James Street Gastropub on Pittsburgh’s North Side held a “Charles Mingus Festival” that started Friday night and wraps up tonight. I would think that any local jazz fanatic would have spent quite a bit of time down there this weekend, being as though things like this don’t happen here very often. Between having a young child and also having family in town this weekend, I was only able to make it down for one performance on one night. Needless to say, if you’re even slightly familiar with this blog, you know that it was the OPEK set on Saturday night.
OPEK is Ben Opie‘s “small big-band” that is known for playing pieces by Sun Ra and Miles Davis among others and, in this case, bassist/composer/bandleader Charles Mingus (1922-1979). Admittingly, I am not completely familiar with Mingus’ entire catalog of works. However, I do know at least a couple of his records quite well including Mingus Ah Um & Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and OPEK chose to play at least a few tunes from those.
My overall observation of this OPEK show was that it seemed a bit mellow. This was a different room for them. If fact, Ben Opie said it was his first time playing James Street, in this case the upstairs ballroom. Which, to me, is actually quite interesting since, in my opinion, Opie is currently playing the truest, most fresh, creative, and progressive jazz that Pittsburgh has to offer. Through his various projects, including OPEK, Thoth Trio, Flexure, and others, Opie focuses on the PRESENT, if not the future of jazz. Too many others in Pittsburgh tend to rehash the past and strictly celebrate the music from 50 years ago, and this includes some truly incredible musicians.
With that being said, this was a different venue and a different, smaller, lineup of musicians than I am used to seeing with OPEK. Last night’s lineup included no dedicated baritone sax player and therefore was covered, quite impressively I might add, by Opie. Also missing was second guitarist John Purse, usual trumpeter Ian Gordon, and Ben’s variety of electronics. This resulted in a smaller, more “mellow” sound. From the very start, the horns lacked that sort of punch that OPEK is known to offer. Also, the song selection, being made up primarily of Mingus tunes was probably a bit more traditional and at times “prettier” than most OPEK sets. While talking to one of the musicians at the set break, I found out that the band’s ability to hear each other could have also been an issue during louder, more aggressive pieces.
But, overall, this sort of “mini-OPEK” still managed to deliver what was probably one of the best shows that this room has seen in a while. The playing was exceptional all around. New editions, trombonist Jeff Bush and Roger Dannenberg on trumpet, were real pros and definitely showed up to play. They certainly did not disappoint. Rhythm section, Throckmorton and Thompson did what they do time and time again. And Lou Stellute was pretty much killing it the entire time on tenor, which is pretty par-for-the-course with him. I look forward to seeing Ben Opie’s various projects showing up more at James Street in the future. I’m not sure if that will become a reality or not, but if so, I hope that it can open the door for more shows by younger and/or more experimental musicians looking to push “jazz” forward or at least acknowledge the present.
Closing out the festival tonight will be the Mingus Festival Sextet featuring Sean Jones in the downstairs Speakeasy at 7:00.