Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reports on the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2017

A few days ago, Facebook sent me a memory post, one of those "On this day, X years ago," where I suggested that anyone reading the post should go down to the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival and check out the trio of Geri Allen, David Murray & Terri Lynn Carrington. I read it and thought, "Why the hell didn't I go to that show?!" The answer was probably related to my retail job of that time, where Saturday was one of the busiest days of the week and getting off was not done without the residual guilt and suspicion. These days, being underemployed has its advantages.

I was pretty stoked about this year's JazzLive Fest (which ran last weekend, Friday-Sunday) because in addition to ticketed shows by David Sanborn and Angelique Kidjo, there were plenty of free shows. Plus, the schedule included both straightahead acts like vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and bold groups like Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir, as well as tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman and bassist Linda May Han Oh.

A brief preview of the event ran in CP, where I interviewed Linda May Han Oh and wrote a little about Odean Pope. I would have liked to interview David Sanborn, and ask about his wide-ranging work (he's worked with Tim Berne, grew up with the Black Artists Group and covered the Velvet Underground, in addition to the more accessible stuff for which he's known). But my night began at the closing party for the Non Punk Pittsburgh show at SPACE Gallery, just down the street from where Sanborn was playing. Steve Sciulli of Carsickness just released a solo CD, so he was playing, along with a few other acts on the Get Hip label.

After that, it was up to La Lyonnais, a restaurant down and around the corner where a jam session was in progress, hosted by drummer Roger Humphries. Events like this can be a crapshoot - sometimes it's a bunch of musicians blowing the roof off the place, sometimes there are up-and-comers playing the tried-and-true blowing session classics who sound.... promising. 

There were a couple of young bucks onstage (i.e. in the corner where the band could fit) when I arrived. And by young, I mean these fellows looked like they still had a few years of high school left. I should have been ambitious and got the name of the young tenor player who only played on one tune while I was there. But he tore things up - good ideas, good execution. Dr. Nelson Harrison got out his trombetto and - as the picture below shows, Sean Jones also joined in, with saxophonist Lou Stellute and keyboardist Howie Alexander. Things were still going strong past 1:00, but I decided I'd reached my limit by that point.



For the rest of the weekend, the majority of the performances took place outdoors, on two stages set up at either end of  Penn Avenue (The UPMC stage and the Spirit Airlines stage) with the 9th Street Stage in between them. For the most part the weather behaved itself. There was some rain, but not when I was there.


Saturday afternoon, Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir sounded amazing - a mix of Ellingtonian lyricism and World Saxophone Quartet aggression. Or maybe that thrust could be attributed to Philadelphia, his stomping ground for most of his life. There was a moment during the ballad "Cis," a tune dedicated to Pope's late wife, where the voices of all six saxophones were all easily distinguishable, each bringing a personal tone to the music. Later, Pope warned the audience, "This one is on the edge," before launching into a tune where he pushed to the upper register of his horn, the rest of the group occasionally riffing behind him.

The rest of the saxophonists got plenty of solo space too. Julian Pressley (the alto player with the great hair below) had a tart tone that contrasted with the rest of the players, while fellow alto man Louis Taylor was also on fire.


Jazzmeia Horn won the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition, and as she was performing on Saturday, her album A Social Call was #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. It was clear to see why. As her piano trio vamped behind her on the UPMC stage, she unleashed a strong scat solo in "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)." 

Like many jazz musicians in the wake of the new administration, Horn added some politically charged moments to the set. Marking Juneteenth, she sang "Lift Every Voice" ("the Black National Anthem," she called it) and segued that into "Moanin'," the Bobby Timmons classic that got lyrics from Jon Hendricks. It was easy to miss but it sounded like she substituted "life" in the line "Life's a losing gamble to me," with the name of the current president. 

What took away from the performance was Horn's habit of oversinging the words, as if squeezing the life out of "Moanin'" was going to get it more depth. In the intro to another song, she squealed and caterwauled in the upper register, which also felt a bit excessive. What was strange was hearing her contrast the heavy stuff (which seemed to evoke Abbey Lincoln's intense performances on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite) with lighter, overdone fare like "I Remember You" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." She definitely has talent and needs to be followed because she could head in a number of different directions.

At the jam session the night before, a woman sat in on drums and awed everyone who was listening. "Who was that," we kept asking. The drummer in question was Shirazette Tinnin, who played with her band Sonic Wallpaper followed Horn's set. Tinnin's c.v. includes everyone from WuTang Klan to DIVA and Hugh Masakela. The group had an intriguing instrumentation, with alto saxophone, cello, trombone, keyboards (Rhodes and acoustic piano), guitar, bass and her drums. 

