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…..

 

 

 

 

Peter Evans Septet – 4.11.17 – Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

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Peter Evans – trumpet
Mazz Swift – violin
Sam Pluta – live electronics
Ron Stabinsky – piano, synth
Tom Blancarte – bass
Levy Lorenzo – percussion, live electronics
Jim Black – drums, electronics

Last evening, I went to check out trumpet player Peter Evans and his septet at the Warhol Museum.  I really like the small theater/auditorium there and I’ve seen a few pretty incredible sets over the past few years.  The set last night was another to add to the list.

The most intriguing and over-arching element throughout the whole set, to me, was the combination/mixing/blending/balance of acoustic instruments and electronics.  This was obvious from the very beginning of the continuous 50 minute set. Mazz Swift (violin) and Sam Pluta (electronics/modular synth/laptop) started together for at least a couple of minutes before any other members played a single note. It was like simultaneously looking into the past as well as at a version of the future as depicted in sci-fi movies.  I thought it was somewhat fitting that the bass player wore a Star Wars t-shirt.  Some of the sounds created by Pluta throughout the night definitely approached R2D2 territory.  And I mean that in the best way possible.  At certain points within the set, one side of the ensemble would sort of take over the other (electro vs. acoustic), but they would always come back to a beautiful and interesting blend.

I really dug this show.  It was one where I found myself closing my eyes and just absorbing the sound in the room and it felt really nice. I’m not always the best at describing music or musical performances in a very technical or even interesting way.  It’s really all inside my head and difficult to put into words.  But, I like shit like this that makes me think about things like good/evil, past/future, yin/yang, chaos/bliss, etc etc etc. There were two shows I wanted to attend this week but I could only pick one.  Since I’ve seen Charlie Hunter a bunch of times (playing Club Cafe on Saturday btw), I’m really happy I got to see something new and truly unique.

The Necks – 3.3.17 – First Unitarian Church, Pittsburgh, PA

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Mystery, intrigue, the unknown, and discovery are all elements that are highly sought after when it comes to my musical tastes. This is especially true in a live setting. Some of my all-time favorite musical experiences have been ones in which I really didn’t know exactly what to expect from a performer. I was extremely fortunate to have one of these “all-time” type experiences this past Friday in a church basement in Shadyside.

The Necks are an Australian trio whose music can be described as improvised minimalist free ambient jazz. Even though they’ve been around for 30 years, I had never heard of them until I was handed a flyer by the show’s promoter after the Mostly Other People Do The Killing show at Alphabet City last month. After checking out their newest release, Unfold, I knew I couldn’t miss this show.

The two set performance brought upon so many thoughts and emotions that there’s no way that I could clearly or concisely put them into words in any sort of eloquent way whatsoever. The first 30-ish minute set started in a way that, to me, seemed like an intro or prelude. After a few minutes of anticipating a beat to drop or a melody to begin, I realized that that wasn’t at all what was happening here… and it was a beautiful and blissful “ahhhh” type of moment like “Ok. I get it.” The trio (piano, upright bass, and drums) just continued to slowly develop and deepen a groove, which was mostly implied but undeniably deep, like a groove within a groove, all without any sort of traditional drum beat. I found myself closing my eyes quite a bit, even though the room itself (with its industrial duct work and electrical lines contrasted with colorful hanging quilts and a stained glass window of fish), was almost as interesting as the music being created.

The Necks somehow are able to subtly tap into the frequencies and rhythms of the universe. The music is very primal, circular, hypnotic, spiritual and meditative. Within the hour (or so) long performance, they were able to cover a broad spectrum of human emotions from blissful joy and beauty to some pretty dark territory. When played together, their acoustic instruments often had a way of sounding electric. So much so, that I noticed a few people craning their necks or even standing up to decipher what was creating the sounds they were hearing.

The video below is a shot of the aforementioned duct work on the ceiling during the last couple of minutes of the second set. I normally would LOVE to share video footage of a show like this, but video and photography would not have been a good idea at this show. I felt it would have been highly irreverent and disrespectful and would have killed the intimate once-in-a-lifetime kind of vibe. So, I figured that it wouldn’t be too offensive to anyone if I simply recorded some audio while filming the ceiling above me. While this audio clip doesn’t do this show any justice whatsoever, it does give me something to look back on as a reminder of the incredible night. Enjoy.

 

Thoth Trio – 12.10.16 – The Space Upstairs, Pittsburgh, PA

Thoth Trio

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.

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Thoth Trio w/ The Pillow Project – 12.10.16 – The Space Upstairs

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.

Drummer vs DJ – 11.3.16 @ Spirit Lodge

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On Thursday night, Loyal Order and Faresh Brand hosted an evening of music at Spirit in Lawrenceville entitled Drummer vs DJ.  Apparently, this wasn’t the first event in this series. But for me, due to a few choice names on the bill, it was the first one that was an absolute must-see type of event.  Those names, Selecta (James Scoglietti) and Throck (Dave Throckmorton), happen to be the best-in-the-city at their respective crafts IMHO, so I was SUPER excited for this.  I was also really interested to see the other performers, most of which I had never seen.

