By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
After several days of heavy downpours and general dreariness, the rain decided to take five last Friday, just in time for the start of the ninth Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival. This was significant because the three main stages were outdoors, two on Liberty Avenue and one on Smithfield, just around the corner from both of them. A few ticketed events took place inside the August Wilson African American Culture Center, adjacent to Stage II.
When Pittsburgh and jazz are discussed in the same breath, the subject usually veers towards the rich exports the Steel City sent to the jazz world at large. (If you can’t rattle off at least three of them, look them up. We have other things to discuss here.) When it comes to this Festival, Pittsburgh should take notice. The event was predominantly free to the public, featuring a wide range of styles throughout the weekend. Some people might scoff at performances by non-jazz artists like Patti LaBelle or WAR (which only has one original member). However, it’s good to keep in mind that they shared time with veterans like Charles Lloyd and modern adventurers like drummer Makaya McCraven and saxophonist Nubya Garcia. The lack of a cover charge offers plenty of opportunities check out unfamiliar artists, losing nothing in the process and gaining a lot.
Things kicked off Friday at 5 p.m. with the Jazz Crawl. (Your narrator had to miss McCraven’s set the AWAACC the night before, which was incredible, according to the word on the street.) Local jazz musicians were playing at various clubs around the Downtown area. Checking out all of them would have proved a challenge, so I settled into the Original Oyster House. The bar side of this Market Square institution featured alto saxophonist Tony Campbell’s Quartet, with Dr. James Johnson II (keyboards), Tony DePaolis (bass) and John Korpiel (drums). Campbell’s saxophone teacher might not like when he bends low to the ground mid-solo, but when he’s peeling off inventive lines as he did during his set, no one should question his technique. Fred Pugh of FP3 Promotions sang a few songs with the group in his rich voice which added the group’s already tight work.
Down on the Smithfield Street Stage, the group Butcher Brown got the crowd moving with their funky, electric sound. The group might appeal to listeners who prefer a lighter, pop-oriented approach to jazz. But keyboardist Devonne Harris stuck relied on the raunchy sound of the clavinet and Fender Rhodes rather than going for smooth synthesizers. Trumpeter Sean Jones, — not quite a Pittsburgh native but someone who lived here long enough to be an honorary one — sat in with the band, which gave Marcus Tenny a chance to show off his diversity, switching from his trumpet to tenor saxophone.
Saturday afternoon began with one local institution paying tribute to another expatriate. Drummer Roger Humphries led a sextet on the Smithfield Stage through a series of songs that Art Blakey recorded with various versions of his Jazz Messengers group. Highlights included a take of Freddie Hubbard’s “Priceless” in which Humphries, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and pianist Max Leake were the epitome of an in-the-pocket rhythm section, and trumpeter James Moore got to really stretch out.
Vibraphonist Warren Wolf has released a few impressive albums with his band Wolf Trap. But for his set around the corner on Liberty, he began with a history of his instrument, going from Lionel Hampton’s jumping “Airmail Special,” to a rich salute to Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet (“Django”) up through Bobby Hutcherson’s modernism. The latter tune allowed Wolf to really take off, digging into the song’s modal structure while Richie Goods (another Pittsburgh native) did some solid walking on the bass behind him. Imani-Grace Cooper joined the quartet for vocals on a few songs, which slowed the momentum a bit, until Wolf led the group in Chick Corea’s “Señor Frog.”
Anyone expecting Joey DeFrancesco to stick exclusively with the standard fare of his instrument — greasy blues played on the glorious B3 organ — was in for a surprise on Saturday. DeFrancesco recently released In the Key of the Universe, which features wild tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who is known for both his hair-raising shrieks as much as his spacey jams. Sanders was not with him but his aura was. Flanked by tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., DeFrancesco kicked off “Vibrations in Blue” with a loose, free feeling line before locking into a fat groove closer to adventurous organist Larry Young. Before the set was done, the organist showed off his dexterity by playing both trumpet and tenor saxophone, while Roberts switched to upright bass. The trio’s hybrid of traditional sounds and modern experimentation proved to be one of the highlights of the whole weekend.
Trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s name first came to prominence when he played the trumpet parts in the film Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s 2016 film about Miles Davis. During production, Cheadle called Harrold a mugician, combining “magician” with “music,” which he used to title his latest album. The trumpeter’s set drew heavily from The Mugician, combining acoustic piano (Shedrick Mitchell) with an electric rhythm section, playing funky grooves with lyrical solos. A native of Ferguson, MO, Harrold addressed the senseless killing in that city of Michael Brown in the song “When Will It Stop,” which he combined with “Summertime” and a dramatic reading of “We Shall Overcome.” The performance spoke volumes about the uncertainty of the current times, but the hope that can motivate us to move forward.
