Last Saturday's Pitt Jazz Seminar concert at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland marked the first fully programmed by the university's new director of jazz studies, Geri Allen, who's now in her second year at the school. (You're still considered new in your second year when your predecessor founded the department and was there for four decades!) Allen, a renowned pianist and bandleader, brought the heavy artillery in terms of talent: drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding, both of whom have toured with Allen before as ACS, rounded out the rhythm section, and the horns came courtesy of alto sax player Tia Fuller, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and trombonist Clifton Anderson.
The show started strong with a raucous, hard-bop take on Allen's own "In Real Time," from her Timeless Portraits and Dreams album. The studio version of the tune is upbeat but smooth; the ensemble Saturday night made it raucous, energetic and moving. It served as a sign of what would come the rest of the night, and seemed to make a statement, too: As my colleague Mike Shanley mentioned, last year's program kicked off with a song written by Nathan Davis, but this year, it was all Geri Allen.
And it was all in that rhythm section: While the horns were stellar, and each had plenty of chances to show off throughout the night, it all came down to Allen working with Carrington and Spalding in a spot-on trio. Carrington and Spalding are both famous worldwide, but neither insisted on much in the way of special attention or drawn-out solos — they dazzled from the pocket, making things look easy.
Fittingly, some of the biggest thrills of the night came not on classics that the group reinterpreted (though they did great work with Miles Davis' "Tune Up," and Howard University's Afro Blue a cappella group impressed with their arrangement of an Erroll Garner suite), but on Geri Allen compositions. Aside from that first song, Allen's "Unconditional Love," nestled in the second set of the night, gave Spalding room to vocalize, singing scat-style after the initial bass solo. Even as she kept up with the complicated bass line, she locked in and matched pitch perfectly with Fuller's alto in a breathtaking performance.
If any part of the show fell flat, it might have been toward the end of the first set, when a portion of the Afro Blue ensemble joined in on Allen's "Timeless Portraits and Dreams"; while it's a beautiful number, and the vocals were great, it's a piece that verges, lyrically, on sappiness, and took a bit of the air out of the (uncomfortably warm) room. It was still executed well, it just didn't have quite the gusto of the other songs (even the smooth Tia Fuller number "Lil Les," which came earlier in the set).
The weirdest — and I mean that in the best way — moment of the night came at the beginning of the second set, when the Allen-Carrington-Spalding trio took on "Nefertiti," the Wayne Shorter song written for Miles Davis. A song already prone to wild swings and chronic decomposition and reconstruction throughout, it was even more starkly free as played by a trio. The room was still and quiet, maybe in awe, maybe confused, probably a bit of both. It was beautiful, it was challenging, and it put to rest any worries that things might get sappy.
If this was a sign of things to come for the Jazz Seminar and Concert, it's safe to say Pitt's event is in good hands with Allen. The lineup, the set list and the performances were world-class, both entertaining and challenging. It's exciting to think what Geri Allen will pull together next year.
In Real Time - Geri Allen
Lil Les - Tia Fuller
Miss Ann - Eric Dolphy
Lament - JJ Johnson
Tune Up/Count Down - Miles Davis & John Coltrane
Timeless Portraits & Dreams - Geri Allen
Nefertiti - Wayne Shorter
Unconditional Love - Geri Allen
Roll Em - Mary Lou Williams
Misty - Erroll Garner
Gemini - Erroll Garner