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Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2017

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2017
Pittsburgh, PA
June 16-18, 2017

The complicated logistics and sizable costs associated with free jazz festivals have made them somewhat rarified these days. By its all-encompassing scope and scale, the Detroit Jazz Festival has served as a model for many decades now. But if you want something a bit earthier and intimate, there's really no equal for the atmosphere that envelops the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival. Now in its seventh year, this budding diamond in the rough gets its energy from the community that serves as its site location. Set on three stages along Penn Avenue, known as the city's cultural district, this festival maintains an intimate vibe despite the large crowds that tend to build over the course of each day. It is not unlikely to find artists and fans chatting on the streets before and after the shows and unlike Detroit, the performances do not overlap so that it is quite easy to rotate among the stages so that one never misses a downbeat.

This year's festivities got underway early Friday evening with a VIP party prior to a performance at the August Wilson Center featuring the David Sanborn Electric Band. This top-rate venue features an intimate 472-seat auditorium which presented Sanborn with a capable quintet that most notably featured drummer Billy Kilson. Stevie Wonder's "Another Star" was sagacious opening gambit that introduced the synergy that Sanborn has developed with this ensemble. One of the iconic numbers from the 1986 set Double Vision led by Sanborn and Bob James, "Maputo" presented a blistering keyboard solo from the ubiquitous David Garfield. On "Spanish Joint," the saxophonist traded licks with guitarist Nicky Moroch. "Run for Cover" allowed bassist Andre Berry to strut his stuff as he literally worked his way up and down the aisles for a pyrotechnic display of chops. All in all, Sanborn's set was a portentous emblem of what was in store the remainder of the weekend.

Heading outdoors for the remainder of the weekend, Saturday's temperature heated up literally and figuratively with a set by Odean Pope and his sax choir. First formed some forty years ago, this ensemble features a rhythm section and five saxophones, making the most of Pope's colorful scoring. One of the set highlights, the original "Coltrane's Time" was distinguished by a repeating riff that launched the solo sections. Pope's own statement was marked by his skillful use of circular breathing and Louis Taylor's alto sound, which was all fire and brimstone. Based on "Giant Steps," "Heavenly" furthered the avant-garde inclinations with its up tempo swing, only to be balanced by a gorgeous ballad dedicated to Pope's late wife which was entitled "Sis."

Since winning the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute's International Jazz Competition, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn has been turning heads with a stylistic sound that combines the eccentricities of Betty Carter with the range and depth of the great Cassandra Wilson. When she let loose with her scat improvisations on Carter's "Tight" however, there was no doubt that her muse is uniquely her own. With spot-on intonation and high register flourishes, Horn saluted Juneteenth with an earthy rendition of "The African National Anthem." Even more telling was the way she delivered un update to Bobby Timmons' "Moanin,'" made all the more remarkable by the buoyant underpinning of bassist Barry Stephenson and the closely responsive drumming of the up-and-coming Jerome Jennings.

A Pittsburgh favorite who returned to the festival for the first time in several years, trumpeter Sean Jones was in peak form presenting his quartet with piano great Orrin Evans, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. An upbeat "Prof" kicked things into gear and was one of many pieces performed that would come from Jones' new album Live from Jazz at the Bistro. "Lost, Then Found" settled into a mellow groove where Jones' mellifluous lines meshed beautifully with the intuitive comping of Evans on piano. "Nomo" and "The Ungentrified Blues" provided more combustible trumpet displays where Jones truly told a story, complete with all the peaks and valleys. At one point, Jones quoted a Lee Morgan riff ripped from an Art Blakey recording where the drummer goaded the youngster to "get mad!"

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