A lineup like that could confuse the sound engineer and that seemed to happen. The keyboards moved in and out of the mix, the trombone (which had a wah-wah effect on it during a solo) dropped out during a dramatic moment. But Tinnin had some strong grooves going, in what might be considered fusiony funk. It had the chops and electronics of the former style and the grease of the latter.


I've written enough about Sean Jones that most people know that he is an astounding trumpet player. One difference in his playing at the jam session at on the Spirit stage was that he seems to have moved away from his approach from a few years ago, where a solo would start low and build in intensity, like a preacher's sermon (his words). He did a little bit of that but it was great to hear him continuing to evolve as a player.

But what might not be obvious to those what haven't seen Jones live all that often is what an engaging performer he is. He sounded so happy to be back in Pittsburgh again, playing for people that he treated like friends. He was so casual, like he was hanging out in someone's living room. His song introductions remind me of the easygoing talks that were a big part of Cannonball Adderley's live albums.

Sean likes to explain the back story with the tunes so there is something to think about that while the group is playing. When introducing "The Ungentrified Blues" he made light humor about neighborhoods that are losing their character as they're rebuilt. For the closing "BJ's Tune" he offered a song of hope and unity, and a plea to "forget all the things that separate us." The quartet rolled to a climax and when they finally got there, Jones still wasn't done. His obbligato included "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace." Mark Whitfield, Jr. (drums) and Ben Williams (bass) were a solid rhythm section while Jones' good friend and longtime collaborator Orrin Evans sounded stellar on the piano, especially when he smacked some low notes during "The Ungentrified Blues."



Public Service Announcement to future JazzLive attendees: Don't forget your sunblock or your sunglasses. And if you invest in a portable chair that you can tote easily, you won't regret it. Sitting on the curb, you don't know what you'll kind of view or shelter from the sun you'll get, or who will be sitting next to you. The roped off VIP sections are never that full. A lot of people groused to me about them, saying dollars could be spent better on tents or some kind of shelter from the sun for the regular folks.  

Linda May Han Oh started off Sunday afternoon on the 9th Street Stage with her quartet. The way she handled her instrument made her tower over it, even if it was a few inches taller than her. "Walk Against Wind" is the title track to her new album and it contains a few different movements, starting minor and snaky, where drummer Eric Doob recalled Paul Motian in his use of space. In my notes I wrote "What's going through her mind," during her out of tempo bass solo. It felt dramatic and really original, and then she shifted into the background so Ben Wendel could play a tenor solo that was gruff around the edges.  For the songs "Speech Impediment" and "Perpuzzle" Oh moved to bass guitar. 





It's kind of hard to imagine tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman as one of the "young lions" of the 1980s, along with Wynton Marsalis. His genes (his father was the astounding-but-under-the-radar tenor man Von Freeman) and his Chicago roots (he taught at the AACM and recorded in the Leaders with Lester Bowie) indicate that he's someone that respects the tradition but insists on pushing it forward. That's exactly what his Plus+Tet did on Sunday at the Spirit Airlines Stage.

Freeman plays with a bold, rich tenor sound. "To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain" was a gentle waltz that could sound smooth  if it wasn't for the way he played a solo, tonguing the notes more often than merely slurring them together. Pianist Anthony Wonsey did the same thing during his solo, striking the keys and fragments of a line individually instead of smoothly constructing somthing. The approach gave the tune more edge. For "Soft Pedal Blues," the Plus+tet avoided the shouting blues designed to rile up a crowd. This rendition was slow, a little dirty and really soulful. Freeman's lines were spare but very heavy. "Blues for a Hot Summer Day" was more like it.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf has become a reputable leader in his own right, but he served as the perfect foil to Freeman on the frontline. In some ways it evoked Freeman's work with the late vibist Bobby Hutcherson, who recorded "Crossing the Sudan," a 7/4 the Plus+tet played early in the set. Some vibes players use the double mallet approach, with two in each hand to help with harmonies. Wolf doesn't need that. He gets plenty of energy with one in each hand, especially when he's wailing over a minor vamp in 6/8.

Father's Day commitments kept me from seeing the Bad Plus, Tia Fuller, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra or Hudson (the new supergroup that's on the cover of the next issue of JazzTimes!!). But this was an extremely stellar set of acts. Hopefully the newfound sponsorship will grow and next year will be even bigger.





