Kamasi Washington – 11.27.17 – Mr. Smalls – Millvale, PA

It could have been the lukewarm reception I got from some friends when I mentioned this show. Or maybe it was the $30 price tag.  Whatever the reason, I did NOT expect to see a line wrapped around the building and down the stairs outside of Mr. Smalls Theater when I arrived at 7:05 last Monday night. Being somewhat of a cheapskate, I don’t like paying service fees when buying tickets and therefore I try to avoid them whenever possible.  What that meant for me on this chilly night was standing in a line for 20 minutes so that I could buy a ticket at the door and go have a few beverages at another less expensive establishment.  While I was mildly unhappy to have to wait in the line, it was SUPER cool to see people excited about jazz!  Think about that, about a hundred people in a line outdoors in November to get into a JAZZ show. It was truly remarkable. I will say that the performance by saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band were certainly worth the wait as well as the price tag.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t fall in love with Kamasi’s hugely successful 2015 release The Epic (Brainfeeder) or this year’s follow up Harmony of Difference (Young Turks), but I did appreciate them both.  I listen to a good amount of mid to late 60’s era jazz and, although he’s certainly no novelty act, to me these records didn’t really offer anything drastically new or different. Maybe I need to revisit. But what WAS drastically new and different for me was being in a large room (capacity 800) packed full of people to see a jazz group in 2017.  For that I was really excited and appreciative to be able to experience.

Washington’s octet offered a full variety of styles from swing to funk to R&B to 60’s-ish spiritual free jazz and everything in between.  This variety is undoubtedly part of the reason for the popularity. None of this music felt too traditional or stuffy nor was it too intellectual, abstract or mathematical …things that tend to bog down some other current jazz acts IMO.  The set included a mashup of the jazz standard “Cherokee” with Curtis Mayfield-esque funk rhythms.  There was also a shredding key-tar solo and an explanation of why he needs, not one, but TWO “incredibly dope drummers”!  His drummers (one of which was Ronald Bruner Jr., brother of bassist Thundercat) were REALLY good BTW. Overall, the vibe was great, the audience was attentive and diverse, and Washington even brought out his dad Rickey Washington who played soprano sax for rest of the show!  I’m really happy that I chose to attend and to experience this band first hand.  It truly was a beautiful night of music.

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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.

 

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…..

 

 

 

 

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

necks_1

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.