Ben Opie – saxophone
Paul Thompson – bass
Dave Throckmorton – drums
My reality over the past month or so has been, and continues to be, completely and utterly turned upside down. I feel like a hole has been torn in my basic understanding of everything. Never in my 37 years on this planet have I felt so fearful, uncertain, angry, and disgusted. This blog was never intended to discuss anything political whatsoever but it now completely permeates our reality whether we want it to or not. I’m currently split between taking the all-in activist route and the total opposite, which would be turn it off and to completely escape and mentally remove myself from this current mess as much as possible. FUCK.
With that being said, it is now more comforting than ever to be in a place and around people who see the world in a similar way or at least in a way that involves some sort of sanity or integrity. And what is even better than that is to be in a place with these kind of people experiencing something absolutely beautiful, imaginative, and unique. Saturday night was one of these precious moments.
Thoth Trio, a band covered pretty heavily on this blog, was the musical guest for this month’s edition of Second Saturdays, which is a monthly event hosted by Pittsburgh’s The Pillow Project. The Pillow Project describes themselves as being “all about creating and investigating new ideas in a post-jazz improvisation and challenging how dance and performance is experienced“. These “happenings” are held in a great loft space called The Space Upstairs above Construction Junction in Point Breeze. I’d been to one of these a couple of years ago, so I had an idea of what it was all about. The space and the event have a sort of 1960’s, artsy, counterculture, beatnik, hidden/secret/forbidden kind of vibe with people hanging out on couches, bar stools, on the floor, wherever. Basically, as the music starts, or sometimes even half way into a piece, dancers will appear in the center of the large room seemingly from nowhere to interact spontaneously with the music and with each other creating a truly unique experience. Personally, being as though Thoth is my favorite band in town, I was there for the music. But the dancers, undeniably, add a certain whimsy to the whole thing, especially when dancing in front a huge projection of falling snow.
Thoth Trio has the ability to go from a ferociously blazing sax solo to almost complete silence to a deep drum and bass groove (and anywhere in between and back again!) extremely effortlessly, so their music fit into the vibe of this event really really well. The video above is a clip from Thoth’s own “Carbon 60” from their second set, which was a request by guitarist Josh Wulff. Wulff is part of a another project entitled Sound/Unsound Trio with Ben Opie and Throck. Ben had mentioned that they have a release on the way. We here at Jazz Orbits will be eagerly awaiting that one.
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.
Saturday was good. I got to spend time with family, drink a few (well maybe more than a few) beers, see one of my favorite bands (who happened to play a couple of songs by a favorite musician of all time), sell a few records, buy a couple of records, and bullshit with a great local MC. Yeah, it was all happening and it was pretty great.
The third annual Pittonkatonk Fest was taking place in Schenley Park here in Pittsburgh. I had a blast at last year’s edition and I was really looking forward to this one. The forecast was calling for early-evening storms, so I was super glad to find out that Opek was going on fairly early at 3:30. There’s not much more that I need to say about Ben Opie and his various projects that I haven’t said on the blog already other than that Opek doesn’t play nearly enough these days and that it was really nice to see this stripped down guitar-less version. The jazz/funk/big band vibe was much different than most of the other bands playing that day. But, it was refreshing and the crowd really dug it. Of the 6 or 7 (?) songs in their set, two were Miles Davis pieces and favorites of mine, “It’s About That Time” and “Jean-Pierre”. Here’s a short video of their funky take on “Jean-Pierre”. I would have recorded the whole song if I didn’t get the infamous “storage full” warning on my phone. Apologies to George Jones for cutting off his conga solo!
The next stop for me was home to grab a few crates of records to sell at Spirit in Lawrenceville. The Pittsburgh Record Fest has been happening biannually for years now, and this was probably the 6th or 7th that I’ve sold at. As usual, the room was filled with a bunch of great records and I had to use great restraint to avoid spending most or all of the money I made. But for the money, I did come away with two good ones that I’ve never seen before. I also got to chat with local rapper/producer Moemaw Naedon who happened to be my neighbor for the night. If if don’t know about him, you need to check him out ASAP. I’m a fan of his work and it was nice talking with him about music, digging, concerts, stolen shoes, whatever.
