Cymbal crashes and electric-piano chords accompany the twirls and kicks of the combatants in the kung-fu film up on the wall behind the bar. Considering the size of the boisterous crowd at East Liberty's AVA Lounge -- 50 or so folks jammed into the slender room -- it ought to be a Friday or Saturday night. But it's a Monday. On what's considered the week's dead night for entertainment in Pittsburgh, AVA offers one of the hottest jazz jams going in this city, incorporating silent film projections and an open stage.
The scene begins around 9 p.m., when keyboardist Howie Alexander strolls in, and he and the other members of the house trio set up their instruments -- usually Tony DePaolis on bass, with James Johnson, David Throckmorton or Alex Peck alternating on the house trap set. Other musicians -- young and not-so, novice and old-guard -- trickle in, instrument cases in tow. They'll sip a few drinks and listen to some tunes and await their summons to the tiny staging area from the dreadlocked, bespectacled piano man.
But first, we listen, as Alexander and his cohorts roam through standard and lesser-known and sometimes free-form jazz interpretations. Heed carefully, as the attentive crowd does, and you'll hear the melodies of the tunes' titles -- ranging from Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" or a funky "All Blues" to a lilting "Softly as a Morning Sunrise" -- emerge from Alexander's Ahmad Jamal-tinged rain-drop tinkling or full-chord bluesy renderings.
Alexander and his chums explore the music as much as they perform it. There is no set list. No charts. The fare is improvisational, musicians listening to and feeding off each other, as jazz ought to be. "We just like to play what we feel," Alexander explains between sets. During the breaks, J. Malls, a.k.a. Jason Molyneaux during daylight hours, spins records at a console, stage-right. This is the real stuff, recordings with slight pops in the grooves, a soft hiss between tunes -- John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley.
The audience members chat but mostly listen, nodding their heads like 1950s bebop fans, staring at the musicians and studying the notes as much as hearing them. The serious folks sit up front, where chairs are arranged in rows facing the stage area -- the best place to watch, because jazz is almost as much visual poetry as it is an audio experience. A young woman sits at the bar and sketches pencil portraits of audience members into a small pad; a broad man in blue jeans leans into an easy chair with his laptop computer, sipping now and then from a soft drink. Couples drift in, exchange hugs with friends, order white and red wines or a bottled beer, and find a place among the easy chairs and couches beneath the dangling chandeliers and the high, stamped-tin black ceiling.
There's not a quiet moment in this bar; the only differences between it and the city's old-style jazz clubs are the lack of smoke -- cigarettes, cigars and pipes all go outside on the sidewalk -- and the films screened endlessly and noiselessly on the wall. The lineup can range from the memoir/exposé anime Perspolis to The Muppet Movie or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Once the Alexander trio's second-set jam begins, city regulars, long-familiar Pittsburgh names, mix with younger artists: Kenny Blake blowing his tenor; Roger Barber offering up breathy renderings on his flugelhorn; saxman Tony Campbell bebopping; Pittsburgh native Roby "Supersax" Edwards just in for a visit from the coast; Count Basie trombone alum Dr. Nelson Harrison. They, along with a smattering of young local music students -- this is an equal-opportunity session -- take their turns soloing in front of the band.
And then come the rare treats, like the night trumpet phenom Sean Jones, assistant professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University and lead for the Wynton Marsalis Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City, sat in along with Branford Marsalis drummer (and Pittsburgh native) Jeff "Tain" Watts, while longtime Pittsburgh drum man Spider Rondinelli thumped a conga to a whooping crowd.
You never know who might stop in for a visit -- musicians who come along simply to listen in and enjoy a night off, a local player with a yen to try a new riff or just keep the chops fresh, or an out-of-towner who's heard this is the place on Mondays. That's the joy of the thing.
Interval: Live Jazz & Jam Session with DJ J. Malls 8 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday nights. AVA. 126 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. 21 and over. Free. 412-363-8277 or www.shadowlounge.net