Thursday, June 15, 2017

CD Review: Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds


Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds
(FPE) www.fperecs.com

There are a few different angles I considered taking when opening up a discussion of Nicole Mitchell's latest album. After pulling myself away from some links on social media about what happened to Senator Kamala Harris yesterday when she was trying to ask Jeff "Shush, little lady" Sessions yesterday, a new opening line hit me:

This album could scare the living hell out of people like Sessions and maybe even our current leader.

Not only does it have many unhinged qualities that we can expect from someone affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is also built on an underlying story line about a couple from the decaying World Union society who discover Mandorla, an island in the Atlantic where, unknown to the rest of the world, people like in an egalitarian society, in peace and harmony. The couple has to decide whether to continue in their "dystopic" world or move to a "utopic" one. The music (and words) tell how the decision is not so easy or clear cut.

Ideas like this seem like just the thing to make our leaders uncomfortable. Cooperative (and peaceful) societies going up against aggressive, hierarchical societies. It seems to shake up the status quo, asking for common sense and cooler heads to prevail. It forces people to reexamine their  perspectives.

Mitchell's music has gone to the dark side before, using Afrofuturist author Octavia E. Butler as an inspiration for albums like Xeogenesis Suite. Musically she takes things even further with a version of her Black Earth Ensemble that features shakuhachi (Kojiro Umezaki), violin (Renee Baker), electric guitar/oud/theremin (Alex Wing), bass/shamisen/talko (Tatsu Aoki) and percussion (Jovia Armstrong). Three tracks include vocals by poet/scholar avery r young.

The players often work in different combinations. "Egoes War" opens with free percussion that betrays the AACM influence on Mitchell, before Wing adds some frenzied guitar. "Dance of Many Hands" starts out sounding like a folk tune, albeit one in 5/4, with guitar plucking out a melody while the flutes float over it, climaxing with a passionate cello solo. It's followed by "Listening Embrace" a multi-tiered track which includes Reid on banjo and a duet between Mitchell's expressive flute and the raw, nasal drone of Aoki's shamisen.

The vocal tracks don't come until more than halfway through the album, making it feel more like an intense set of instrumental music up to that point. They can be a challenge, with young delivering them with heavy enunciation to make sure the points aren't missed. Upon hearing them cold, without any knowledge of the album's concept, they felt a little hard to swallow. But reading Mitchell's program notes, and using the lyric sheet for reference, things make a bit more sense. Music like this is supposed to challenge listeners, even as it leaves them spellbound.

Yes, this is intense music but the times require sounds like this to keep us awake and aware of what's reallly going on around us.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nick Cave, David Murray & Kahil El'Zabar

Last week, I attempted, in vain, to try and transcribe my November 2016 interview with David Murray. The intention was to post a last-minute preview for his appearance with Kahil El'Zabar, which happened last Sunday, June 4 at the James Street Gastropub. For technical reasons, let's say, it didn't happen. I'm pretty sure this idea popped up last on Thursday, less than 24 hours before the big fundraiser/carnival at my son's school, which I assisted in putting together - and, like everything else, had me all stressed out. My focus wasn't there so it never got done.

Back in early December, bassist Harrison Bankhead came to town with Murray and El'Zabar, but last week, it was just the two of them. If any two guys can make a big show out of a duo, it's these two.

The format of their two sets followed a similar path as most of El'Zabar's appearances with his other groups, like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. It began with El'Zabar plucking out a slow drone on the kalimba, keeping a pulse on bells attached to his right ankle. Murray played all over it, eventually joining El'Zabar vocally. Then El'Zabar switched to the trap kit, which seemed to be tuned to play a drone underneath the tenor. The third piece moved the percussionist to the hand drum, a cajon, or something like it. Murray also played bass clarinet in both sets. I love the percussive thunk he gets out of the instrument, in addition to the ease with which he peels off some great, emotional lines.

At the beginning of the evening, I was standing out in the stairwell of James Street, talking to local guitarist Colter Harper about Chasing Trane, the John Coltrane documentary that had just finished a run here. Murray was walking downstairs mid-way through our conversation, and chimed in, knowing what the topic was. He said Bill Clinton made one of the most profound statements in the film. "Do you remember what he said," Murray inquired. I had seen the movie twice, but couldn't recall what he was referring to. Clinton, he reminded me, said that Coltrane did, for music, the same thing Pablo Picasso did for art, in 50 less years. "I thought that was really profound," he said. I wished I would've remembered that more than Carlos Santana's ridiculous hippie-metaphor about Trane's music.

*

I wrote a preview for Nick Cave's Pittsburgh show for City Paper, even though the concert was already sold out. Since Cave wasn't doing interviews, and since I only had 500 words to fill, I pulled a few quotes from another interview. It ended up running online only, not in the print issue. For that reason, I didn't feel like pushing for a comp. So I resigned myself to skipping the show.