The lead up to Selecta and Throck, who played fourth out of the five sets, was well sequenced.  Pete Butta and drummer Loran Mann kicked things off with a hard hitting set of more popular stuff (Kanye, etc) that really set the tone for the night.  Honestly, my expectations for this were for there to be about 25 people, mostly dudes wearing baseball caps and hoodies (like me!), nodding their heads to experimental hip-hop and break beats.  I was really kind of surprised (pleasantly) to see a large and diverse crowd up on the dance floor from the get go.

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Next up was DJ Hank D performing with drummer Young D.  Unfortunately, apart from a few great moments, I ending up missing the majority of this set.  I hadn’t seen Throck in a while so I chatted with him for a little back by the pizza counter.  It was cool to hear what he’s been up to musically, including bits about (the sorely missed) Space Exchange Series and Thoth Trio, as well as to get some basic hints about what might take place in his upcoming set with Selecta.  The third set of the night was by DJ/producer Preslav Lefterov and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch. This set took things in more of an electronic/house kind of direction and was a nice change of pace, especially for the dancers in the crowd.  But honestly, with absolutely no disrespect to these guys, after about 30 minutes, I was ready for some hip hop. So much so, in fact, that when I noticed Selecta standing a few feet from me in the back of the room, I shared this sentiment with him to which he simply smiled.

It was probably inaccurate, but up until this point, I kind of got the impression that many or most of the people at Spirit did not know what was about to happen.  Selecta is really popular but Throck hasn’t done a whole lot of his hip hop/drum ‘n’ bass type stuff lately.  So when I saw Throck up there setting up his cymbals and re-tuning all of the drums in the house kit (including the bottom heads), I just smiled in eager anticipation.  I don’t remember what they opened the set with, but I can say that they absolutely KILLED it for about 45 straight minutes.  It was basically one classic-era hip hop banger after another with some ridiculous “Throck-Oc” solos mixed in between.  In the video below, I was fortunate to catch what was possibly the highlight of the set for me (before my camera froze up).  Selecta set up Throck nicely to stretch out with a short but high-level solo, which he managed to segue out of with the beat to Bobby Byrd‘s/Eric B & Rakim‘s “I Know You Got Soul“.  It was perfect!  For the whole magical 45 minute-ish set, I felt like these guys were tapped directly into my wavelength.  This was EXACTLY what I wanted and needed on that particular night.  Classic shit from start to finish.  Unfortunately, I could not hang out to see DJ Nugget.  It was just too late.  But, I REALLY look forward to more of these events in the future!  Attendance is highly recommended. Enjoy.

 

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Sun Ra Arkestra – 9.18.16 – New Hazlett Theater, Pittsburgh, PA

Last weekend, Kente Arts Alliance brought yet another legendary jazz act to the city of Pittsburgh.  This time around it was the Sun Ra Arkestra lead by saxophonist Marshall Allen. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to this show 😦  But luckily, Jazz Orbits‘ good friend and contributor, Alex Bard, was there to capture a few minutes of their set as well as a few photos from soundcheck. I’ve read a few thoughts on the show from attendees and some terms that were used to describe the Arkestra on this particular night were  “loose”, “raucous” and “having an outer space quality”.

I was certainly bummed out to have missed this show.  At age 92, it’s unlikely that Marshall Allen and the Arkestra will be around for much longer. But, thankfully, I feel like I can rely on the good people at Kente Arts Alliance to keep the amazing streak of legends alive.

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Booker T. Jones – 8.14.16 – Hartwood Acres

A couple of Sundays ago, the forecast called for rain most of the day.  That forecast was pretty much correct except for when it stopped raining around 6:00 pm.  Luckily for me, and for the rest of Pittsburgh, that was just enough time for the skies to dry up, for the sun to peak through, and for organist Booker T. Jones to take the stage at Hartwood Acres for his Stax Soul Revue.  I had just about ruled it out but when the rain stopped I knew I had to drive out there.  It’s Booker freakin’ T!

When my daughter and I pulled into to large grassy parking area, I thought for a minute that the show had been cancelled.  There were WAY less cars than I am used to seeing at free summer shows at Hartwood.  I assumed this was due to the weather.  But no complaints here.  Even though the start time was pushed back a half an hour or so, a trio came out in front of a relatively small crowd and went right into the intro groove of Booker T’s 1968 hit (w/ the MG’s) “Hang ‘Em High“, before introducing him out to the stage to enthusiastic applause.  Throughout the hit-filled set that included several MG’s tunes, Otis Redding songs and many more, this group was joined by horns and vocalists at various points.  Eventually Booker T even walked out from behind his organ to pick up a guitar for songs like The Beatles‘ “Don’t Let Me Down” and a take on Prince‘s “Purple Rain”.

As is the norm for a free show at Hartwood Acres, we had a great time.  The small crowd allowed for plenty of space for kid stuff like kicking a beach ball, dancing, and just being silly and having fun.  The band sounded great banging out one hit after another and with someone who is Booker T’s age, you never know when they are going to hang it up for good.  This was my second time seeing him perform and it would be really nice if it wasn’t the last.