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.