Tomas Fujiwara + Thoth Trio + Thumbscrew = AMAZING Weekend!!!

This past weekend in Pittsburgh was some sort of anomaly or like a glitch in the matrix.  Not only do incredible jazz shows rarely happen around here these days, they almost never take place within one 48 hour period. But this was the case here beginning with a Mary Holvorson solo set on Friday and culminating in a killer Sunday night finale by Halvorson’s trio, Thumbscrew.

Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum had brought in a bunch of incredible musicians and poets over the last few weeks to celebrate the opening of their new Alphabet City mixed use venue in the North Side. Unfortunately, the building is not yet finished.  But, fortunately for all of us music lovers, the shows weren’t cancelled but were just moved to their outdoor Alphabet City Tent.  Knowing that there was no way I’d be able to attend everything happening this weekend, I chose to skip the Mary Halvorson solo set (as well as Rakim at VIA Fest).  I’m sure it was amazing but solo sets are not really my favorite type of shows and I knew I’d get to see her play on the next two evenings.

Saturday night’s show was by drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his project called The Hook Up.  The Hook Up consists of Tomas along with Michael Formanek on bass, Mary Halvorson on guitar (all of which are also in Thumbscrew) along with saxophonist Brian Settles and special guest Dave Ballou on trumpet.  This show was nothing short of amazing.  I really enjoyed the variety of moods and energies throughout the set.  At one point early in the set they broke it down to just drums and sax.  It was so intimate and beautiful that a nearby cricket’s chirping became part of the piece.  For me it was truly one of those, “THIS is why is love live music!” moments.  After the show, a friend I was with said something about this being one of the best performances of any kind that he had ever seen.  Pretty bold statement but certainly hard to argue with.

The next day, after watching the first half of the Steelers’ game, I took a ride out to Dormont in the South Hills.  I lived near there several years ago but hardly ever go back these days.  So, just the drive out there was kind of a surreal experience. It takes a good reason for me to make the journey through the Liberty Tubes and on this day, the reason was to see my favorite band in Pittsburgh, Thoth Trio, play at the Hollywood Theater.  This event had the trio playing a live soundtrack to some of Buster Keaton‘s silent films.  To be honest, I would have gone out there for Thoth alone.  Due to the Thunderbird being remodeled, they’ve hardly played out at all lately. But I was blown away by how entertaining this show was overall.  My initial focus, possibly because of the great acoustics in the room, was almost entirely on the band to the point where I found myself closing my eyes and just listening…only to realize that a movie was being shown on the screen.  Then there were moments when I kind of got lost in the film.  It was truly the kind of blissful, escapist experience that I look for in a show.  The kind of thing where you can get completely removed from reality for an hour or so.

Somehow, after all of this, there was still another show to go to.  Thumbscrew (Halvorson, Formanek, Fujiwara) were closing City of Asylum’s month of jazz and poetry with a set at 7:00.  As I’ve written about here before, the trio took part in a residency last year where they stayed in Pittsburgh for two weeks writing, performing, and recording music. So it was very cool to get to see them revisit the exact place where their most recent album, Convallaria (Cuneiform Records 2016), was written and to perform several of those tunes again. I knew what to expect from this one and they certainly delivered. I’d really like to thank the people from City of Asylum, all of the musicians I just mentioned, and the people that book the Hollywood Theater in Dormont for a wonderful and unforgettable weekend.




Sun Ra Arkestra – 9.18.16 – New Hazlett Theater, Pittsburgh, PA

Last weekend, Kente Arts Alliance brought yet another legendary jazz act to the city of Pittsburgh.  This time around it was the Sun Ra Arkestra lead by saxophonist Marshall Allen. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to this show :(  But luckily, Jazz Orbits‘ good friend and contributor, Alex Bard, was there to capture a few minutes of their set as well as a few photos from soundcheck. I’ve read a few thoughts on the show from attendees and some terms that were used to describe the Arkestra on this particular night were  “loose”, “raucous” and “having an outer space quality”.

I was certainly bummed out to have missed this show.  At age 92, it’s unlikely that Marshall Allen and the Arkestra will be around for much longer. But, thankfully, I feel like I can rely on the good people at Kente Arts Alliance to keep the amazing streak of legends alive.


