For years, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival (PIJF) took place on the street. Over one weekend in June, Downtown thoroughfares Penn Avenue or Liberty Avenue were closed off to traffic to make room for three stages. While the festival, which began in 2011, also featured some indoor ticketed concerts, the outdoor events were free to anyone lured in by the music.
Then 2020 came and Downtown was quiet.
Last summer, the festival came back with a twist: The two-day event moved across the Monongahela River to Highmark Stadium, with multiple stages set up on the artificial turf field that serves as home to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer team. Admission was no longer free, but a one- or two-day pass granted access to seven acts each day. The sound was fine for anyone sitting in the stadium seats, but most attendees opted to get closer, setting up their own folding chairs on the field, shifting between the stages with each act. Clearly, if you book it, they will come.
On September 16, the 12th Pittsburgh Jazz Festival kicked off at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center (AWAACC) with a sold-out concert by Ron Carter Foursight. The esteemed bassist, still grown looking youthful at 85, clearly hasn’t tired of the iconic bassline he created for “Seven Steps to Heaven” with Miles Davis in 1963. It sounded as fresh as ever, coming amid a set that flowed from one tune to the next. When Carter hit a double-stop that slid up the neck, the weight and clarity of his tone were breathtaking. Pianist Renee Rosnes sounded especially fiery throughout the evening, angular and aggressive one moment, digging deep into “My Funny Valentine” the next. Jimmy Greene (tenor saxophone) and Payton Crossley (drums) completed the group, which seemed to be communicating at a higher wavelength.
Following the set, Janis Burley Wilson, president and CEO of the AWAACC and driving force behind the PIJF, presented Carter with the festival’s 2022 Luminary Award, thanking him for “85 years of light.” The festivities continued at the Wilson Center all night with A Taste of Jazzwhich included jam sessions led by pianist Orrin Evans and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Frank Lacy.
This might be a personal preference, but the opportunity to be among a crowd seeing live performances in an open-air venue on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 17) felt pretty thrilling. Maybe it was something to do with sitting on a 360-foot-wide field with a great view of the city behind the stage. Or the feeling of community generated by sharing space with fellow jazz fans. But the excitement level was high from the moment Melissa Aldana led off the day’s program at Highmark.
The tenor saxophonist’s set, drawn from her recent 12 Stars album, presented the ideal opening act, balancing a pensive delivery with the palpable urge to stretch out within the music. At times, Aldana recalled Charles Lloyd, using a tone that felt gentle as she explored melodic territory with aggression. “Intuition” was galvanized by some leaps into the upper register of her horn, not for a shrill effect but as an extension of her line.
Guitarist Dan Wilson hails from Akron, Ohio but, as Scott Hanley of jazz radio station WZUM pointed out, that city is “just a traffic jam away from Pittsburgh.” It explains why the guitarist, who has recorded for Christian McBride’s Brother Mister imprint, shows up regularly on the city’s club scene. His set bypassed his original tunes in favor of energized works by McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and John Scofield. The latter’s “Let the Cat Out” inspired the quartet to extend beyond the blues structure, with Wilson getting into some wild rhythmic angles that propelled him further.
By mid-afternoon, the sun was beating down on the field, but as soon as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s rhythm section launched its first song, a couple dozen dancers flocked to the plastic tile floor set up in front of the stage. Vocalist Aymée Nuviola encouraged them, many of whom swayed and stepped for the entire hourlong set.
It seems no jazz festival is complete without throwing together some “all-star” group of musicians, but PIJF had the right idea. “D [email protected]: Tribute to Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds” added to the party atmosphere of the day with a band that included another almost-hometown hero, trumpeter Sean Jones. (He hails from Youngstown, Ohio but lived and taught in town for several years.) The group also included Frank Lacy (trombone, vocals), Gary Bartz (alto saxophone), Endea Owens (bass) and, fresh from a set with his Kinfolk group, Nate Smith (drums). Songs like “You and Music” and “Change (Makes You Want to Hustle),” with their singalong choruses, might skew away from jazz, but Bartz in particular delivered a solo during the former tune that went beyond mere party blowing. Orlando Watson added depth with a deep piece of sociopolitical spoken word.
