Rambling Round Pittsburgh

Posted on February 18th, 2006 in Review | Tags: art blakey, billy strayhorn, jazz at lincoln center, jazz at lincoln center orchestra, mary lou williams, new york times, pittsburgh

The jazz legacy of Pittsburgh confounds easy generalization. There’s no shorthand summary for a city that produced the buoyant pianist Earl (Fatha) Hines as well as the steamrolling drummer Art Blakey and the urbane composer Billy Strayhorn. So Jazz at Lincoln Center wisely makes no claim to comprehensiveness in its Pittsburgh Festival, which takes up two of the three performance spaces at Frederick P. Rose Hall.

In fact, “Pittsburgh: From the Heart of Steeltown” — the festival’s main event, featuring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in the Rose Theater — offers an almost breezily impressionistic homage. Thursday night’s concert included four Strayhorn compositions, along with pieces by Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Ray Brown. But it also rambled through less expected terrain: the opener was “Salt Peanuts,” the bebop ditty made famous by Dizzy Gillespie but partly credited to the drummer Kenny Clarke, a Steel City native.

O.K., that’s a stretch. As explained onstage by Wynton Marsalis, though, it made a kind of loopy sense. Mr. Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, was an affable and informative M.C. He also played plenty of trumpet, sounding limber and in command. On “Weather Bird,” the immortal duet by Louis Armstrong and Hines, he crafted a sparkling and affectionate Armstrong ode, moving gradually away from imitation. (The pianist Dan Nimmer filled the role of Hines, and it’s no slight to say he was outmatched.)

A pair of accomplished Pittsburgh expatriates, the vibraphonist Steve Nelson and the drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts, served as intermittent guests. Mr. Nelson played the role of a featured soloist; Mr. Watts seemed more like a tough assistant coach. “The Impaler,” a Watts original that transports an Afro-Cuban clave into 7/8 meter, had the band careering outside its comfort zone; only Mr. Marsalis, soloing from within the trumpet section, seemed fully at ease.

The other half of the Pittsburgh Festival involves a tribute to the tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine in the Allen Room, which requires a separate ticket. The featured ensemble, a quintet anchored by the Pittsburgh-based organist Gene Ludwig, might flourish in a casual setting; on Thursday, impressively framed by the backdrop of Columbus Circle, it seemed a tad underdone.

“Pittsburgh: From the Heart of Steeltown” repeats tonight at 8 at the Rose Theater, and “Music of the Masters: Stanley Turrentine” repeats tonight at 7:30 in the Allen Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, 60th Street and Broadway; (212) 751-6500.

by Nate Chinen
Source: New York Times