After the sale, I made my way downstairs to finally try the pizza from Slice Island and meet up with some more friends. DJ Tom Cox, who I know from the period of time that 720 Records was located inside of Jerry’s, was in the booth rocking a 720 t-shirt printed by yours truly. Overall, this was a really fun and diverse Saturday well spent with family and friends new and old. Now that summer is approaching, I’m looking forward to many more like it.
David Cutler: piano
Roger Dannenberg: trumpet
Emmett Goods: trombone
Ian Gordon: trumpet
Emily Hawkins: percussion
Ron Horton: trumpet
Dan Lindley: baritone saxophone
Ben Opie: alto saxophone, clarinet, theremin
Chris Parker: guitar
John Petrucelli: tenor saxophone, flute
Lou Stellute: tenor saxophone
Paul Thompson: bass
David Throckmorton: drums
Reggie Watkins: trombone
Nizan Leibovich: conductor
On Tuesday night, I was fortunate to be able to attend the second performance of Ben Opie‘s concert-length composition entitled Concerto For Orkestra. Like the first performance of the piece, which I also witnessed, this took place at another of Pittsburgh’s various beautiful concert venues, East Liberty’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.
Admittingly, I do not see many composed, orchestrated performances…musical, theatrical, whatever. So, something that was fascinating to me was the idea of going into this performance knowing the exact piece that was going to be played by the almost exact same ensemble as last time. I loved being able to recognize some of the movements quite well but also having some seem completely new, like I had never heard them before. Also, during the parts that I was familiar with from the debut, I was fascinated at how different some of them sounded. I think the room may have had something to do with this. For better or for worse, the sound in the Strayhorn seemed to me to be more muted and blended or darkened, whereas at the previous performance at the Hazlett, I remember the individual instruments sounding more shining and clear. I’d heard that part of the reason for Ben to do this show was to get a good recording of it. For his sake, and for the world’s, I hope that he did and that many people will be able to enjoy and appreciate this incredible work.
It truly is amazing to me that someone can not only play an instrument extremely well (see the blazing solo in the video above!) but also compose a complete piece of music like this. My impression was that it was even more cinematic and thematic than last time. The dark and abstract sections were even more mysterious and suspenseful than I remembered and the upbeat movements were more swinging. Definitely worth the second listening/viewing.
Ben wrote a really nice message on his blog that summed up his post-show reflections. Read the whole post HERE. Here’s an excerpt from that as well as a few photos from the night. Enjoy!
“…the work is a pretty intense experience. Probably from a listening standpoint, definitely from the player’s view. But even now I catch myself…any more intense the Rite of Spring? Turangalîla-Symphonie? No, of course not. (Although, Turangalîla was a model for a ten-movement work. My piece is not nearly as dense.) You’ll drive yourself crazy making such comparisons. But, it is a 75-minute extended aural experience. Hills and valleys, ups and downs, boredom and excitement, laughs and….not-laughs. An overarching experience for over an hour.”
Pittsburgh-based saxophonist, composer, and innovator, Ben Opie will bring an all-star ensemble to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater this Tuesday to perform his symphonic suite entitled Concerto For Orkestra. This will be just the second time and possibly (but hopefully NOT) the last time that this music is being performed for an audience.
I was fortunate enough to attend it’s debut back in May of 2014 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side. You can check out my thoughts here. Overall, the piece is very cinematic, diverse, intriguing and extremely cool. Ben provided a nice description of the movements on his blog. I’m not yet sure if the lineup of musicians (including Jazz Orbits favorites Dave Throckmorton, Paul Thompson, Lou Stellute, Ian Gordon, etc.) will be the same, but I assume most, if not all, will be returning from the 2014 performance.
If you will be in Pittsburgh, around Pittsburgh, or are able to find a cheap flight!, I strongly urge you to make plans to be there. You do not want to sleep on this one! Advance tickets are still available. $15 advance and $20 at the door. I hope to see you there.
Here’s a video of the movement entitled “Incline”. Enjoy!
Dave Throckmorton – drums
Ben Opie – electronics/saxophone
John Shannon – guitar
Paul Thompson – bass
Drummer Dave Throckmorton dusted off his jazz/fusion/electronic/hip-hop/ambient/groove quartet for a performance at the Thunderbird Cafe last night. He mentioned that this project had been “on the back burner” for a while, but that he thought it was time to bring it down off the shelf.