At 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, Jennie called me saying that the cousin of a friend of ours had an extra ticket, and that I should get in touch with him. (She was okay with me going without her.) So connections were made and - wham - there I was in the first balcony, left center, taking in the show that everyone will probably be talking about for years to come.

I'm sure there are naysayers out there. You know, the ones who never liked Nick Cave in the first place or thought he was overly dramatic or cheesy. But for the rest of us - it was like going to church. If I said that about Patti Smith's concert in the same venue earlier this year, well... this was a different kind of church. This was fire and brimstone. This was Jesus walking on water. There were no bodies of water in the Carnegie Music Hall, but if there were, brothers and sisters, he probably would have walked on them. Instead, Cave just walked across the seats in the first few rows, singing to people, getting lifted up by others (or at least supported by them, as some friends of mine confessed online) and finally inviting a whole slew of folks onstage to sing with him.

Before the show started, it was kind of funny at first to see a chair set up center stage with a microphone in front of it, as if Nick was going to sit casually for the whole set, maybe having a drink and talking to us between songs. But that lasted for just one song, "Anthrocene." Once it was done he could've just chucked the seat but he politely moved it to the side so it was easier for him to pace the stage as he sang. The next few songs, which also came from Skeleton Tree or Push the Sky Away, were all mid-tempo and simple, but this format is Cave's bread and butter. No one can make turn a plodding groove into a masterful story like this guy.

So when he finally kicked up the mood with "From Her to Eternity," we were more than ready. Having listened to this song so many times at home on the album of the same name, I had certain expectations and hopes for what it would sound like live. Warren Ellis started ravaging his violin, creating the same kind of racket as Blixa Bargeld's guitar does in the original version, and it nearly blew my head off. He was plinking it like a guitar and kicking pedals on and off, making it explode with feedback. Behind him, the group pounded away on the monochord beat and vibraphone counterpoint which, I discovered after 32 years, is in 5/4. All this time, I thought they were just hoping for the best, and that if all went well, they'd interlock on instinct.

That's the interesting thing about Cave's music. It's pretty simple on the surface: two chords (give or take) repeated over and over, eventually changing to a third chord. But it takes good ears and skill to make sure you make those changes. A few times they didn't. Or else Cave improvised a little bit and the band got to change before he did. During one song, he called out to the band to back things up to the break, and repeat from there. Another time, he called out bassist Martyn Casey, good-naturedly.

A performer as well-known as Nick Cave probably has some, shall we say, crack-pot fans. (The late, great Pittsburgh scenester Lee Conley was an obsessive, but he was more as an enthusiast, in the best sense.) There were people in the audience who thought Cave was having a one-on-one conversation with them, and couldn't let it go after shouting one or two things. That's more annoying than anything else. But what slayed me was the guy's lack of inhibition when it came stepping off the stage into the audience. He's opening himself up for all sorts of danger, and he has no fear as he does it. (Of course, any nut who would harm a hair on Nick Cave's head would probably get beaten to death immediately by the audience.)

This might burst some people's bubble, but in a recent GQ article, Cave said there "a banal, practical" aspect to his habit of singing to the first 50 people: his eyesight isn't too good, so he can't see much beyond the first two rows. He might not be quite as connected with the audience as it seemed. On the other hand, the article makes it sound like the most Cave does is walk to the edge of the stage. Last week, he was offstage, in the aisle, walking across the seats that were now empty because everyone was in the aisles, hoping to get their hands on him. Maybe he really does love us more, who knows?

Then for the encore, he invited a few people onstage, and then a few more. And a few more. Then a few more followed suit. How many, I can't tell you. I was thinking maybe 75-80. The Post-Gazette estimated closer to 100. (Incidentally, Scott Mervis wrote a fine review that gives more specifics about what they played and how it sounded. Check it out here.) Everyone sang along for "Pushing the Sky Away," a touching song that sent us all home in awe.

While Cave is certainly a dramatic performer, who isn't opposed to raising his hands towards the audience to get a reaction, the gesture wasn't mere showbiz. This wasn't the cliched gesture of a singer acting pointing towards himself during the adulation, arrogantly (or ironically) meaning, "Give me more." Cave seemed to be in a sharing mood, like we were all part of the show, and that's why everyone seemed so blown away by the whole thing. We're with him. During the loud section at the end of the organ solo in "Red Right Hand," he ran into the crowd quickly and ran back onstage to sing the next verse. It felt like he had just run the living room at a party, yelled a wild salutation, and ran right back out.