Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Kahil El'Zabar & Hamiet Bluiett Lift the Bandstand

It was pretty cool to walk up the steps into the stage area of the Thunderbird Cafe and see it filled with people there to see the Kahil El'Zabar/Hamiet Bluiett Ritual Trio. There might only be about 20 tables total on both the floor and the upper level by the second bar. But typically, shows like this - avant garde/small scale/call it what you like jazz shows - in Pittsburgh don't typically attract that much of a crowd. I can recall a Steve Swell show a few years ago where I was the only person in the audience right as the set was about to start.

But anyway, it was a good start to the first of a four-part concert series. The Thoth Trio opened the show with a mood that made up for the long gaps between their shows. Ben Opie (tenor and alto saxophones), Paul Thompson (bass) and Dave Throckmorton (drums) each have numerous other projects going on, and Thoth as it is doesn't get to play a lot of gigs. The highlights included: "Ammonium" where a bluesy bass line gets caught up with a sax melody that's like a sideways drunk "Jitterbug Waltz"; Thelonious Monk's rarely heard "We See," which moved away from its Monkism but was a treat since you never heard a tenor player outside of Charlie Rouse or Frank Foster playing it; and a lengthy piece that I think was "Nocturnal" in which Opie ran shot up the register of his horn, running right off the rails of what his horn could blow, and Throckmorton shows how time can be so elastic, pulled back and held tight for dramatic impact and then released. I swear that guy could walk out of a room with playing the beat with his sticks, say hi to a few people he knew, get a drink of water, check his messages and walk back in the room without diverging from the tempo.

Kahil El'Zabar started the Ritual Trio's set with the same kind of intensity and focus. For 15 minutes, he sustained a tempo and groove on the kalimba, tapping his right foot (on which he wore bells) and vocalized along with serious spirit in his voice. The band didn't introduce themselves, they just took the stage, did some soundcheck tweaks and then El'Zabar got into it. Hidden behind shades (which came off after that tune), he had us in the palm of his hands.

Last year, when El'Zabar and Bluiett came to town, it was just the two of them, but this time Junius Paul was along on bass, which helped to open up the songs. While the kalimba set the groove and Bluiett sometimes vamped along with him, Paul often broke into solos or ideas that spun off the grooves. Many of the songs were fairly straight vamps, but that left a lot of room for funky stuff to be added, for some baritone wails to go in, and for any and all of the musicians to sing or moan along. One time when Bluiett was playing flute, El'Zabar's growls mixed with the woodwind and it sounded like Rahsaan Roland Kirk was blowing the instrument.

When El'Zabar moved to the trap kit, he sometimes made faces that were a lot like Throckmorton. (For those out-of-towners, Dave often makes faces like he has a lemon wedge between his cheek and gum - a real sour puss.) He bashed away at the crash cymbal so loudly, I had to cover my ear a couple times.

When I think of Hamiet Bluiett, I think of the baritone sax in all its commanding presence; the kind of instrument and person you don't mess with. And I've seen him close to half a dozen times in the last 25 years. So it was a dose of reality seeing this gentleman onstage who looked like someone's grandfather. Don't get me wrong, the man is still mighty on that horn - and he let fly one of the most spirited vocal yells of the night during one of the other songs. But the recent passing of Fred Anderson was another sad reminder of the humanity of these artists and I thought of that several times last night while looking at Mr. B. I hope he keeps going and I hope traveling by van to club dates isn't too much for him.

When we were leaving, we walked past the van where the trio was loading up, and Hamiet was talking, presumably about the set and the spirit that was on the stage. It was good to hear that and I thanked him for a great show. And then I thanked him for everything. If I had said more, it might sounded maudlin or awkward, so I stopped there. In talking about it with my friend Lena on the ride home, I realized what I really thinking: I sincerely hope that musicians like that - who can get completely whipped up in what they're doing and ride that wave of bliss - know that they're appreciated while they're here.

That show was a perfect example of lifting the bandstand - playing a groove for 10 to 15 minutes, having it stay alive during that time, having the drummer walk through the audience and get us to clap along (even those who don't usually feel like it) and have it feel like this is what we're here for - to enjoy this music. It was a great time.


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