Friday, September 23, 2016

World Saxophone Quartet & Sun Ra Arkestra - Two Nights, Two Concerts

Playing right now: Chris Connor, Chris. Used copy of the Bethlehem LP, in large part because it has her version of "Lush Life," which I love. As in, it might be my favorite version of the song. 

The past weekend was crazy. First of all, I said I'd star in an installment of HeroinesBurgh - a comicbook type series about super heroines fighting crime in Pittsburgh (the brainchild of illustrious independent-minded guy who's been booking shows in town for decades; locals will know who I mean).

On top of two days of that, the World Saxophone Quartet played at City of Asylum on Saturday and the Sun Ra Arkestra played Sunday night at the New Hazlett Theater. 

You read correctly - both of these top shelf acts were in town two nights in a row. In Pittsburgh! We don't get that kind of attention on a regular basis. I had to go to both, of course.

I talked to Oliver Lake in advance of the WSQ's appearance for City Paper. It has been a few years since they've all played together, and about eight or nine years since they came to Pittsburgh. Last time, James Carter was filling in for tenor saxophonist David Murray. Carter is great, but there's something about David Murray, with his brawny sound and sense of invention, that pushes this group over the top. Seeing him with his quartet at the Balcony back in the late '80s, I remember thinking that his approach to improvisation was like a model of DNA - a ladder-like design that twisted around and kept moving upward. The higher you get on the model, the further away you may be from, in this case, the melody of the song. But you can still feel the connection, even if someone like Murray is pushing beyond the register of his instrument, adding shrieks to his melody. 

The four members of the group - Lake, Murray, alto/soprano saxophonist Bruce Williams and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett - walked through the audience blowing their horns on the way to the stage. (Bluiett actually played clarinet on the walk in, presumably because his health problems make it hard to strut and blow a baritone at the same time). 

They opened with "Hattie Wall." their theme song, which is driven by the baritone's staccato low end groove. Bluiett sounded like he was either missing a few notes as he vamped, or he was taking more breaths to pace himself. But the electricity was in the air. That was followed by "Giant Steps" which relaxed the tempo a bit, compared to the original version. Lake, Murray and Williams (on soprano) each took unaccompanied solos during the tune.

At the start of the second set, the Quartet accompanied two poets, as is the tradition with City of Asylum, which has housed and presented exiles poets from around the world. Adriana E. Ramirez read a couple poets while the group accompanied her. The first was inspired by the lives of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, playing a little more on their mythos than their talents. The second talked about taking the citizenship test to become an American, contrasting the people in the test office with a friend conversing with the narrator about treatment in the U.S. Osama Alomar's work read less like poetry than astute metaphorical observations about human nature. The Quartet played brief grooves between pieces, including their low-bottom blues riff "I Heard That," which could have and should have gone on longer.

The second set found the group doing some free improvisation as well as some directed compositions. The former was loose but worked well. As with the music from the whole evening, there were times where the group seemed to be pulling in four different directions, but things never sounded busy. 

Sunday night, the New Hazlett Theater was packed with people to see the Sun Ra Arkestra. They haven't been to town since 2002. (Prior to that show, I interviewed band leader Marshall Allen, in what would be my first big story for JazzTimes. Coincidentally, he's on the cover of the current issue of JT.) At that time, Allen was 78 years old. I'll do the math for you and tell you the man is 92 years old and still going strong. The group's entrance, with members shuffling around the stage, blowing horns at the audience, as drums rolled freely, hailing the most joyful type of free jazz - making it sound like a spaceship had landed, with the occupants dressed wildly - all were clearly informed that this would be an evening to remember.

Allen began the evening blowing into his EWI (Electric Wind Instrument), but instead of emitting some slick, fusion-y sounds, it functioned more like a theremin, adding to the outer space quality of the music. Johnny Hodges might have been the first big influence on Allen's playing, but he spent most of the evening blowing wild shrieks on his alto, his right hand moving over the keys with the type of gestures normally seen by a bassist in a funk band. Lest anyone wonder who was driving the Spaceship Ra, Allen was standing for the whole set, cuing the various members of the band, calling songs and at once point, even telling baritone saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson to talk to the audience.

The set, which lasted about an hour and 45 minutes, went all over the place. They tackled standards "Sometimes I'm Happy," "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "When You Wish Upon A Star" (which got wild at times in a way almost similar to Spike Jones). But they also played several groove-heavy originals like "Interplanetary Music," (which had more of a melodic backbone than the version I heard on an album that Evidence reissued in the '90s), "Fate In a Pleasant Mood" and the set ender "Space Is the Place/We Travel the Spaceways."

Several times during the set, the musicians got out of their chairs, dancing around the stage and trying to get into the audience, which proved tricky on some of the Hazlett's steps, which dead-end in several places and don't allow one section to spill into another. The Arkestra sounded a little more raucous than last time, when they all entered singing "This Is Planet Earth" together. But it was clear from the beginning that their three rehearsals-per-week regimen is well worth it. For more words from Allen about the band, click here. And please note, I wrote it. (As I prepared this entry, the wrong person was listed.)

One comment I read online said the band could have tuned a little better, because the intonation was far off. Up in the balcony where I was sitting, it sounded fine too me. I wish Allen would've revisited a little of the Hodges style and taken a break from the free squall for contrast. But the guy is 92 years old so I'm not going to fault him for sticking to one thing. I'm just he's still doing it.

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