To me, or anyone else familiar with Throck’s work over the years, this group is sort of a rebooted/reincarnated all-instrumental and less-hip-hop version of BEAM, which also featured Paul Thompson on bass and had a very similar vibe. The last few appearances of this group, billed last night as the Throckmorton 4, featured former-Pittsburgher Chris Parker on guitar. Filling in for Parker last night (on a flying V guitar I might add!) was John Shannon. The show consisted of two long sets of almost non-stop improvised genre-spanning music that always maintained a deep Throck/PT groove.
Being a huge fan of these guys, I always look forward to seeing any and every one of the various Opie/Thompson/Throck projects (Thoth Trio, Flexure, Opek, etc.). I can’t really say that I have a favorite (although it might be Thoth), but I certainly wouldn’t mind if Throck decided to keep this one on the front burner for just a little while longer.
Ben Opie – saxophone
Ian Gordon – trumpet
Paul Thompson – bass
George Jones – percussion
Dave Throckmorton – drums
Flexure, Ben Opie‘s (normally) electric sextet that brings to mind the dark groove of Miles Davis‘ work from the ’70’s, changed things up a bit for a performance at the Thunderbird Cafe this past Tuesday. Due to the frequent absence of guitarist Chris Parker, the group decided to try out an all acoustic quintet format. The result was obviously quite different but, to me, just as incredible. There wasn’t as much atmospheric sort of texture or layering, but the key characteristics (strong rhythm, interesting melodies, and blazing solos) were unchanged. I caught one of those solos on the video above played by Opie in an original tune entitled “Lime”.
Anyone familiar with this blog knows that Flexure (along with Opie’s other projects Thoth Trio and Opek) are my favorite musical acts/projects in Pittsburgh by far. Those of us who live around here are EXTREMELY fortunate to be able to see these guys perform in small local venues, especially being as though most of them are free of charge. I strongly recommend for anyone who lives elsewhere (or locals who have slept on it) to go get a copy of Flexure’s limited edition 2013 vinyl Insert Title Here LP. I believe there are still a few available. You can purchase one HERE. Don’t miss out!
This weekend started with disappointment about being unable to make it to Mr. Small’s Theater for DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist playing a set using hand picked records from Afrika Bambaata’s personal collection. However, if this show had been taking place back in 2004 versus 2014, I would have been CRUSHED. Now I can live with missing a DJ set even if it is by two of my favorite DJ’s of all time. So, I looked forward to Saturday night when I was going to have some free time to hang out with a good friend that I don’t see very often these days. The only thing of interest that I knew was happening was a Horace Silver tribute at James Street Gastropub featuring six local jazz all-stars. I can’t say that I’m the biggest Horace Silver fan. Not one of his records as a leader comes to mind as something I’ve really really loved. But a night of live jazz at James Street with a good friend can’t be a bad thing.
Part of my free time early on Saturday was filled by a trip to Jerry’s Records and a couple of slices at Mineo’s. While at Mineo’s, I normally like to look at the City Paper mostly to see what shows are coming up in town. Well, my plans for the evening immediately changed as soon as I began reading a feature about local DJ/producer Jake Berntsen’s live project called Beauty Slap and their performance at the Altar Bar in the Strip District that very evening. The band is made up of students from Carnegie Mellon University and includes Jake on an Ableton Live interface and keys, an electric guitarist, and a six piece horn section. I had heard of this project a little while back and I knew it was something I needed to witness on stage.
The start time for the show was listed as 7:00. So we were surprised to discover that none of openers had even starting playing yet when we arrived at 9:00. Beauty Slap was scheduled to start at 11:00. Since James Street is almost literally right across the river from The Strip, we figured we could catch some of the Horace Silver tribute after all. We walked into the lower level “Speakeasy” section of the three story restaurant which was totally packed with seated attentive 40-70 somethings.
The guys on stage were all familiar to me and included Alton Merrill, Thomas Wendt, James Moore, Jeff Bush, Eric DeFade, and Paul Thompson. Again, all excellent musicians and Pittsburgh jazz all-stars for sure. We arrived in time to catch two songs before they took a set break, so our timing wasn’t great. But those songs sparked a conversation with my friend, a fine arts professor at a local university, about jazz, music and art. Some points that came up were things like “What is jazz?”, “Is jazz art?”, “Is music art?”, “What is art?”, “Couldn’t I just pull my phone from my pocket and retrieve every Horace Silver recording within seconds to enjoy anywhere?” etc.