Booker T. Jones – 8.14.16 – Hartwood Acres

A couple of Sundays ago, the forecast called for rain most of the day.  That forecast was pretty much correct except for when it stopped raining around 6:00 pm.  Luckily for me, and for the rest of Pittsburgh, that was just enough time for the skies to dry up, for the sun to peak through, and for organist Booker T. Jones to take the stage at Hartwood Acres for his Stax Soul Revue.  I had just about ruled it out but when the rain stopped I knew I had to drive out there.  It’s Booker freakin’ T!

When my daughter and I pulled into to large grassy parking area, I thought for a minute that the show had been cancelled.  There were WAY less cars than I am used to seeing at free summer shows at Hartwood.  I assumed this was due to the weather.  But no complaints here.  Even though the start time was pushed back a half an hour or so, a trio came out in front of a relatively small crowd and went right into the intro groove of Booker T’s 1968 hit (w/ the MG’s) “Hang ‘Em High“, before introducing him out to the stage to enthusiastic applause.  Throughout the hit-filled set that included several MG’s tunes, Otis Redding songs and many more, this group was joined by horns and vocalists at various points.  Eventually Booker T even walked out from behind his organ to pick up a guitar for songs like The Beatles‘ “Don’t Let Me Down” and a take on Prince‘s “Purple Rain”.

As is the norm for a free show at Hartwood Acres, we had a great time.  The small crowd allowed for plenty of space for kid stuff like kicking a beach ball, dancing, and just being silly and having fun.  The band sounded great banging out one hit after another and with someone who is Booker T’s age, you never know when they are going to hang it up for good.  This was my second time seeing him perform and it would be really nice if it wasn’t the last.



Feastival – 8.6.16 – McKees Rocks, PA


A couple of weeks ago I had some rare free time on a Saturday night. So I decided to take a trip to a neighborhood that I rarely visit just west of Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks.  Feastival is a free event, now in it’s fourth year, that exists mostly to do just this very thing….bring people to McKees Rocks who don’t normally go there. Mission accomplished.  The event is all day festival that features food trucks, merch vendors, beer, and live music. This year, the live music consisted of three nationally touring bands that all play their own brand of funk.  To me, in a region that has it’s fair share of rock ‘n’ roll fans and easily could have gone with all classic rock bands, this was a wonderful choice.

Out of the three bands, none of which I’ve ever seen, the one that was most appealing going in was not the band that I enjoyed the most. I really wanted to finally see Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.  They were about halfway through their set when I got there, but I feel like I got to hear enough of them to know what they were all about.  They have a bit more of a rock vibe than I normally look for in a funk band (they even played a Zeppelin tune).  But something I really dug about their set was the addition of the Steeltown Horns, which is a horn section made up of Pittsburghers Reggie Watkins on trombone, Rick Matt or sax, and J.D. Chaisson on trumpet.


Brooklyn-based funk band Turkuaz was headlining.  Even though I’ve seen their name many times over the years, I had never made an effort to check them out.  I had actually never even heard any of their music at all. Not one song.  I actually kind of thought they were an Afrobeat band or something.  To my surprise, they were a funky, high-energy party band that really had their shit together.  This may not be the type of music I’d put on at home or in the car very often, but it’s great live.

Overall, this was a cool event.  There was a really nice variety of food vendors and the beer selection was pretty good.  Parking was easy and free.  I ran into some friends that I haven’t seen in a while.  And the music was perfect for a free summer time festival on a warm sunny evening.  Here are a couple of pics of Turkuaz and one of a super cool cupcake camper!

Bobby Hutcherson (1941-2016)

Jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson left the planet yesterday at the age of 75.  The vibraphone is one of my favorite instruments and this dude was the biggest reason.  Of all the names in jazz that I come back to again and again (Miles, Herbie, Bird, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, etc, etc), Hutcherson is WAY up there near the top of the list.  RIP.

Brett Williams’ Recording Project Indiegogo


Keyboardist, and ex-Pittsburgher, Brett Williams is currently trying to raise some money to produce a new record.  I’ve been a big fan for a few years now and I’m really interested in seeing where his music is heading.  You can help him out by donating at his Indiegogo page.  He still has a long way to go to make it to his goal of 10K, but I’m really hoping he can pull it off.

