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2019 Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival

C. Andrew Hovan By

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2019 Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival
Pittsburgh, PA
June 20-23, 2019

Now in its ninth year, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival continues to grow and prosper as one of the country's best jazz festivals. Tied to the efforts of the city's August Wilson African American Cultural Center, the festival continues to prosper under the leadership of center CEO Janis Burley Wilson. While there has been an increase in the number of ticketed events during the festival, these shows surely add to the coffers, helping to keep the rest of the weekend's offerings free and open to all.

Performances by Makaya McCraven, Patti LaBelle, Black WOMEN Rock, Tamara Tunie, and Paul Jost were the aforementioned ticketed events that took place during the festival and are beyond the scope of this review. Saturday's free sets began with a tribute to Pittsburgh's own Art Blakey as presented by drummer Roger Humphries. A veteran of Horace Silver's combo from the mid-60s, Humphries was more than capable of conjuring the ebullient spirit of Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The drummer's top-notch ensemble, including bassist Dwayne Dolphin barreled their way through such challenging material as "The Egyptian," "Crisis," and "Wheel Within a Wheel."

As the foremost vibraphonist of his generation, Warren Wolf made his second appearance at the festival tipping his own hat to some of the forefathers of jazz vibes. Made famous by Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet, "Django" was given a garden-fresh treatment by Wolf and his quartet. Of more recent vintage, "Senor Mouse" found Wolf and pianist Alex Brown channeling the duo of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Adding additional colors to the palette, vocalist Imani-Grace Cooper infused Herbie's Hancock's "Chan's Song" and the chestnut "Save Your Love for Me" with a smoky vibe that was highly engaging.

With his most recent project, organist Joey DeFrancesco seems to have reinvented himself in an effort to move beyond the traditional B3 organ fare. In the company of saxophonist Troy Roberts and drummer Ralph Peterson, DeFrancesco delivered a blistering set that was as hot as the noonday sun. On "Soul Perspective" the organist kept his bass pedals going while throwing down some serious trumpet riffs. His horn electrified via foot pedals, Roberts amazed with a boisterous tenor solo on "In the Key of the Universe," bolstered by Peterson's firecracker fills which often spilled over the bar lines.

Known as the trumpeter responsible for recording the solos featured in the Don Cheadle flick Miles Ahead, Keyon Harrold and his ensemble struck a soulful balance between mainstream sensibilities and more current trends. One of the few artists of his generation that is able to garner a youthful crowd while staying true to the music's tradition, Harrold is in a class by himself.

The final two free performances of the day were a lesson in contrasts. While the group War would entertain an overflow crowd ready to turn their early Saturday evening into a party, the preceding set by pianist Orrin Evans would be one of the highlights of the festival. In one of their rare appearances outside of New York, Evans would feature his Captain Black Big Band. Prior to their first downbeat, trumpeter Sean Jones and the festival's Janis Burley Wilson presented Evans with his award from the Jazz Journalist Association for Large Ensemble of the Year.

Adventurous and creative charts brought forth inspired work from Evans and the entire group, especially trumpeter Josh Lawrence and alto saxophonist Todd Bashore. Singer Joanna Pascale delivered sultry takes on "Sunday in New York" and Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," while Paul Jost wasted no time getting down to business during his cameo, scatting in a manner that recalled drum fills and bass slaps. A poignant tribute to the recently deceased drummer Lawrence Leathers concluded the set with the wafting sounds of Evans singing "I'm so glad I got to know you."

As Sunday brought with it another picture-perfect weather day, the Latin sounds of conguero Noel Quintana had the crowd on their feet dancing. With a full horn section augmented by guest trumpeter Ray Vega, Quintana's Latin Crew garnered a further incendiary edge via young timbale star Hugo Cruz. Another new talent, London-based saxophonist Nubya Garcia and her quartet would then continue to foster the afternoon's high octane atmosphere in their crowd-pleasing performance.

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