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Is That Jazz? Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2014:

Excerpt from "IS THAT JAZZ?" by Gil Scott Herron
Miles had a style that amazes and raises
The spirits from deep in your soul.
'Trane struck a vein of laughter and pain
Adventures the mind could explore.
Stevie and Bob talk of freedom and 'Jah'
In their own individual ways.
Playing and singing as long as it’s bringing
A message is all that it says.
What is has will surely last but is that Jazz?

Well that all depends on who you ask. That is the joy of attending such an event. Gone are the days of focusing on just one genre of music. Jazz music now has several sub-genres and from talking to the artists you find that several have Jazz and other Black music roots. Several people came and expressed joy and disappointment to this writer, but there is no doubt that Janis Burley Wilson and the folks at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust covered the bases with this year’s presentation. From Texas / New York based Snarky Puppy to Dianne Reeves thousands enjoyed the stage presentations, the Jazz Crawl performances and the late-nigh jam sessions. A combination of 17 artists and turntable DJ’s took to the three outdoor stages and a performance at the Rex Theater on the South Side took place from June 20-22. This was also a financial boost to the Downtown area as restaurants, hotels and other businesses also benefited.

As vibraphonist Joe Locke put it, “Folks in Pittsburgh really dig the music and they let you know that.” The Rochester, New York native was very excited about bringing his group to the city for the first time. Joe Locke is one of the current major voices on the vibraphone. He has performed and recorded with wide range of musicians, including Grover Washington Jr, Kenny Barron, Eddie Henderson, Cecil Taylor, Dianne Reeves, Ron Carter and The Beastie Boys. His recordings with the Joe Locke Group, “For the Love of You” and “Lay Down my Heart” have both topped the Jazz charts over the past few years. The project “Blues and Ballads, Volume 1, Lay Down My Heart” (the official name) as Locke states it is “Going back to the roots of the music, it's music that touches the heart”. The ten song set did exactly that and the Pittsburgh audience was mesmerized by the playing of Ryan Cohen on piano, Loran Cohen on bass, Jamaieo Brown on drums and Kenny Washington, vocalist. Some of the highlights of the set included “Simone”, “Old Devil Moon”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Pure Imagination” and Verrazano Moon.
Snarky Puppy was the first of the “funky” Jazz entries for the festival weekend. This has been the second time for the ensemble in the city in 2014. Formed about 10 years ago, this eclectic group of musicians built up their popularity by word of mouth. Snarky Puppy has gone from relatively unknown to one of the most highly respected group of musicians on the music scene today. The recent Grammy winners were awarded for Best R&B Performance doing the song “Something” with Lalah Hathaway. Corey Henry who played organ on that session showed his musical versatility at the Pittsburgh gig by playing drums!! Their sound is reminiscent of The Brecker Brothers, LA Express, Headhunters and Tower of Power. 9th Street was transformed to a street party as they showcased R&B, Latin, Blues and Funk to new fans and their followers. The Pups 10 plus song set was explosive featuring a lot of tunes from “We Like it Here” which is a DVD/CD.
Snarky Puppy brings together a deep knowledge and respect for the Black musical tradition. They perform regularly with artists like Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg (aka Snoop Lion), Kirk Franklin, Roy Hargrove, and Marcus Miller. The group is led by award-winning bassist/guitarist/composer/arranger Michael League.

League's creative grass-roots approach to this new technology driven end ever changing music industry has created a new model for independent artists. They are also a production team and session band for individual artists as well as running their own label. Snarky Puppy is also a group of musicians that are committed to music education and community outreach. Musicians in the audience were very impressed by their performance and had high praise for the group.

Big Sam will surprise you. This writer first witnessed Big Sam’s Funky Nation last year at the Pittsburgh Blues Festival. They are a driving force of down home New Orleans funk. The band is led by Big Sam Williams, formerly the trombonist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. His influences on trombone include Wycliffe Gordon, JJ Johnson and Curtis Fuller. He took up the instrument in high school. Big Sam began playing with the Dirty Dozen at the tender age of 19 before striking out on his own and creating the Funky Nation. Big Sam powered-up the horn section on the critically acclaimed, Grammy nominated, “River in Reverse” and is prominently featured in "Hot as a Pistol, Keen as a Blade" the concert tour DVD. While touring with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, in the fall of 2006 and summer of 2007, he earned consistent reviews as a musical force and star soloist. Big Sam has played with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Dave Matthews, Ozomatli, and Widespread Panic.

Big Sam refuses to let the audience sit still because he doesn’t. The performance at the Rex Theater was high voltage! The Funky Nation is an amazing group of musicians who meet the challenges of their leader. Sam calls the music “Noladelic Powerfunk”. It combines rock sensibility with improvisational style associated with jazz and the horn-heavy front section that’s the hallmark of big band funk, like James Brown. When asked about the rock side of things Sam stated, “Most folks don’t realize that some of the roots of rock and roll come from New Orleans”. The new release is called “Evolution” and when asked about the title Big Sam stated, “This band is in a constant state of evolution developing our own sound.” “We are constantly growing, our sound is unique and we like it like that.” The members of the band are Big Sam Williams on trombone/ vocals, Andrew "DA PHESSAH" Baham on trumpet / vocals, Chocolate Milk on drums, Jerry "JBLAKK" Henderson on bass and Joshua Connelly on guitar / vocals.

This year’s JazzLive Festival was a great event. Some of the other great performances included the Jazz Meets Funk installment which featured Fred Wesley and his band with special guests Poogie Bell and Sean Jones. In addition folks got to check out great performances from Dianne Reeves, Gregory Porter, The Messenger Legacy, The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra with special guest Alan Harris and Raul Midon.
Thank go out to all the performers, the JazzLive staff and to you for just showing up.
Is that Jazz? You bet it is!!

For info on Joe Locke: http://www.joelocke.com/
For info on Snarky Puppy: http://custom.bandframe.com/snarkypuppy/
For more info on Big Sam’s Funky Nation: http://www.bigsamsfunkynation.com/