Here’s a short video of a recent performance by Brett and his quartet at the Pittsburgh Jazz Live International Festival.

Pittsburgh Jazz Live Int’l Festival 2016

As luck would have it, I found myself with plenty of free time this past weekend.  I don’t have many days when I’m able to have very little-to-no responsibilities.  And if I do, there’s almost never a jazz festival going on ten minutes from home!  I don’t know if the lineup was better this year or if I’ve just adjusted my expectations, but I felt like there were a definitely a few acts I wanted to see.  I’ve been critical of the lineups over the past few years of the Jazz Live International Festival, it’s still far from amazing, but I can certainly say that this year felt like it was possibly better than the last couple.

The people/bands that interested me most were Nu Grid, Jeff “Tain”Watts, Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, and Pittsburgh’s own Brett Williams. Somehow, I was able to catch all of these acts over the course of two days.  The only thing I wanted to see but missed was another local guy, bassist Tony DePaoulis’ Contemporary Dynamic, who was just finishing up when I got downtown on Saturday.

The whole festival seemed very well documented (cameras, video, press, other well known and more eloquent jazz bloggers), so I don’t feel that it’s necessary for me to elaborate too greatly.  So, aside from the usual photos and videos, I’m going to try something different and list some random thoughts/observations…

  • The weather was awesome.  A bit on the hot side, but sunny and no rain.
  • Nu Grid was cool.  Vernon Reid on guitar.  DJ Logic on turntables.  All improvised.  Guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly said something that stuck with me.  Something like, “Remember…improvised music is an expression of MODERNITY, not nostalgia.  Modernity!”  I don’t think this is a word-for-word quote.  But, that statement directly spoke to something that is missing from all too many jazz shows.  Great vibe.  Cool set.  I dug it.
  • Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith (piano & trumpet w/ minimal electronics/looping) sounded really really good.  This is the kind of delicate music that requires your full attention. I wish the social element hadn’t taken over and that I could have listened much more intently.
  • The beer in the beer garden was pretty pricey at $8 a piece.  Plus you had to keep drinks within the fenced-in area. So I only had one in there.
  • I didn’t want to stop at the pop-up vinyl tent where several vendors were selling used records.  I REALLY didn’t want to spend any money but I had to buy a couple of things I’ve never seen before (including a Curtis Fuller LP on Mainstream) and, ultimately, I’m glad I did.
  • I was surprised that so many people left the Tain Watts set to go camp out in front of the stage where Chick Corea was about to play, missing much of Tain’s set.  The audience ended up being so large and dense for Chick Corea’s set that I could hardly hear the trio (featuring Christian McBride and Brian Blade) from where I was standing in back.  This made me wonder where the hell all of these “jazz fans” are/were at other jazz shows throughout the year (i.e. Space Exchange, City of Asylum shows, Manny Theiner’s avant/free jazz shows, etc).  The large crowd also resulted in me leaving about two songs into Corea’s set.
  • Brett Williams‘ homecoming set on Sunday was great.  He had recently left Pittsburgh to move to New York.  Seems like he and his group are experimenting with things a little (bass keys, electronic drums pads, etc).  He said he’s raising money for a new record.  I’m excited to see where his career is heading.

Here are a few short videos from the weekend.  Enjoy!

RIP Dr. Bruce Marion (DrFBM)

Pittsburgh has lost one of its most loyal supporters of our local jazz scene, Dr. Francis Bruce Marion.  Although I have never actually met or had spoken with him, I’ve seen him around town at many many shows over the last twelve years or so.  Equipped with his video camera on a tripod, he was normally off to the side or discretely tucked in a corner of the room capturing so many of Pittsburgh’s local talented musicians.  He’s posted hundreds of videos on YouTube under the name DrFBM.

Dr. Bruce and I ending up attending and filming several of the same shows over the past few years, but mine were never as nice or as complete as his were.  It’s obvious that he loved this music and wanted to share it with the world.  This is something I certainly relate to and congratulate him for and it’s something I’ll continue to do as long as I’m able.   Due to the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing, his family is currently raising money to cover his funeral costs online.  You can donate HERE.

Here are just a few of the many performances that the world is fortunate enough to view because of him.  Thank you, Dr. Bruce!  May you rest in peace.