Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review of the 47th Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - Remembering Geri Allen

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tia Fuller, Kenny Davis, Nicholas Payton
In an interview to preview the 47th Annual Pitt Jazz Concert, Ravi Coltrane told me, "I almost wish that we could have had at least one moment to say, 'Geri, thank you. We love you and thank you for everything you’ve done in music [and for all the] music that you put in to the world."

That sentiment was repeated many times during the concert this past Saturday, although Coltrane was absent, having cancelled due to an illness. The eight remaining musicians and emcee S. Epatha Merkerson each recounted anecdotes about Allen as a performer and an educator. A brief video was also shown, which included comments from musicians like Coltrane, Teri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding as well as Pitt faculty.

For the first time in 47 years, the evening wasn't directed, passively or otherwise, by the university head of jazz studies. Under Dr. Nathan Davis, the concert (which usually concluded a week of seminars, talks and films on campus) operated like a jam session, with a wealth of A-list jazz musicians coming to town, blowing a few tunes together and breaking off into smaller groups that would spotlight individuals. Allen continued the basic template when she took the reins in 2013, but mixed new elements in with some of the well-trodden standards. (The most memorable moment was the opening tune in her first year, Nathan Davis' "If" which was a 20-minute, swampy, Bitches-Brew-style arrangement that heralded Allen's arrival.)

Saturday's performance, consisting predominantly of works by Allen, had a loose quality and felt somewhat more casual that the usual organization of these events. After the video, Nicholas Payton sat down at the piano and, without a word, began playing a riff. As he played, a recording of Allen's voice came over the sound system, as it did several times throughout the night. The rest of the musicians took the stage as Payton (who played trumpet later in the set) vamped: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Kenny Davis, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, alto/soprano saxophonist Tia Fuller and drummers Kassa Overall and Victor Lewis. Written by Payton, "Geri" was a mid-tempo meditation that set the mood appropriately, though his chanting of the late pianist's name and the call for the audience to join him, felt a little cloying.

Between every couple songs, one of the musicians stepped up to the microphone to back-announce or introduce song titles (which is a good way to explore Allen's work further) and to share a story about their time with her. Tap dancer Maurice Chestnut talked Allen's group Timeline, which put his talent on equal ground with Davis and Overall. Harris recalled meeting Allen on the bandstand, where he had to immediately jump into a take on "I Got Rhythm" changes in B-flat - in which no B-flats were played. That unspoken message of "You better swim" has stayed with him, as his solos were some of the most dynamic of the evening, in terms of complex melody and rhythm.

Harris also created an arresting sonic blend with Fuller's alto and Payton's trumpet on Lewis' "Hey It's Me You're Talkin' To" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," the latter recreating the joyful snap of a group like Cannonball Adderley's band, augmented by vibes and tap dancing. Chestnut, lest anyone doubt it, moved like percussionist, reacting to the band, doubling and tripling the beat with a performance that added to the music.

With Pitt Ph.D. student Irene Monteverde on piano (alto saxophonist Yoku Suzuki, another Pitt student, also sat in earlier), the group ended the evening with another Allen piece, "In Appreciation." Its hard bop drive, and solos that included Harris attack on his marimba with reckless abandon, turned the room into revival meeting. But Fuller, who had already conjured a bright-toned, bluesy solo earlier in the song, wasn't done yet. As the rhythm section played a descending riff, she read what could only be called an invocation, beginning as a call to women, repeating with intensity, "This space is a sacred space." She made the audience join with the closing credo that came from Allen: "Jazz is a way of life, a way to be in the world but not of the world - walking, seeing and feeling time." This call for audience participation felt necessary, a way to carry Allen's vision with us, after the last notes had evaporated.

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