What we witnessed was a very traditional, very safe, hard-bop/post-bop style that featured a “solo….clap, solo….clap, solo….clap” routine that people seem to eat up. This was a Horace Silver tribute night so the style was right in line with what we expected. No surprises here. But to me, the music lacked real genuine grit, intensity, exploration, and a sense of 2014, AKA “now”. Shawn explained that a big part of art, whether visual and sound, is “now”, “the present moment” and a reaction to it and reflection of it. The music this sextet played last night was originally recorded in the 1950’s or early to mid-60’s. This was the music of 60 years ago, definitely not the music of 2014. The best analogy we could come up with is a Civil War reenactment. It’s pure theater. And people love it (or act like they do).
Through my experiences with live jazz in this city over the past few years I’ve determined that this is just a Pittsburgh phenomenon, tribute night or otherwise. This is the norm. Shawn seems to think it’s broader and more of an American phenomenon. The approach is just so academic and scientific. In fact, two of the six musicians were introduced with “Doctor” in front of their names. I suppose the reason why I’ve become such a dedicated follower of Ben Opie and his projects is that he is the first guy in town who comes to mind who is keeping up with the present, the “now”. (In fact, I’ve actually intentionally refrained from posting anything lately about Thoth Trio shows as to not make this blog seem like a Ben Opie/Dave Throckmorton fan club page!) But, having said that, I’m in no way disrespecting or downplaying the talent of the musicians who WERE on that stage last night, especially Paul Thompson and Tom Wendt. I do think it’s extremely important to know the history and roots of “jazz” music and I actually really do love most of that stuff from the 50’s and 60’s. But it just seems like in Pittsburgh, very few talented individuals want to push it beyond that.
So, a discussion about music, jazz, art, and creativity in 2014 was well underway. I couldn’t think of a better way to continue this discussion than by going back to the Altar Bar to see a group of eight 20-somethings play something far different than what was happening right across the river at James Street.
Beauty Slap doesn’t play jazz. But as mentioned above, “What is jazz in 2014 anyway?”. What they do play is a horn-heavy, lively, instrumental dance music that sounds great at a high volume. Band leader Jake Berntsen manipulates the beats in Ableton Live by using an audio interface and keyboard while sort of leading and conducting a powerful horn section. The City Paper article I referenced above says that they changed band’s name from Jakeisrain and the C Street Brass to Beauty Slap. But, there’s no question that this is his project. The well rehearsed set lasted a little over an hour and was well received by the younger audience. The energy was high, the bass was heavy and the horns were big. It was exactly what I had hoped for. Besides being a DJ, producer, and songwriter, their website lists Jake as a pianist as well and I think some more live keys could have made this set even better, along with more volume on the horns which wasn’t the band’s fault. I’m interested to see where a project like this will go. With so many younger guys in the group, I won’t be too shocked if this ends up being short lived. But, hopefully, I’ll be able to catch at least another set by this talented local group.
Ben Opie – saxophones/electronics
Paul Thompson – bass
Dave Throckmorton – drums
Thoth Trio was back at the Thunderbird Cafe last night with a different, yet familiar, vibe. The trio has described itself as “intense acoustic jazz”. Well, last night Thoth Trio played intense electric jazz! It was also moody, funky, playful and everything in between. Ben Opie has incorporated electronic effects, samples, noise, etc. into his other projects, Flexture and OPEK, over the past few years and has now decided to bring them on board for Thoth as well. Bassist Paul Thompson also went electric last night. Fortunately, Throck did not (not that I’d necessarily mind hearing Throck throw down one of those high end Roland electronic kits just once)!
The electric setup worked well. It didn’t change the sound so much that it didn’t sound like Thoth, yet it allowed Ben to fill more space and for PT and Throck to deepen the groove. During the set, I wondered if the trio has considered taking this electric setup into the studio for a new record (fingers crossed). Their last release was 2008’s Thoth Speaks, which represents the group really well and one that I’ve listened too and enjoyed many many times. I highly suggest checking out (purchasing!) Thoth Speaks, as well as their debut, Apropos of Nothing (2004). The video above is a take on a Thoth Trio original entitled “Fenya” from the Thoth Speaks CD. Enjoy.