Saturday, February 25, 2012

Two Shows in Two Nights in One Place

I spent Tuesday AND Wednesday night at the Thunderbird Cafe, for jazz no less. The bar typically caters to rock and somewhat bluesy bands, but they actually have jazz here and there. Besides over the past couple years I think I've blogged and preview enough shows that it wouldn't see too out of the ordinary.

Tuesday night was the weekly Space Exchange event. (See January entries for an explanation.) The group this week was Book Exchange, a trio of Exchange curators Ben Opie (tenor and alto) and Dave Throckmorton (drums) with bassist Jeff Grubbs. I used to see Jeff on an almost weekly basis when the Crawford Grill was open and they had a Monday night jam session. By day, so to speak, he's a bassist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. He's definitely a great player and it was even more exciting to see him in this capacity: playing tunes by Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. Those three composers are near and dear to Ben's heart, as well as mine.

Considering how Ben will never be really viewed as a "traditional" player, it was great to hear him start off a set with what were essentially two blues tunes, Monk's "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are" and Ornette's "Blues Connotation," although the latter could go anywhere after the theme. I was trying to pay close attention to where Jeff was going during the Ornette tunes, but kept getting distracted by the other tunes instruments. Not a bad thing at all, though.

The night had a good crowd, which I was glad to see. I invited a couple friends, and one showed up with three more people in tow, all of whom seemed to dig the music.

The next night brought the return of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Kahil El'Zabar's longstanding unit. He has come here several times over the past couple years, bringing Hamiett Blueitt with him a few of those times, but this lineup was really the tops. The kind that makes you think that a $16 ticket is worth it for what you get. (That was the advance price. It was $20 at the door. I mention this because us Pittsburghers often have sticker shock at covers like that. You big city slickers might be used to it, but we're not. Which may explain why we don't get a lot of jazz like this on a regular basis.) Along with percussionist El'Zabar were trumpeter Corey Wilkes and tenor/alto saxophonist Ernest Dawkins.

They played two sets which were fairly reminiscent of previous El'Zabar shows - a riff that he set up on the kalimba, a tune where he played trap kit, a tune his massive conga drum - but this band had a special electricity going through it. El'Zabar is solid to begin with. It's amazing to watch him stand there for 15 minutes clicking out the riff on the finger piano (which he runs through an amp!), shaking bells around his ankle and never varying the tempo.

The two horn men were really astounding. When Dawkins started soloing, I got the feeling that he's not just a good player, he's top tier. Amazing tone, incredible vocabulary and execution. While Fred Anderson might not be around to guide the younger Chicago players, the city is in good hands as long as Dawkins is around. And damn, why did I miss him in 2010 when he came with his New Horizons Ensemble? (Check out a review of their last CD here.) Wilkes also proved himself to be a really inventive trumpet player, referencing all sorts of styles in his work, be it Harmon mute shadings or wilder moments. A few years ago, he filled the trumpet chair in the Art Ensemble of Chicago vacated by Lester Bowie. That's a tall order, and he was then and he is now fit for the job. On top of that, his own music has a straighter edge to it, so he really draws on a disparate bunch of ideas.

The Ensemble played two sets. The first was about 45 minutes, just three full tunes, including of all things "Cherokee," with El'Zabar on conga. The second set was more like an hour, the only less-than-satisfying thing coming when he told the two horn guys, "I got it," meaning "Don't play anything" and he went off on an extended conga and verbalizing solo that could've been a little shorter. (By the way, Dawkins slayed me with his extra percussion during Wilkes' solos, with the way he threw in little extras here and there, including a Roland Kirk-type whistle.) So it was well worth the cover charge. Don't miss these guys next time.

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