played a different sort of take on Duke Ellington’s jazz staple “Caravan”.  Right then, I knew this wasn’t going to be a night of cookie cutter arrangements.  The musical highlight of the evening came for me shortly after with a Brett William‘s led version of Herbie Hancock‘s “Butterfly” from his 1974 record Thrust.  Brett is based in NYC now and is doing all kinds of things like playing with Louis Cato, sitting in with Stephen Colbert’s house band, touring the world with bassist Marcus Miller.  He plays with alot of confidence and he sounds great.  Another highlight was a ten minute version of D’Angelo’sSpanish Joint“.  These guys were obviously having a great time playing this material together and the vibe was certainly shared by the appreciative audience.

The 2017 Reservoir of Jazz series has now come and gone.  These events are really valuable and we’re lucky to have them.   I’m just hoping to have a few more groups like this one on next year’s schedule. And, honestly, I really want to win one of the 50/50’s next year as well!!!  Fingers crossed.

UPDATE (9.20.17):  James Johnson III posted a video of the whole first set HERE. Dig.

 

Roger Humphries – “A Night At The Hurricane” – 8.25.17

On Friday evening after dinner, I put on a recently purchased copy of Charles Earland‘s Black Talk LP.  I’ve owned this soul-jazz classic for years, but due to finding a cleaner copy, it had reentered rotation at the house.  About halfway through the last song on the LP, “More Today Than Yesterday“, I got a audio text message from a friend who was at James Street. So I muted the Earland record to listen to what Wayne had sent me….an short audio clip he had just recorded of Roger Humphries and friends playing…..wait for it………..”More Today Than Yesterday”.  No joke! I was aware of the show happening at James Street that night and I was sort of planning on going.  But this message was too much of an awesome coincidence for me to NOT attend.

The show was billed as “A Night At The Hurricane”. The Hurricane was a now-legendary jazz club in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 50’s and 60’s. A ton of soul-jazz and hard bop acts played there over the years including Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Stitt, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Jimmy McGriff and many many more.  On Friday, drummer Roger Humphries put together a quartet of Pittsburgh’s finest to pay tribute to the music that was so often heard at the Hurricane, most specifically organ based soul-jazz.

Humphries’ quartet on this particular evening was assembled with soulful funky organ jazz in mind.  Organist Jimmy McGriff once called the Hurricane  “the Apollo Theater” of the jazz organ universe.  Holding down the organ duties on Friday, and very aptly so, was a veteran of the local scene, Keith Stebler.  I love watching and hearing a great organ player do their thing especially in a group with no bass guitar.  Sometimes, in the late 60’s or very early 70’s, groups would add a bass player in an attempt to deepen the groove or to make the sounds feel more contemporary.  But to me the true organ jazz sound is all about bass lines played with the organist’s left hand (and/or feet!) and Stebler can really hold it down!  Guitarist Mark Strickland, whom I somehow had not seen before, with his clean classic guitar lines was also a great choice for this style.  He just had that perfect tone.  Lou Stellute plays with Humphries quite a bit and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else in Pittsburgh playing sax on this night.  Stellute plays hard with a raw intensity and enthusiasm that not many other players can achieve, and once again, it was perfect for this style.

During the one set I was able to catch, the quartet ran though a few staples of the era including Gene Ammons‘ “Red Top” and Erroll Garner’s “Misty” (see video above)  made popular by Richard “Groove” Holmes along with some other tunes that I either can’t remember or don’t know by name.  They sounded great but I have to say that I had hoped for more intensity.  It just wasn’t greasy enough for me.  My favorite tracks of the organ jazz era certainly aren’t the lush ballad type tunes.  They are the raucous, funky, deep, gritty grooves that would be difficult to NOT want to dance to. Think Grant Green‘s live albums,  Lou Donaldson‘s late-60’s Blue Note records, or some of Earland’s or Rusty Bryant‘s late 60’s Prestige catalog, etc etc etc.  But, aside from that, this was an great set of tunes from one of my favorite eras of music played by some of the city’s best musicians and a really dug it.   I hope they do it again… and you should too!  Enjoy!

 

 

 

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.