Back at Liberty Avenue Stage I, Sean Jones and AWAACC CEO (and festival organizer) Janis Burley Wilson presented pianist Orrin Evans with an award from the Jazz Journalists Association for Best Large Ensemble for his work Captain Black Big Band. After accepting the award, Evans launched the Big Band into a set with that was by turns fascinating and a little frustrating. The fascination came with his writing, which pushed harmonic boundaries with its blend of two trumpets, two trombones, tenor and alto, plus the rhythm section. The frustration was attributed to a sound mix that buried the piano beneath the horns, which is especially exasperating because Evans plays with a distinct, personal touch. After the adventure of the first part of the set, vocalists Joanna Pascale’s performance of “Sunday In New York” and Paul Jost’s angular version of David Bowie’s “Kooks” took away some of the momentum.
After a full afternoon of sitting in direct sunlight (with sunblock, a portable folding chair, and breaks for coffee), it was time for a dinner break. Which meant I was going to miss WAR. With keyboardist Lonnie Johnson as the original member, there’s still a good chance they slayed the crowd, but shade and food were calling.
Saturday evening’s action shifted location to the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. Paul Jost was performing with his quartet later that evening. Actress and Carnegie Mellon alum Tamara Tunie was also singing, accompanied by a group of local jazz stalwarts. But it was clear that the real action would be found in a show titled Black Women Rock, which saluted singer — and Pittsburgh native — Betty Davis.
Cynics might see it as a stretch to put this show under the umbrella of a jazz festival, but dig this: The former Betty Mabry met and enchanted Miles Davis in the ’60s, helping him discover the fashion and music of the times, thus serving as a catalyst that lead to groundbreaking albums like Bitches Brew. If she hadn’t lit that spark, who knows where jazz music would be today?
Besides being a muse, Davis was a powerful performer herself, releasing a series of raunchy, funky albums in the 1970s that showed her as a woman in control. That fact that she walked away from the music industry (eventually resettling in this area, where she lives reclusively) speaks even further to the strength.
Because of all of this, poet/artist Jessica Care Moore assembled a nine-piece group (plus a deejay) to back her and six different vocalists who each got a chance to come out and whip the crowd into a frenzy, doing the music of Davis and – presumably – an original or two. As the name of the event states, all the performers on stage were black women and each of them rocked hard.
All of those performers made for a long evening. The event started around 9:20 and ended exactly at midnight, with a short intermission. It was all worth it, though, when the show’s Living Legend Nona Hendryx hit the stage, dressed in a gold lame outfit. The one-time member of Labelle performed her own hit “Temptation,” ran through the crowd while singing, and eventually kicked off her heels and climbed onto Lauren Johnson’s kick drum to balance herself. Chances are there weren’t many other 74-year olds up that late doing the same thing and looking so sharp. If she ever asks that music question, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir,” the answer, without hesitation, should be, “Oui.”
Hendryx closed the set by leading the entire group in a version of Davis’ “They Say I’m Different.” It segued into a chant of “We Got the Funk,” which eventually lead to an a capella chant of “That’s why Black Women Rock” that no one seemed to know how, or wanted, to end.
After all that action, Sunday might have seemed anti-climactic, but don’t you believe it. Noel Quintana & the Latin Crew literally had people dancing in the streets to their jazz salsa. Quintana won Pittsburgh’s heart too with “Clemente,” a tribute to the late Pittsburgh Pirate, who made Puerto Rico famous around the world, as the band leader put it. The group’s sound was built around four drummers, all of whom skipped a standard trap kit for congas, timbales, bongos and cowbells. Trumpeter Ray Vega, a guest with the band, flew into his upper register a la Dizzy Gillespie, but he also spent a lot of time in his horn’s mid-range, delivering a buttery tone.
Tenor saxophonist Nubya (pronounced “new-BYE-ya”) Garcia said she and her quartet flew for 24 hours to get to Pittsburgh. If she was exhausted, it didn’t show in her music. During her set, she avoided fancy technique in favor of long tones that built in drama and tension. Behind her, drummer Sam Jones did a lot of the heavy lifting, combining the feel of dub-style reggae with the polyrhythmic attack that Elvin Jones utilized in John Coltrane’s Quartet. With the heat rising as the day moved on, the quartet’s subdued approach seemed like the ideal soundtrack for the afternoon.
Personal commitments required your narrator to leave the scene for a few hours, missing —among other things— Sean Jones teaming up with saxophonist Gary Bartz for takes on music from Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. But I was not about to miss octogenarian saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Like Garcia, the veteran musician doesn’t get too complex or abstract, relying instead on a gentle but captivating voice. That didn’t stop the music from getting wild though. A version of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” took the composer’s acoustic song and dropped in a setting that sounded closer to his wild electric band Prime Time. Guitarist Marvin Sewall had a bluesy tone, but he used it to display a fluent jazz vocabulary. Between songs, Lloyd reminisced about playing the Crawford Grill during the ’60s, recalling the time that pianist McCoy Tyner dropped by, needing help to repair a flat tire.
Lloyd’s set seemed to end abruptly after an hour, when it was supposed to last a total of 75 minutes. It was not a snub, however. The electricity on the stage went out, without enough time to repair it before the start of the next performer: Bassist Stanley Clarke’s on Stage II, which closed out the event for another year. While it was hard to give up those precious 15 minutes, considering the good weather we had all weekend, it wasn’t that much of a tragedy.