This past weekend in Pittsburgh was some sort of anomaly or like a glitch in the matrix. Not only do incredible jazz shows rarely happen around here these days, they almost never take place within one 48 hour period. But this was the case here beginning with a Mary Holvorson solo set on Friday and culminating in a killer Sunday night finale by Halvorson’s trio, Thumbscrew.
Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum had brought in a bunch of incredible musicians and poets over the last few weeks to celebrate the opening of their new Alphabet City mixed use venue in the North Side. Unfortunately, the building is not yet finished. But, fortunately for all of us music lovers, the shows weren’t cancelled but were just moved to their outdoor Alphabet City Tent. Knowing that there was no way I’d be able to attend everything happening this weekend, I chose to skip the Mary Halvorson solo set (as well as Rakim at VIA Fest). I’m sure it was amazing but solo sets are not really my favorite type of shows and I knew I’d get to see her play on the next two evenings.
Saturday night’s show was by drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his project called The Hook Up. The Hook Up consists of Tomas along with Michael Formanek on bass, Mary Halvorson on guitar (all of which are also in Thumbscrew) along with saxophonist Brian Settles and special guest Dave Ballou on trumpet. This show was nothing short of amazing. I really enjoyed the variety of moods and energies throughout the set. At one point early in the set they broke it down to just drums and sax. It was so intimate and beautiful that a nearby cricket’s chirping became part of the piece. For me it was truly one of those, “THIS is why is love live music!” moments. After the show, a friend I was with said something about this being one of the best performances of any kind that he had ever seen. Pretty bold statement but certainly hard to argue with.
The next day, after watching the first half of the Steelers’ game, I took a ride out to Dormont in the South Hills. I lived near there several years ago but hardly ever go back these days. So, just the drive out there was kind of a surreal experience. It takes a good reason for me to make the journey through the Liberty Tubes and on this day, the reason was to see my favorite band in Pittsburgh, Thoth Trio, play at the Hollywood Theater. This event had the trio playing a live soundtrack to some of Buster Keaton‘s silent films. To be honest, I would have gone out there for Thoth alone. Due to the Thunderbird being remodeled, they’ve hardly played out at all lately. But I was blown away by how entertaining this show was overall. My initial focus, possibly because of the great acoustics in the room, was almost entirely on the band to the point where I found myself closing my eyes and just listening…only to realize that a movie was being shown on the screen. Then there were moments when I kind of got lost in the film. It was truly the kind of blissful, escapist experience that I look for in a show. The kind of thing where you can get completely removed from reality for an hour or so.
Somehow, after all of this, there was still another show to go to. Thumbscrew (Halvorson, Formanek, Fujiwara) were closing City of Asylum’s month of jazz and poetry with a set at 7:00. As I’ve written about here before, the trio took part in a residency last year where they stayed in Pittsburgh for two weeks writing, performing, and recording music. So it was very cool to get to see them revisit the exact place where their most recent album, Convallaria (Cuneiform Records 2016), was written and to perform several of those tunes again. I knew what to expect from this one and they certainly delivered. I’d really like to thank the people from City of Asylum, all of the musicians I just mentioned, and the people that book the Hollywood Theater in Dormont for a wonderful and unforgettable weekend.