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.

 

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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!

 

 

 

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.

Sound/Unsound – 6.10.17 – The Space Upstairs (VIDEO/PICS)

Sound/Unsound:
Ben Opie – saxophone/electronics/samples
Josh Wulff – guitar
Dave Throckmorton – drums

Saturday was my friend Ben’s birthday.  Coincidentally, Saturday was also the night of a Sound/Unsound show at The Space Upstairs, which is literally a block from Ben’s house.  So, it was a pretty natural fit to get a few people together for a little pregame and then walk over to the show.

My appreciation of Ben Opie and Dave Throckmorton has been well documented on this site.  But, this was my first time seeing them with guitarist Josh Wulff under the name Sound/Unsound.  I had seen Wulff in a somewhat similar project a few years ago with Throck entitled Smash Your Wagon.

Sound/Unsound is a change of pace from other Opie/Throckmorton collaborations Thoth Trio, Flexure, OPEK, etc. Here we find Ben Opie experimenting more with samples and electronic textures than playing alto sax.  Wulff’s effects-heavy guitar also pushes the project into much different territory.  I spoke with Throck briefly during the break and he commented that the band was little more groove oriented and more aggressive on this particular night than what can be heard on the CD they were celebrating the release of entitled 15728.  After buying and listening to the CD, I can agree that this was certainly the case.  The music on the disc (all improvised btw just like the music on Saturday night) is more subdued and textural and slightly darker. Check out Mike Shanley‘s review in the City Paper here.  Overall, despite the room being a bit hot and sticky, this was a great show.  Be sure to support these guys (and local music in general) by buying a copy of the CD HERE or locally from Juke Records in Bloomfield. Enjoy.

UPDATE (7.27.17):  Check out the complete audio from the show…..

 

 

 

 

Employees of Funk – 5.13.17 – East End Brewing, Pittsburgh, PA

On Saturday, Pittsburgh’s East End Brewing held held a cool “Crafts & Drafts” event that served as a release party for the new Illustration Ale at their brew pub in Larimer.  Six local artists/illustrators (including one of my all time favorites, Mike Budai) designed the art for the bottles for the limited edition brew.

In edition to craft vendors and food trucks, live music was provided by Pittsburgh’s Employees of Funk. This was my first time seeing or even hearing of these guys and I was pleasantly surprised.  I really dug their style which had more of a raw groove than most brass bands I’ve seen.  I also really liked the song selection which consisted of songs by The Meters, Michael Jackson, and Herbie Hancock in addition to some originals. I’ll be looking forward to seeing these guys again sometime soon.

Brett Williams’ Recording Project Indiegogo

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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.