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The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra at Greer Cabaret Theater

Mackenzie Horne By

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Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra
Greer Cabaret Theater
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's International Festival of Firsts
Pittsburgh, PA
November 6, 2018

The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra (PJO) rounded out the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's International Festival of Firsts with their concert, titled "Liberation" in tribute to the prolific African American writer, philosopher, and advocate James Baldwin. Originally founded in 1970 by the late Nathan Davis, the PJO disbanded in the late '70s before Sean Jones revived the group in 2008. Benny Golson once described the group, comprised of trumpeters Sean Jones, James Moore, JD Chaisson, trombonist Jeff Bush, saxophonists Eric DeFade and Rick Matt, drummer Thomas Wendt, bassist Tony DePaolis, pianist Alton Merrell and a rotating door of other players, as one of the great big bands in the country. "Liberation" marked the first time the PJO was commissioned to premiere an original composition. The piece in question, titled "Only the Poets," was composed by Ohio saxophonist Chris Coles; Coles premiered "Only the Poets" with the PJO Liberation Ensemble.

The first tune of the program was Bobby Watson's "Beatitudes." Tom Wendt, Pittsburgh's foremost jazz historian in all but name, eloquently described Watson as having "one foot in the past, one in the present, with an eye turned towards the future." The selection featured the rhythm section, comprised of Wendt, Tony DePaolis, and Alton Merrell, and brassmen Sean Jones, Rick Matt, and Jeff Bush. Jones took the first solo, producing that adventurous, round sound that was so recognizable to listeners when he first arrived on the Pittsburgh scene nearly a decade ago. Rick Matt packed the bars of his solo, providing a bellowing counterpoint to Jones' comparatively sparse playing.

Bobby Watson's "Sweet Dreams" featured James Moore, Eric DeFade, Jeff Bush, and the unflinching PJO rhythm section. "Sweet Dreams," the first track on Watson's album Check Cashing Day (Lafiya Music, 2013) epitomizes the album's thematic commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington DC and those in attendance that day, including James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. Moore, the resident bebop man, built his solos with sustained silence at the beginning of his phrases, growing in complexity in a nod to the stylings of Miles Davis. While Moore's solo evolved, Bush matched the trumpeter's playing with frantic belligerence; the trombonist, who generally needs space to accommodate his tall frame and kinetic playing style, began with gentle slurs before quickly ramping up to phrases of controlled mayhem.

"In the Meantime" was the first of two Alton Merrell tunes featured during the evening's program. Merrell, Bush, Moore, and Chris Coles ushered in the piece with an introduction that was reminiscent of the opening bars of John Coltrane's "Naima." Coles contributed a palette of somber colors on his solo, contrasting the abrupt brightness of Merrell's right-hand playing. Both "In the Meantime" and "Swingatism" demonstrated not only Merrell's abilities as a composer, but also showcased the pianist's deep-reaching church roots. "Swingatism" opened with Wendt's drum solo followed by Merrell's gospel-heavy interlude, which sounded like a Church Sunday variation on the head of "Darn that Dream." Jones hit his solo running, dragging Chris Coles with him into that soaring upper register.

Jones introduced his original composition "Two or Three," inspired by a combination of the historic meeting between James Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad and Matthew 18:20. The themes of the composition—temptation and solidarity—came alive with Jones' use of dissonance and crescendos. Both Jones and Merrell fell back on their gospel chops ahead of Wendt and DePaolis, who handled the piece with particular care. The bassist played simply behind Merrell and Jones, giving them the space to creatively expand. Coles' solo, a gentle coax, provided a stronger heading pointed towards the tune's spiritual center. DePaolis walked an unsettling bass line, lending to the imagery of an insidious lure painted by Jones during his introduction of the piece. Coles reeled against this motif with all his strength while Jones' horn soared above the noise—the "two" in "two or three." The final measures, executed by the entire group, resembled the opening bars of Miles Davis' "Nefertiti."

The ensemble followed with a performance of "Kush." DeFade's opening run was immediately answered by Moore, then Bush. DePaolis and Wendt, devoted students of the tradition whose combined jazz literacy rivals that of any active musician of their generation, laid down their strongest performances on the Dizzy Gillespie tune.

The PJO concluded the concert with the world premiere of Chris Coles' commissioned piece, "Only the Poets." The title is derived from James Baldwin's essay "The Artist's Struggle for Integrity," wherein the writer states, "The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us... something awful is happening to a civilization when it ceases to produce poets..." The high points of this pretty, unexpectedly safe piece included the opening horn chorale and Jones' clean, clear performance. Based on the content of the piece, Coles might say that to be a man is to experience melancholy at his natural resting state—he might also imply that humans have a profound capacity for hopeless optimism. The message can be interpreted a number of ways, but one revelation is not up for debate: the members of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, poets and artists in their own rights, have much to teach audiences about history, spirituality, and language. This great American big band simultaneously lives the mission of the jazz tradition and the agenda of some of the country's most prolific modern thinkers while distilling these sweeping concepts into a more accessible form for its audiences. This group of Eulipions, products of a tumultuous society, works tirelessly to reflect a mirror image, revealing to listeners who they really are as they brood silently in the dark, blue-lit venues of Pittsburgh.
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