48th Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar


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48th Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar
Various Venues
Pittsburgh, PA
November 1-3, 2018

The Pitt Jazz Seminar took place the first weekend of Novenmber under the musical direction of Terri Lyne Carrington; Thursday, Friday, and early Saturday were packed with guest lectures while the all-star concert was scheduled for 7:30 on Saturday evening. Sean Jones and Reginald Veal were facilitating a lecture on community outreach in the Hill District, the historic cradle of Pittsburgh jazz, at 11 'o' clock that Saturday morning. One need only glance over past Jazz Seminar programs here, which have included the likes of George Cables, Pharoah Sanders, Esperanza Spalding, and Idris Muhammad, to realize this annual event is so much more than a programming gimmick; it is a connect-the-dots and paint-by-numbers guide to the evolving diversity of jazz. Conceived by the late Nathan Davis, innovative reedman and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the Seminar was entering into its 48th season.

Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma spoke about the historic cultural exchange between European and American jazz musicians. Postma, who subsisted on a robust musical diet of bebop during her childhood in the Netherlands, followed in the footsteps of the masters when she embarked on her own one-woman exodus to New York City. In the liner notes of Postma's debut record First Avenue (Munich Records, 2003), Terri Lyne Carrington wrote that European musicians are carrying the torch and that American musicians should pay attention. If this is true, Postma is a woman who carries many torches—her literacy as far as the history of the music goes is impeccable and she has incorporated the Nordic sound into her performances, notably during an appearance with Wayne Shorter at the 2012 International Jazz Day at the United Nations Assembly Hall.

Pianist Orrin Evans, a son of the Philadelphia jazz piano tradition, presented his ideas on modern self-promotion. The newly-minted The Bad Plus member has been involved in every aspect of the music business, from managing Philadelphia's Blue Moon Jazz Club at the age of eighteen to stuffing manila envelopes with new promotional material on the floor of his first place in New York. The Thelonious Monk Competition runner-up delivers bombastic energy to all that he does whether he is conducting the Captain Black Big Band or producing projects by artists like Sean Jones. Evans is a man who rises to the occasion, and most especially so in the face of adversity, defiantly asserting "I didn't get into this to get out of it."

A soulful Joey DeFrancesco took a brief leave of absence from his beloved organ, delivering his lecture on jazz improvisation from behind a piano. DeFrancesco's well of credits runs deep and rich; lest we forget, the Miles Davis/ George Benson/ John McLaughlin alum got his start playing the family organ at four years old and by the time he was eleven, he had shared the stage with Philly Joe Jones. Citing Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown as influences, DeFrancesco also claims to live by the Gospel According to Charles Mingus... that is, he thinks "labels should go in the trash because musicians are only playing music." "I was born into everything you need," he went on to say, referring to a childhood bursting at the seams with encouragement, one fine record collection, and his favorite toy (the living room organ). His records have evolved over the years into productions that are more spiritual; this transformation can be clearly heard when one compares The Champ (HighNote, 1999) with Enjoy the View (Blue Note, 2014) for example, where Billy Hart soldiers behind the kit on both of these projects). DeFrancesco himself describes his contemporary records as being "less of an advertisement."

Canadian trumpet player Ingrid Jensen spoke and played from a place of supreme authenticity during her talk on the power of resonant energy. Jensen's reputation as a masterful improvisor revealed itself in uncontrived ways throughout the presentation. Her style is evocative, reminiscent of the sounds of Kenny Wheeler. She has worked with such illustrious names as Gary Bartz, Clark Terry, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Billy Hart. There is no doubt that Jensen lives the mission of her music; her exploratory nature is one that serves her well on her expedition to settle the human mind and lead listeners to a space that is freeing. Postma, Carrington, and Jensen have collaborated together in several configurations over the course of the last decade and all three women shared working and personal connections with the great Geri Allen. The late pianist, educator, and composer worked with Postma, Carrington, and Jensen as a group and contributed to a number of the artists' respective solo projects.

Before facilitating his discussion on the art of accompaniment, Mark Whitfield announced that his friend and former Jazz Futures band mate Roy Hargrove had passed away that Saturday morning at the age of 49. A collective gasp went through the room like the release of a great, human airlock. The guitarist reached for his instrument and performed the Lionel Hampton/Sonny Burke tune "Midnight Sun" in acknowledgement of Hargrove's passing.

Whitfield's work with Hargrove is just one of many credits attached to the guitarist's name—the shortlist includes Benny Green, Art Blakey, Clark Terry, and Quincy Jones. He is a highly kinetic player, moving with his music as if attempting to get out the groove's way... and maybe he is. Whitfield emphasized the importance of humility in the face of the music, the driving question of his presentation being "how does a musician create space in something dense without detracting from the composition?" The guitarist attempts to model his own comping style after the some of the genre's most recognizable pianists, specifically McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Zawinul.

