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Zorn’s Prickly Harmony

Joe Lovano

For 34 years, Dr. Nathan Davis, the director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, has annually invited a group of fellow jazz musicians to his school for a four-day series of seminars, capped off with a concert. Free to the public, these seminars might cover topics have ranged from homage to Dizzy Gillespie to treatises on improvisation by Tommy Flanagan or James Moody.

The Saturday evening concert evokes the blowing session atmosphere of Jazz at the Philharmonic–with an afternoon rehearsal and elaborate arrangements substituting for the grandstanding and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling of the early show. This year Davis (on soprano and tenor saxophone) shared the stage with fellow tenor Joe Lovano, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeters Lew Soloff and Oscar Brashear, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Patrice Rushen, bassist George Mraz and drummer Idris Muhammed. Nearly all members of the group are repeat visitors, most notably Muhammed, who seems to drop by every couple of years. Likewise, the two-set program followed a similar path of past performances: a few ensemble numbers, a ballad medley to showcase individual soloists and a return of the full band for a set-ending barnburner. Nevertheless, the rapport among the nine players resulted in a sound that sounded like a long-standing unit.

Among the evening’s highlights, the Ron Carter/Miles Davis tune “81” began in the original’s open-ended sound, gradually shifting to emphasize a heavy blues structure, leading Harrison to quote “Land of 1000 Dances,” when he took his solo. Armed with two trumpets, Soloff dexterously changed horns, and occasionally mouthpieces, in the middle of a chorus without missing a beat. He and Brashear shared a bright tone but showed diversity when it came to high-register blasts (Soloff) and buttery, mid-range flurries (Brashear). Whitfield’s guitar work threatened to chew up the scenery a few times, especially during a lengthy workout in “Moanin’,” but the crowd ate it up and besides, his rapid lines in “What Is This Thing Called Love” did sound pretty astounding. From Lovano’s solo in the opening “One by One,” he stood out as the soloist with the most probing vocabulary, able to push the tunes into different corners, get gruff when the situation called for it or, in “My Little Brown Book” create a huge, warm tone that filled the hall.

Patrice Rushen received the jazz seminar and concert committee’s annual award for her “contribution to the jazz legacy in Pittsburgh,” according to presenter James V. Maher, provost and senior vice chancellor at Pitt. The school became the first school to create an International Academy of Jazz in 1977, which houses bronze plaques of its inductees along with photos, manuscripts and instruments donated by Clark Terry and Miles Davis, among others. Each year, it inducts two musicians, one living and one deceased, into the hall. N. John Cooper, dean of the school of arts and sciences, made the announcement at intermission, inducting Ornette Coleman and Elvin Jones into the Academy.

Originally Published