Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Live Shows in Review: Ilgenfritz, Moran, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Code Girl

Playing right now: Mary Halvorson Quartet Plays Masada Book Two

Back when I started this blog, most of the entries began with the name of whatever I was listening to at the moment that I was writing. Back then I could fire off a set of words while music was playing in the background. These days, not so much. That's due in large part to the fact that I'm usually reviewing an album and I feel like I can't do that while listening to something else. Or even listen the album in question, because my cautious nature makes me feel like I might be missing something if I listen with half an ear....

Anyhow, I have a backlog of photos from the past few weeks of shows, so it was time to post them. First of all, back on Thursday, February 22, bassist James Ilgenfritz came back to town, along with drummer Brian Chase and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee. The performance was presented by Alia Musica and took place at the Mattress Factory.  

The space's high ceilings are hardwood floors served as a good spot, acoustically, for the trio. Unfortunately, I got there late and missed about half of the performance. Right as I was walking in, Lee was setting down an oversized recorder-type instrument. (Later that night, Ben Opie pulled out a picture of Michael Pestel playing such an instrument during the 2008 performance at the National Aviary with Opie, Anthony Braxton and a few other musicians.) 

Before the set was through, though, Lee also played some flute and sopranino sax. Chase, who has also played with local native Andrea Parkins and with groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has some great splatter effect moments on the drum kit. Ilgenfritz, playing a five-string upright bass (with a removable neck, to boot) played some great bowed drones and exciting runs all over his instrument. If only there had been a second set.

Nine days later, Jason Moran and Bandwagon played at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in a show presented by Kente Arts Alliance. The group began the set in darkness, with Moran setting up the introduction of "Feed the Fire," a Geri Allen composition. Having heard the trio on several albums, it was exciting seeing them live. Nasheet Waits is the type of drummer that propels any group in which he plays. Tarus Mateen, on bass guitar not upright bass, can play rapid lines on his instrument without ever overpowering the group or sounding too busy. Then there's Moran who like his mentor the late Jaki Byard, is well-versed in numerous styles of piano and can draw on any number of them at a moment's notice. Like Byard, this isn't mere mimicry either. He went from Earl "Fatha" Hines to Cecil Taylor and back throughout their evening.

During the set, and afterwards during the talk back with Kente's Mensah Wali, Moran's reverence for Pittsburgh's jazz history continued. "Pittsburgh takes care of its legacy," he said later, offering a reminder not to take the city's musical history for granted. His set included several originals but it also featured revised versions of some classics. He played Thelonious Monk's "Thelonious" with blistering speed. "Body and Soul," a song done umpteen times over the years sounded fresh and different, and nothing like any "Body and Soul" you've ever heard.

A short time later in Lawrenceville, the smaller room in Cattivo (aka the one right above where Goth Night was loudly taking place) was the space to catch the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This time drummer/percussionist Kahil El'Zabar played with trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. Wilkes has been a fairly regular member of the group on visits here, and though Harding came with the group once last year, this was my first time seeing him in Pittsburgh. Several years ago he knocked my socks off as a soloist in David Murray's Big Band at the Detroit Jazz Festival. (When I found out who he was that night, I realized he was a member of the group Grass Roots with saxophonist Darius Jones, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, who released a great album on AUM Fidelity.)

The evening combined straight ahead tunes like "Bebop," adapted to fit the stripped down sound of the trio, as well as El'Zabar standard's like "Can You Find a Place," where he plays finger piano and keeps a pulse with ankle bells, mixing spirituality with AACM-style soloing. Harding proved that deserves a lot more attention. He can utilize the low down weight of his instrument or lift into the upper register, creating light and graceful moments as needed. He did both that night. Wilkes was gets better and better each time he comes to town. (I took pictures but they got lost when transferring data to a new phone.) PS - Alex Harding is set to come back to Pittsburgh on Friday, April 19.

Mary Halvorson brought her Code Girl project to the Warhol Museum last Wednesday, March 7. The group, as stated in an earlier post, includes the guitarist's Thumbscrew bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), adding Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidanbi. 

The inclusion of vocals, which frequently veered into torrid wails similar to Shelley Hirsch or Jeanne Lee, occasionally felt a little too unhinged, Kidambi gave a dynamic performance. During "And" she unleashed a long tone with the power of an opera singer, an image that was confirmed by her stance at an angle in front of her microphone. As the set wore, Kidambi's voice seemed to function more as a third voice between Halvorson and Akinmusire, and she easily handled the task of standing between those two.

Akinmusire's part in "And" began with a warm tone that is typically heard from a flugelhorn. But he quickly traded that warmth for some intense tonguing. Later in the set, he straddled a sweet sound with one that sounded like it was coming through a fuzz pedal. I knew he was a great player, but he really blew the lid of the place.

As far as Halvorson herself, the set has to be one of the best performances I've heard from her, up there with her Septet's performance at the 2014 Winter Jazz Fest. (I've seen her other times in Pittsburgh and New York, but these were my favorites.) Her playing was especially intense, whether it was the finger picking of "Pretty Mountain," the indie rock-style of "Storm Cloud" or the raw solos she unleashed during the set. Code Girl was a heavy listen with changes coming at the ears left and right. But seeing the quintet put it all together live (the first show of the tour, to boot), it made a lot of sense.

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