Drummer Billy Hart discussed the importance of the jazz vocabulary, a lexicon he is more than a little familiar with. Hart, who is credited on nearly 500 records, reflected on themes that Postma had elaborated on during her lecture two days prior, specifically the designation of jazz as "America's classical music." Hart advised his audience of players and listeners alike to return to the womb of jazz by focusing on the developments of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. By accepting and internalizing jazz as American classical music, suggested the drummer, young musicians are better equipped to grow their vocabulary and their overall literacy of the language in order to create something new.

Sean Jones and Reginald Veal spoke at the community outreach program late Saturday morning. Jones has not so much been adopted as a Pittsburgher so much as he has been claimed. Jones, the Richard and Elizabeth Chase Chair of Jazz at the Peabody Conservatory, grew up in Warren, Ohio before going on to perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He taught performance at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University and it was during this brief period that he made a quickfire, lasting impression on the contemporary jazz scene. Reginald Veal, a child born under the sign of jazz if ever there was one, approaches playing with a nonconforming spirituality that has earned him something of a reputation in the community. Veal is tied intimately to the Marsalis dynasty, having learned from and performed with Ellis, Wynton, and Branford Marsalis over the duration of his career.

JD Allen was not in town to speak before Saturday's concert but talk of his accomplishments preceded him. The tenor player has collaborated with Orrin Evans, MeShell NdegeOcello, George Cables, and many more over the duration of his career. In addition to receiving a number of critics' awards for his skills as both a player and a composer, Allen also garnered acclaim for his long-anticipated album Love Stone (Savant Record, 2018), which dropped in June of 2018. The album features Liberty Ellman, Rudy Royston, and bassist Gregg August.

As for Andy Bey, the recipient of the 2018 University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar and Concert Committee Lifetime Achievement Award, what could be said that has not been said before? What asinine semblance of words could possibly convey his accomplishments and contributions without undermining them? The math is simple: one recognizable voice, two powerful instruments in his singing and piano playing, a four-octave range, and a recording career that expands more than five decades.

Some thirty minutes before the hit on Saturday night, the musicians interacted with a comfortable familiarity accumulated over years, gigs, groups, and records. Somebody had brought along a copy of Billy Hart's Enchance (Horizon, 1977) for the veteran drummer to sign. Joey DeFrancesco and JD Allen pored over the liner notes ("Don Pullen? I love Don Pullen!") while Reginald Veal disappeared behind the dividing curtain to do one final check of his bass. Andy Bey—the Guest of Honor, the Lifetime Achiever, the master craftsman—settled quietly between Evans and Whitfield. He seemed to produce a book from thin air and he precisely cracked the volume, the faded navy cover as unassuming as the man cradling it.

How were these personalities and playing styles going to blend on stage? As is the possibility with some of these all-star concerts, conflicting personalities and playing styles can detract from the music being created. This group of musicians had a lot of experience playing together on various projects over the course of many decades but each was long-entrenched in their unique approaches to their instruments and the music. Under the instruction of Carrington, Jensen served as the evening's MC. Jensen opened the concert in acknowledgement of the Tree of Life Synagogue Tragedy and the passing of Roy Hargrove. The evenings repertoire consisted of classic tunes written by Hank Jones, Marian McPartland, Jimmy Rowles, Howard McGhee, Joe Williams, Eddie Jefferson, Arnette Cobb, Jimmy Blanton, and Sir Charles Thompson.

The concert opened with the entire ensemble and broke down into various configurations as the show progressed. With each tune, natural pockets and partnerships became more clearly defined on-stage. DeFrancesco and Whitfield exchanged grins while they traded masterful lines. Evans and Veal, the (comparatively) stoic anchors of the group, maintained a strikingly tight order at stage right. Despite differing in their respective approaches to the trumpet, Jones and Jensen complimented and challenged one another with a visible push-and-pull, particularly during their performance of Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" in tribute to Roy Hargrove. Hart's steadfast comping challenged Postma and Allen, lifting them to build more intricate, complex solos.

Andy Bey performed two tunes with entire ensemble, bookending the concert. Halfway through the performance, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher presented the vocalist with the Jazz Seminar and Concert Committee Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the genre. Bey, a man of few, softly-spoken words, thanked the university and the attendees before announcing that he would perform Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica"; the auditorium echoed with a collective creak as the patrons in the orchestra section leaned forward in their chairs, fumbling to pull out their phones and their cameras. Bey opened his spiral notebook as he settled on the piano bench—the sound of those ruffling pages produced a staccato whisper in that dark, quiet room. The hoarseness of age was present in his voice for one brief moment before he cast out doubt with triumphant thunder, coming alive with spectacular colors as he moved into his upper register.

Those instances of cathartic magic were in abundance that evening. Bey's performance of "Pannonica" was one standout moment on a sprawling list of standout moments, including Whitfield's entirely energetic performance, Jones and Jensen's moving tribute to the ascended Roy Hargrove, and Veal's full-bodied arco on "Body and Soul." This diverse group of standout players addressed an entire city gripped by a season of intricate morning and delivered this simple message: "Music heals—one note at a time."

Photograph: Mackenzie Horne

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