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.

Thumbscrew – “Sampsonian Rhythms” from Convallaria LP

 

Back in July of last year, thanks to City of Asylum, Thumbscrew spent some time in Pittsburgh to write, record, and perform new music.  The result of that residency is an upcoming LP entitled Convallaria which is due out next month on Cuneiform Records.

Cuneiform posted this track a few days ago which is named after Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way on the North Side, which is where the band stayed when they were here.  The track sounds great and I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of this record.

Ben Opie – Concerto For Orkestra – 4.12.16 – Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Pittsburgh, PA

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.”