Monday, November 09, 2015

Saturday: The 45th Annual University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar

Geri Allen has now played host to the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar and Concert three times, taking the place of Dr. Nathan Davis, who started the annual event 45 years ago. Allen has held onto the basic format of the event, staging free seminars by the guest musicians, with a concert at the Carnegie Music Hall culminating a week of events. The concert itself, though, starting moving beyond its tried-and-true template almost immediately in the opening of the 2013 concert.

Another change came this year with the structure of the program. Everything came in one continuous set which flowed better than two sets and an intermission, which made the evening run pretty late. Awards were bestowed before the performances, rather than in the middle, with Jimmy Cobb and Pharoah Sanders each receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards from Allen herself. The drawn-out introductions of the musicians from bygone days were thankfully replaced by a concise, enthusiastic announcements by Pitt professors Terrence Hayward and Yona Harvey.

That being said, it seemed to take the musicians a few songs to really get into a groove. Part of the problem could be attributed to a lackluster sound mix. "Get Happy" wasn't exactly the tune that could get the ball rolling, and tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' microphone didn't have a lot of juice. The same could be said about Tineke Postma (who started out on soprano sax) and the double-piano attack of Ms. Allen and Kenny Barron. (By the end of the night, Postma pointed her microphone at Sanders' bell to make sure he came through loud and clear.) Luckily trumpeter Jimmy Owens and trombonist Robin Eubanks had no trouble being heard, the former sounding especially bright and crisp.

Allen, who frequently relinquished the stage to her guests, let each one pick a tune for their particular spotlight. Three songs in, bassist Robert Hurst's "Optimism," ("written during the Obama campaign") had a bright, folk-like melody that got everyone on track, which was especially evident in Postma's soprano solo. A few songs later, Owens's contribution, which he called "Elated Joyful Happy Blues" found Postma entering on her alto with leaps akin to Eric Dolphy. Sanders, who sat out for many of the ensemble passages during the evening, produced one of his trademark shrieks during the tune. His solo spot, like most of them throughout the evening, was on the shorter side and didn't really give him a chance to spiral up into his gritty, trademark sound, or do his other idiosyncratic thing of producing a melody by popping the pads on his horn.

Regardless, when Sanders stood up for his reading of "Say It (Over and Over Again)," it wasn't screeches that he produced but a spot-on imitation of John Coltrane. This wasn't some Trane apostle copping his lines, this was the guy who stood next to him for two years onstage. And if anyone objected to Sanders' style in the '60s, he was here to prove that there's much more to him that the fire music that he created. Barron offered a nice McCoy Tyner-esque solo, and Hurst added some fire by double-timing over the changes.

Since Jimmy Cobb is the last surviving member of the Miles Davis Kind of Blue session, and since there were four NEA Jazz Masters on the stage, Allen had the drummer play "So What" from that famous album, aided by Owens, Barron, Sanders and Hurst. Everyone sounded solid, Owens most prominently, Sanders again having to play the role once occupied by Trane, though his solo stuck more with his throaty side.

Cobb came across throughout the evening as a more subdued drummer, which again could be attributed to the mix. Last year his Original Mob (Smoke Session) made clear that he still has a lot of hard swing left in him, but that wasn't quite on display at the Carnegie Music Hall. When local institution Roger Humphries joined the band for a few songs, though, Cobb held his own. The two drummers engaged in a drum duel that never digressed into excessive showmanship, and kept things geared towards solid solos. Percussionist Mino Cinelu (probably best known for his tenure in Miles' '80s band and with Weather Report) added color and extra texture to the music throughout the evening too.

In the end, the Pitt Jazz Seminar concert still offered a good time. If the band didn't really click immediately, it was still good seeing this individuals come together find common ground where they could collectively tear it up.

One question - what was the guitar doing at stage right? It was near Cinelu's chair but the only time he touched it was to move it out of the way.

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