Friday, November 03, 2023

The Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert - Still Kicking in Year 53

The last time the University of Pittsburgh's Music Department presented the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert in the tradition established by the late Dr. Nathan Davis,  the world was pre-pandemic and people flocked to the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland without fear of becoming ill. That was November 2, 2019. Nicole Mitchell was spending her first school year as the new head of Jazz Studies at the university. The one-time president of Chicago's heralded Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell had told this writer a few months earlier during an interview that the concert would "shake things up" this year.

That description turned out to be a bit of an understatement, as my post from a few days later would indicate. The avant-garde had finally found an academic home in Oakland, and the locals were not happy. Suffice to say, jazz can be like that. 

The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the annual event after that, though last year featured a series of talks and a concert honoring pianist Dave Burrell, which simultaneously served as a farewell to Nicole Mitchell, who had left the city for the University of Virginia. 

But after a few years of suspense - and rumbles that we might not ever see a big concert event like it again - the Pitt Jazz Concert is back for its 53rd year, with an all star lineup of veteran players and newer, equally cutting edge players sharing the stage. The show takes place Saturday, November 4. The venue has changed this time, apparently due to construction happening at the Carnegie Music Hall. The music is moving Downtown to the Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue. Things kick off at 8 p.m.  Like years past, there are also free seminars on the afternoon of the show, which I'll get to in a minute.

First the lineup.

Dr. A. J. Johnson (trombone) has been the interim head of Jazz Studies at Pitt since Mitchell left and in addition to his work at the school, he has also been active on the local jazz scene, crossing a line that previous leaders didn't do as often as they could have. Among other things, Johnson staged four separate recitals of Charles Mingus compositions at Alphabet City. The lineup he has assembled for the Pitt Jazz Concert includes some exciting players, some of whom might be widely known, others who might be under the radar, waiting to bring listeners to their feet. 

Drummer Lenny White might be one of the most visible members of this year's lineup. At the young age of 20, he made an auspicious debut as one of the drummers of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, playing on the title track. That album ushered in the blend of jazz and rock that became known as fusion, and White became one of the foremost drummers in that style. 

Most significantly, he held the drum seat in Return To Forever, one of the most successful groups in that style, if not overall during the '70s. White has since gone on to have a successful solo career, in addition to sideman work with artists ranging from Geri Allen to Ron Carter and Andrew Hill.  The drummer has also worked with bassist Buster Williams - a prolific artist and sideman in his own right, who also appears in the Pitt Jazz concert this weekend.

There always seems to be one guest at the Pitt Jazz concert who can make an attendee stop in their tracks, put aside any second thoughts about going and proclaim, "I'm there." My selection this year is trumpeter Charles Tolliver. He might not be well-known to the casual jazz listener but over the last half-century, he has made great strides for the both the music and the artists playing it. As a performer, he first showed up on albums like It's Time and Action by saxophonist Jackie McLean. The fire power in his playing paired perfectly with the leader's tart alto tone. Tolliver contributed some strong composition on those albums too.  

The trumpet player started a group in the early '70s with pianist Stanley Cowell, but the duo also launched the independent label Strata-East together. It might not have been the first label launched by jazz musicians, but it quickly garnered a reputation that continues to this day with listeners and collectors. Among the releases, the label had a hit with Gil Scott-Heron's "The Bottle."

Tolliver continues to play and record. In the '00s, Blue Note released With Love, a live big band album which revealed that time had not mellowed his musical outlook. When Gary Bartz performed his entire Another Earth album at the 2019 Winter Jazz Fest,  Tolliver joined him onstage, blowing in a manner that rivaled the late Pharoah Sanders, who was onstage that night as well. Connect, Tolliver's most recent album (2020) was a small group setting that also featured strong writing and playing. 

The concert's lineup also includes Keyon Harrold (trumpet), who came to town in 2019 during the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, playing an emotionally-charged set Downtown on Liberty Avenue. In addition to his own work, Harrold played the trumpet parts in the Miles Davis film Miles Ahead and has worked with a number of pop and hip-hop artists ranging from BeyoncĂ© to Mac Miller. Once called a "mugician" by filmmaker Don Cheadle, ("musician" + "magician") during the filming of Miles Ahead, Harrold considers Tolliver a mentor, so the combination of the two should set off some sparks.

Pianist Victor Gould, saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman as well as host Dr. Johnson complete the lineup.

As part of the weekend's events, three free seminars will take place on Saturday at the Frick Fine Arts building in Oakland. Nicole Mitchell will return to speak at 1 pm, followed by Gould at 2 p.m., and Harrold at 3 p.m. Thurman will host a seminar at the Afro American Music Institute (7131 Hamilton Avenue) at 2 p.m. 

For those who read this article in a timely manner, pianist Benito Gonzalez will perform a solo concert at Bellefield Auditorium in Oakland (315 S. Bellefield Avenue). 

Information and tickets to Saturday night's concert can be found at