Photo by Antonio Rossa and courtesy of Cuneiform Records
At the beginning of the month, I pondered April’s designation of Jazz Appreciation Month, on the road to previewing a handful of jazz-related shows happening over a period of 30 days. As one of those cynical types, it was easy to verbally roll my eyes, wondering if the legends of jazz would again be appreciated while the current trailblazers would get little more than a wink of acknowledgement. That cynicism was stifled over the past weekend with two vastly different shows happening concurrently, the likes of which come to Pittsburgh only on rare occasions, let alone within 24 hours.
Friday night the Andy Warhol Museum played host to Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP. Chicago-based cornetist Mazurek leads a number of different projects, from the expansive Exploding Star Orchestra to the Chicago Underground Duo, several of which have come to the Warhol and other venues like the late Club Laga. “Jazz” might not be the first word that comes to mind when listening to his music, but it acts as a launching point for it. For one thing, Mazurek studied with jazz stalwarts like Art Farmer. Plus there were moments during the frenzied set on Friday where his warm tone evoked 1970s Miles Davis, adding lyricism to an overdriven, monochord riff.
The “SP” in Black Cube SP refers to Sao Paulo, the city in Brazil where Mazurek lived for several years, and where he met drummer Mauricio Takara and keyboardist Guilherme Granado, who play in the group. Rounding out the quartet was Thomas Rohrer, who came to Brazil by way of Switzerland and plays rabeca —which resembles a viola — and soprano saxophone.
Most of the set came from their recent album Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost, a four-part opus written after the passing of Mazurek’s mother. Electronics and loops factored into the music, from Granado’s bank of keyboards to Rohrer’s strings, the results blending in a manner that sometimes made it hard to figure out who was holding down the groove. At one point, Mazurek chanted and wailed over a drum and bass groove that recalled pre-electronica punks Suicide. No wonder he seemed to smile and evince approval a few moments later.
At other times, no one was holding down the fort, as all four members created sonic shrapnel. Rohrer approximated a jack hammer, and later a singing voice on rabeca. Later, Takara put down the sticks and picked up the cavaquinho, a distant cousin of the ukulele. Sometimes the chaos seemed to drag on a little too long, but it was impossible to look away. And when Mazurek went from a clarion blare into a written theme, it was all worthwhile.
The Kente Arts Alliance typically brings heavy hitting musicians and dancers to town, not the least of which include Pharaoh Sanders, Randy Weston and Hugh Masekela. One of their first productions brought pianist Geri Allen to town in 2007, as part of a tribute to the late pianist Mary Lou Williams, who grew up in East Liberty. Allen now serves as director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she has already hosted two of the Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar concerts. While that institution evokes the finer points of the classic blowing session, the time was overdue for her to play her own music with her group TimeLine.
While Allen can be very reverent in her music (her 2013 album Grand River Crossings reimagined songs from Motown), her writing pushes her in new directions, sounding both accessible and innovative. She, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Kassa Overall began the evening with “Drummer’s Song,” a multi-level piece that moved from unaccompanied, billowing piano notes, into a duet of Allen and Overall before eventually locked into a groove that almost had a calypso lilt to it.
For an homage to pianist Alice Coltrane, “Swamini,” the trio was joined by saxophonist JD Allen, for an extended, flowing intro that evoked the harplike piano runs that Mrs. Coltrane played as a leader and with her late husband, John Coltrane. Saxophonist Allen, a Detroit native like the pianist, might have reined the probing qualities he displays in his own work, but his crisp execution sounded impressive in the Kelly-Strayhorn theater’s acoustics.
Halfway through “Swamini,” another gentleman casually walked onstage, looking at first like a member of the sound crew, as his gray t-shirt and slacks contrasted with the suits of the other musicians. But he turned out to be the fifth member of the group, Maurice Chestnut, whose tap dancing skills added another dimension to the music. In the spirit of “Swamini,” Chestnut — who stood on a wooden platform that was miked — tapped out a rhythmic dance that came as much from the drum style Elvin Jones played with Coltranes as it came from the dance tradition of his footwork. Later in the set, his trade-offs with Overall’s drums created as much of a flashy spectacle as a musical statement, but the energy was infectious. Listening to him and thinking of his performance percussively, Chestnut added a unique quality to the music that went beyond visuals.
A similar kudos should go towards Overall. He didn’t always “lock in” with Davis in the traditional way that some rhythm sections do, but they undoubtedly played together, with counter rhythms and punctuation spurring on Allen. The bassist worked more as an anchor, but during one unaccompanied solo, he stretched out as well, using harmonics and double-stops to make a complex statement.
Billy Strayhorn, one of the two namesakes of the East Liberty theater, was supposedly quite particular about the way his song “Lush Life” should be performed. The long complex melody should be seen as a piece within itself, not as a theme to be used for improvisation. Many fine versions of the song outraged the composer, who worked closely with Duke Ellington throughout his life. Geri Allen must have known this back story, because her unaccompanied performance of “Lush Life” came in one chorus that languidly explored the nuances of the song, stretching it out the phrases just enough to keep the audience transfixed.
Considering April is only half over, there has already been enough jazz music presented in town to make us more appreciative of both jazz and the people that present it. Plus, there’s more to come.
Cynicism is for squares.