Saturday’s bill also featured the Vanisha Gold Quartet and Stanley Clarke N 4ever. Vocalist Gould performed with the unique instrumentation of piano, viola and upright bass, which played up the drama in songs like “Fall in Love with Me in the Fall.” Clarke, the legendary fusion bassist, closed out the evening with a band of 20-somethings who have clearly digested their leader’s visceral style, even if that means they sometimes veered toward excess during solos.
It bodes well when your opening band has a Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes, and clavinet onstage. DJ Harrison of Butcher Brown played all three as the Virginia-based quintet led off Sunday’s program. Their blend of electric jazz, funk backbeats, and hip-hop would almost have been better suited to a late-day set, when the park would be filled up. Interaction, Butcher Brown, who also performed here back in 2019, played with a tight urgency that maintained the edge of all their styles. Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney was especially impressive, alternating tenor saxophone and trumpet as well as spewing complex rhymes in “777.”
Vocalist Samara Joy opened her set with “This Is the Moment,” and the choice couldn’t have been more appropriate. Only 22 years old, she commanded the stage like someone with experience beyond her years, singing like a horn but wrapping herself in the lyrics, as opposed to using them for gymnastics. Part of her appeal comes from her midrange voice, which touches on Betty Carter huskiness, along with a Sarah Vaughan influence. When someone this young writes such perceptive lyrics for Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia,” seeming to get into the great bop trumpeter’s head by converting his original solo into syllables, it’s clear she’s going places.
Before bassist Buster Williams performed a solid, straight-ahead set with his quartet, another bassist honored one of Pittsburgh’s veteran jazz players. Gerald Veasley, who serves as president of Jazz Philadelphia, presented drummer Roger Humphries with the 2022 Living Legacy Jazz Award, presented by PECO in connection with the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Humphries, who played on Horace Silver’s Song for My Father, gave up his life on the road after touring with Ray Charles, preferring to raise a family and to perform and teach locally. Accepting the award, Humphries graciously brought his wife Regina onstage with him and talked both about her and the legions of musicians he’s nurtured.
Chief Adjuah (the artist initially known as Christian Scott) spoke during his set about how his bandmates had studied music from different cultures and incorporated that into their performance. This musical research could be felt in what was one of the most dramatic sets of the festival. Though primarily a trumpeter, Adjuah began by playing his custom-made Adjuah Bow, a stringed instrument similar to the African n’goni or kora, creating a pedal-point drone. As he sang, his group built a deep groove, steered largely by djembe master Weedie Braimah and trap drummer Ele Howell. When he moved to trumpet, the bent bell on Adjuah’s horn enabled him to create a swirling effect that added range to his already penetrating tone.
After that, anything might seem antilimactic. But the rest of the evening pushed back on straight jazz, moving toward the party mode. The Average White Band, fun as they were, felt a bit lite after Adjuah’s heavy set. Ledisi followed, by which time the audience had swelled to the biggest size of the weekend, with folding chairs as far as the eye could see. Despite the relatively recent release of Ledisi Sings Nina, her set included only one song associated with Nina Simone, a funked-up version of “See-Line Woman.” She took a few breaks to show off her scatting skills, but most of the set was geared more toward R&B. Not that the audience minded. Ledisi’s recurring message of “Love yourself by any means necessary” drew loud responses from the field.
Incognito, on the other hand, harked back to the time when jazz and R&B flowed together in a more organic way. The British-based group debuted in 1981 with the album Jazz Funk, and its sound still fits that description all these decades later. Three horns, electric piano, and four vocalists—including Maysa Leak, who’s been working with the band since 1992—brought the festival to a rousing finish, energizing even those who might have been oversaturated by so much music.