Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - a week later

It's been over a week since the 43rd Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert, but no one else that I've seen has printed a review. So it's still worth bringing up the concert. Besides, moments from that night are still stuck in my head.

The banner on the back of the stage called the evening "A Tribute to Nathan Davis." This founder of the concert was lauded numerous times throughout the evening, not the least of which was a short film chronicling his career in Paris and the work he did to keep this seminar and concert going each year once he came to the University of Pittsburgh. The man himself, though, was nowhere to be found in the Carnegie Music Hall that night. Which felt odd.

When the music finally started nearly after the film, pianist Geri Allen (soon to be Davis' successor at Pitt and organizer of the seminar this year) announced that the band would begin the evening with one of Davis' compositions, "If." After years of seminar concerts that began with uptempo hardbop classics like "Killer Joe," things started with a low-down swampy groove that was closer to Bitches Brew. Bassist Kenny Davis played a spare double-stop riff with the two drummers building on the groove together. Kassa Overall played on the toms while Jeff "Tain" Watts stayed on the snare side of his kit. With Allen on Fender Rhodes, all the evening needed was a bass clarinet and would've sounded like the classic Miles album. Instead there was Vincent Chandler - doing some rapid lines, all tongued - and vocalist Carmen Lundy - who would sing later but worked her voice like another instrument here, in a manner that worked. Even when the band broke into a steady 4/4 funk groove, it was clear that even though they were playing Davis' music, the Seminar had a new leader at the controls.

Jazz Seminar concerts typically had break-out groups following the first tune, with a ballad medley with various players each getting a solo song. Aside from tap percussionist Brinae Ali, who didn't come out until the second set, everyone stayed onstage the whole time (this is one of the first times I remember seeing chairs for all the musicians). Ernie Watts got a solo spot in "Invitation" where his unaccompanied intro and outro had fast lines (like Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" transposed to tenor) and some upper register squeaks that could've come from an Albert Ayler solo. They nevertheless drew cheers from the crowd. Next, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave sat down center stage for a rich version of "Violets for Your Furs," which epitomized the overused description lyrical. The trumpeter moved slowly but played with the strength of a young player, tempered of course by the lyrical wisdom of a veteran.

Lundy sang two songs, neither of them standards, that weren't identified by name. The first began with her conducting the ensemble, who built up a wave of wildness before the tune kicked in. The second had a spoken word section that worked. Ravi Coltrane finally got a solo spot, with his rendition of Monk's "Epistrophy." It was similar to the version he recorded on Changing Times a few years ago, taking the A part of the song in a slightly non-4/4 time signature and going straight in the bridge. It seemed to confuse bassist Davis and drummer Overall during the head but they eventually locked in for his solo. (More often than not, Overall and Watts didn't play together for most of the evening.)

One of the reasons I was hoping to see a review of the concert was that in years past, the music typically veered towards the familiar. Granted, it was usually quality blowing, with a bit of showboating mixed in from some flashy soloists, but you always knew where you were. Plus, the set of tunes would be announced before they began. That wasn't the case on this night and further, the first tune of the second set didn't go into the theme until Watts opened up with some heavy rolls. It was easy to wonder what the traditionalists thought of the new format. Coltrane got complex, playing over a funky riff and then heading into double-time, while Allen's solo had some impressive voicings in the chords.

Ali came out and tapped on a square of wood that was miked to capture all the nuances of her shoes. She had an amazing feel for tempo, keeping it steady with Overall's brush work, in what sounded "Lover Man." Brecker also got a spotlight tune, playing his own "There's a Mingus A Monk Us," an idea of what would've happened if Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk had collaborated. He recorded the song in the '80s, which makes it a relative newbie in this case. Guitarist Russell Malone, who worked as support player through most of the evening, got a chance to stretch out with a fluid show piece during the second set too.

The evening closed with another Nathan Davis tune, "I Want to Be Free." Kenny Davis lead the proceedings again, soloing over funk before shaping things into a 4/4 groove with blues changes. Belgrave let fly with some serious blowing, Lundy freestyled a couple choruses impressively and Watts testified again in the upper register. The whole evening ran late, but no one was complaining. It seemed like the audience for the most part was happy to see what the future of the Seminar sounded like.

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