By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival strikes a balance that is all too rare at jazz festivals around the country, other than perhaps the longstanding Newport Jazz Festival. Like some such events, PJF’s schedule features a few acts associated more with R&B than jazz – WAR, Patti LaBelle — but it also includes both edgy jazz players like Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven and veterans like Charles Lloyd, whose playing doesn’t betray his octogenarian status. Some of the performances are ticketed items, but the majority of the festival is free, taking place on street stages Downtown.
McCraven, who performs on Thursday, June 20 at the August Wilson Center, has been dubbed a “beat scientist,” and the term has more truth than hyperbole. “I study beats, whether it’s hip-hop beats or hip-hop production, whether that’s the cymbal beat of a jazz band or polyrhythm, advanced meter, odd time signatures or the polyrhythms of West African music,” he said in a Downbeat interview earlier this year. “Rhythm and time are all-important to me.”
In fact, free improvisation and grooves have equal significance in McCraven’s work. Albums like In the Moment (2015) were culled from hours of live improvisations, which the drummer shaped into songs in the studio. This year’s Universal Beings features sessions recorded in four cities with as many groups. Sometimes it challenges listeners to distinguish harpist Brandee Younger’s improvisations from looped vamps. When McCraven’s group performs now, they add even greater depth to the music. Explaining the whole process in the same article, he says, “We improvise, then I edit and rearrange and recontextualize…Then I can take it and pass it to a DJ, who can remix those ideas. Then [we] take that remix and get a live band to learn the remix, then we can perform it as a live band and use it as a catalyst to improvise over that form or create something [else].”
Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, performing Sunday, June 23, also works in different contexts and has been doing it for more than half a century. In 1966, Forest Flower, a live set from the Monterey Jazz Festival, became a commercial hit, drawing an audience that crossed over into the rock crowd.
While his earlier work often had a spacey quality that appealed to ’60s counterculture, Lloyd has worked in numerous settings since then. In recent years he has recorded for the adventurous ECM label — combining originals with covers like Brian Wilson’s “Caroline No” — and collaborating with singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.
Combining brawn and lyricism, Lloyd summarized his approach in a JazzTimes article last year. “I don’t have lines of demarcation. I’m about the music. And it’s not my profession; it’s my life,” he said.
PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL. Thursday, June 20 through Sunday June 23. Various locations, Downtown Pittsburgh. For a complete schedule, go to pittsburghjazzfest.org