Audience wins in Jazz intrastate rivalry

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With a double-bill headlining two Grammy winning jazz musicians, it goes without saying that in this rivalry, the winner would be those who had enough sense to be in the audience.

Fresh off of his Grammy Award for Big Band Jazz Performance, Christian McBride continued his winning ways by performing songs of his award-winning release, “The Good Feeling” and yes, that good feeling (and good music) wafted through the near capacity house at the August Wilson Center for another performance featuring the swinging Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra.

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JEFF ‘TAIN’ WATTS (Photo by Gail Manker)

Ace bassist Christian McBride was clearly enjoying himself as he led the PJO through his arrangements and engaged in some brief banter introducing the selections. “Shake and Blake” was a nod to longtime musical co-hort Ron Blake (with a tasty passage by saxman Michael Tomaro) while the next tune, “Mister Brother” was a tribute to James Brown.

The highlight of McBride’s set had to be “Science Fiction” a homage to TV show themes (think “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits”) featuring an out-of-this-world flute solo by Kenneth Powell and Alton Merrill’s usual wizardly work on piano.

McBride brought out vocalist Melissa Walker to recreate the magic her contralto brought to two tracks from “The Good Feeling” CD on “A Taste of Honey” and “The More I See You,” before Jeff “Tain” Watts joined in on drums to trade bars with McBride on “In A Hurry.”

Following intermission, Pittsburgher Watts assumed the stage with the disarmingly cool he portrayed in the Spike Lee joint, “Mo Better Blues.” But once he picked up his sticks, the fire was stoked.

Watts paints pictures with his drum work, using the skins as his canvas and sticks and mallets as his brush. His opener, “The Impaler” was right to the point pushing a hard rhythm and Sean Jones used the same urgency with his trumpet solo.

“Blutain” was Tain’s interpretation of the blues with Powell adding a funky sax solo. “PAEN” is a recent composition that showcased the varied subtleties and textures that Watts brings out of his cymbals.

“Of August Moon,” a Watts composition dedicated to August Wilson, could serve as a Broadway overture to the Pittsburgh Cycle of plays with its bluesy swing and shifts in rhythms and melody with occasional hints of dissonance and melancholy.

Another unexpected pleasure was a haunting ballad, “May 15, 2011” (Watts readily admitted he couldn’t conjure an appropriate title), that featured the drummer on vocals. On this night he dedicated the song to Whitney Houston, whose homegoing was held earlier in the day.

Watts concluded his set and the evening by bringing McBride back to the stage to join him on “Return of the Jitney Man.” “There was already a song called Jitney Man,” Watts explain as he introduced this recollection of his father working out of the Bedford and Chauncey jitney station.

The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra’s next performance will be in April, Jazz Appreciation Month.

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