Reviews & Opinions

June 24 -- 26, 2016

June 24 -- 26, 2016

by Gary Finney

For the 2016 edition of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Jazzlive International Festival, the lineup of world class musicians included some who are truly on the cutting edge of modernity. Guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly reminded the audience that throughout jazz’s history, modernity has always meant keeping an eye on the future, not the past.  Pittsburgh jazz-radio icon Bob Studebaker duly reminded the audience that Earl “Fatha” Hines hailed from Pittsburgh and that just down the street from one of the festival’s stages is where Billy Strayhorn first met Duke Ellington. So this year’s festival was all about covering a lot of musical territory.

Tony DePaolisHome-Based Talent.

Pittsburgh-based bassist Tony DePaolis and his band led off Saturday’s proceedings in customary flair: serve up some jazz-tinged R&B to get the festival-goers in the appropriate mood for a full day’s worth of music. DePaolis dubs his band Contemporary Dynamic and dynamic they were in an ever shifting combination of musicians on virtually every tune.

Perhaps the most refreshing surprise was that for a band playing this style of music, they did not employ the use of a guitarist. Alternating between acoustic and electric bass, DePaolis led his rhythm section behind a front line of two saxophones and a trumpeter, with the occasional sultry, alto voice of his band’s singer gliding over the heavy backbeat. When she wasn’t joining the band, DePaolis switched to acoustic bass and could “walk” in that ever-timeless fashion that listeners find so enjoyable. The horns participated individually or in tandem or all together, which continually kept things fresh, whether in Tower Of Power style or a rubato melody line by a lone sax floating over the roiling rhythm section. The only misstep in the set was an intentionally heavily distorted bass solo, in lieu of a guitar solo, which was totally incongruous with the otherwise infectious groove of the tune.  

J.P.Bourelli & Vernon ReidElectronic Modernity

Nu Grid performed next and that ethos of modernity was front and center in this exciting set of music. Fronted by two guitarists whose history dates back to the Black Rock Coalition, Vernon Reid and Jean-Paul Bourelly, the quartet also included cornetist Graham Haynes and DJ Logic.   Bass and rhythm sounds came from the looped samples emanating from Logic’s laptops and turntables, with Haynes’ cornet also heavily processed through a laptop, as was Reid’s guitar.

This leading-edge music was relatively melody free, as the ultimate goal was to create a trance-funk vibe from the multiple knotty grooves created by Bourelly and Reid, with Haynes’ haunting cornet lines echoing again and again into a spacey decay. The rhythmic foundation from Logic’s looped samples drove the ensemble ferociously. In fact, sitting as close to the stage as I did, the ostinato bass lines were so palpable that I could actually feel them reverberating within my chest cavity. It was all that my poor heart could do to follow its own natural rhythm and not succumb to the pulse of the music!

Take No Prisoners.

When soloing, Reid’s hard-edged rape-and-pillage-take-no-prisoners tone flexed its muscle in a manner that was extremely reminiscent of his performance with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society at their 1986 appearance at Erie’s defunct ClaySpace. Bourelly’s tone contrasted with that of Reid in that his guitar’s sustain was reigned in to the point that his guitar sounded as though it were being strangled. This music quickly began to sound like a forty year-old album that was never made. If current technology had been available in 1976, this surely is the logical direction that Miles Davis would have pursued after recording the Agharta [Columbia, 1975] album. Bourelly briefly played with Miles in 1988 and it was no secret that Haynes was drawing heavily upon Big Fun [Columbia, 1974] era Miles as well. It was unfortunate that so much of the audience chose not to hear the set to its conclusion, for this was some incredibly exhilarating music.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo SmithVijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith.

The influence of Miles continued into the next set, albeit from the dark prince’s Agharta period to that of the textural context of In A Silent Way [Columbia, 1969]. The classic sound of a Fender Rhodes electric piano created a swirling atmosphere beneath the long-held, rubato notes from a trumpet, to begin this set. Earlier in the year, pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith release their duo collaboration A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke [ECM, 2016] to widespread acclaim, and this performance was part of their tour to promote the recording. Angular turns were few and far between as the music seemed to breathe in much the same way as fog that subtly rolls in and then out. The tonal palette never grew stale, as Iyer shifted back and forth from the Rhodes to a grand piano, which at times he played solely and other times augmented its sound with that of textures from a laptop. This created fleeting moments of influence from Philip Glass or perhaps other post-modern composers. Smith’s microphone was at his feet, two feet in height, so his body posture, hunched over, head down with the bell of his horn pointed at the floor, even recalled that of Miles’ body language, which was erroneously thought to be disrespectful or antisocial, back in the day. The short staccato bursts from the trumpet, with long pauses in-between, again bore the hallmark of the late Mr. Davis.

Davina and the VagabondsBut this is no way made Iyer and Smith’s music totally derivative; we are so far along in the evolution of jazz music that it is nearly impossible for anything to not draw upon something else. After all, what passes for the “golden age” of jazz, to many listeners, was drawing upon the popularity of Tin-Pan Alley songs from the twenties. Smith, an elder to Iyer by three decades, has been a mentor as well as collaborator with the pianist, whereby his approach of tension and release, rhythmic flexibility and an all-guiding philosophy to “think outside the box” infused this delightful set from start to finish.  

The Ninth Street Stage was the setting for Davina And The Vagabonds, a New Orleans style band from the Twin Cities area, who rolled back the clock for a boisterous set of tuba-anchored traditional jazz. This was just the opportunity that I needed to head for the food court to grab a falafel sandwich and a cold glass of Brother Thelonious Ale.

Jeff Jeff "Tain" Watts a Pittsburgh Homeboy.

Pittsburgh’s prodigal son, Jeff “Tain” Watts, brought his quintet to town for the festival and the receptive crowd gave him a hero’s welcome. As M-C Lee Mergner, publisher of JazzTimes magazine, said, “Introducing an act whom everybody knows is the easiest job of all.”

Watts is a drummer of relentless polyrhythmic drive who prefers tempos where that style can run unfettered, so any sideman in his band better have the chops and muscle to equally contribute or risk be cast by the wayside. Pianist Dave Kikoski, saxophonist Troy Roberts, Korean bassist Hogyu Hwang and guitarist Mark Whitfield all proved themselves equal to the task. They began their set with “Mobius,” which Watts said was written in honor of the German mathematician.

Jeff The Mobius strip is a surface with only one side and one boundary and in a fashion, so was this elliptically swinging tune. Watts’ slashing style and volatile approach to the beat is anything but straight time-keeping and Kikoski responded by forging huge left-handed chords while his right hand ran amok. Not wishing to be left behind, Roberts unleashed a blistering torrent of notes from his soprano sax that were at once tart and pungent.

Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” was next on the set list and it too was anything but straightforward, as it was inundated with incessant tempo shifts that kept the audience unbalanced and highlighted the band’s ability to shift gears at a moment’s notice. On what can best be described as a power ballad, Roberts unfurled a tenor solo that was full-throated, without being gruff, while Kikoski’s solo struck a balance between flowing and angular, as it referenced the melody from tangential, bisecting and enveloping points of view. Whitfield’s biting fusillade of 16th notes on up-tempo barn-burners and bluesy, languid phrasing on mid-tempo tunes was always tastefully appropriate and never collided with what emanated from his fellow chordal band mate.  

Christian McBride, Brian Blade, Chick CoreaGrand Finale: Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Brian Blade.

While it was my great fortune to be seated in the fifth row, the audience for the grand finale performance stretched at least three blocks deep on Penn Avenue. Chick Corea and his trio consisting of Christian McBride and Brian Blade could possibly have been the only band performing on Saturday and it is doubtful that anyone would have complained.

Christian McBrideAfter more than fifty years in the business, Corea is undeniably a master when it comes to communicating with the audience. After he hit a note or two to help McBride tune his bass, Corea then said that he needed to “tune” the audience. He repeatedly played a small handful of notes, encouraging the audience to sing them back to him and good-naturedly chided them with thumbs up or down depending on whether the response was flat or sharp. And this rapport with the audience segued directly into a spirited reading of “500 Miles High.” Blade playfully pushed the trio with his halting style of drumming while McBride’s strident bass playing laid down the confident anchor upon which Corea’s minimal, deconstructed melody skipped and Chick Coreadanced. In no hurry to find resolution, they explored every facet of the tune for nearly fifteen minutes

Of course Corea had substantive tenure in Miles’ third great quintet and with their second tune, “Alice In Wonderland,” famously interpreted by Bill Evans (another Davis alum), the day’s Miles-ian thread continued to be woven. Unfortunately, the tune had to gain traction over the rude and boisterous hecklers who seemed to not understand that “they” were not the evening’s main event. Throughout the set, McBride’s tone was so woody and resonant that if you closed your eyes, you’d have sworn that the sound was originating from a recording studio. And the suddenly explosive outbursts from Blade were akin to a drum set experiencing Tourett Syndrome, to which Corea was often quick to respond with a clamorous chord of his own.

“Paradise” (yes, that “Paradise”—McBride highlighting his Philly connection with the late Grover Washington Jr.) was another lengthy exploration to which the audience could hum along with the chorus and sit enthralled by McBride’s exquisite arco solo that was stunning in its dexterity and beauty.

The last song of their set, excluding the encore, put the bow on the day’s Miles connection, as they launched into a spirited version of “All Blues.”  Just a few notes into the familiar opening refrain, the audience acknowledged their joyous reception to this much-beloved classic.

At its conclusion, Corea excitedly leapt from his piano bench to dash across the stage to shake the hands of McBride and Blade. He obviously felt that they captured something with this piece that deeply moved him and a standing ovation by the cheering crowd, whose arms were waving in the air like a sea full of octopi were in total agreement. 

by Gary Finney

June 27, 2016