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Best Live Jazz of 2000

Friday, December 29, 2000

By Nate Guidry and Rick Nowlin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

NATE GUIDRY'S LIST

From the wonderfully crafted ballads of Diana Krall, to the Latin fire of Tito Puente, from the explosiveness and unpredictability of Dave Douglas to the passion and poise of Billy Taylor, these were the jazz highlights of 2000:

1. Billy Taylor Trio (featuring Winard Harper and Chip Jackson) (Y Music Society Series, Carnegie Music Hall Oakland, Dec. 4) Billy Taylor, one of jazz great living ambassadors, demonstrated throughout his concert that he is one of music's most passionate practitioners. Dynamics and accessibility are important in Taylor's music. It's an interesting dichotomy, especially because so much of jazz's current musical manifestation points to the artist rather than the music. But amid that wonderful give-and-take, launched from the keys of Taylor's piano, the music unfolded with rich, bristling countermelodies.

2. Ray Brown Trio (featuring George Flutis and Larry Fuller) (Dowe's on 9th, Nov. 22) He demonstrated an almost Zen-like feeling with the bass on "You Are My Sunshine," hushing the audience with throbbing, aching notes. To be sure one can genuinely appreciate the beauty of the double bass -- its sound, harmonic pitch and fluid rhythmic pulse -- especially when those pulsations are propelled from the bow and fingers of Pittsburgh bassist Ray Brown. The way he executes the walking-bass line, the unerring sense of time-keeping and the tone and technique he demonstrated all helped to contribute to what writer Albert Murray described in "The Hero and the Blues" as the "ultimate human endowment."

4. Tito Puente and his Latin Jazz Ensemble (Manchester Craftmen's Guild, April 14-18) Whatever you choose to call it -- Afro-Cuban, Afro-Latin or Afro-Caribbean -- Latin influence has become an integral part of how jazz is currently being defined. And no one embodied that sound more than the late Tito Puente, who not only was a great timbalero but also was one of the music's most amiable ambassadors. He could push the music to the brink or give it a sense of high bearing with his well-rehearsed presentation.

5. Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band ( Manchester Craftmen's Guild, Sept 22-25) The beauty of the band lay not as much in the unfamiliar landscape they explored as in the sophistication and mastery of the music shown by an entourage of first-rate players. Performing the music of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, the band entranced the audience with songs that transcended boundaries of time and style.

6. Diana Krall (Point Park, Mellon Jazz Festival, June 18) At her best, Krall is enormously charismatic, an estimable word colorist. She moved back and forth between torch recitals and spirited singing with finesse and assurance. Some songs were decorated with swooning improvisations. Others were delivered from a historical context, most notably "Take the A Train." Still others were crafted from quirky, ersatz-pop tunes but were delivered with style and grace. But she made her greatest appeal in the simple lyricism of "I've Got You Under My Skin," made famous by Frank Sinatra.

7. Dave Douglas Sextet (Mellon Jazz, South Park, June 16) In what was one of the most exciting events of the festival, the Dave Douglas Sextet demonstrated how jazz can be beautiful and unbridled when it is held together by collective creative vision.

RICK NOWLIN'S LIST

With the closing of the Graffiti, Pittsburgh lost yet another venue for contemporary jazz performances, and the hottest show of the year nationally -- Boney James and Rick Braun -- never made it to Pittsburgh. As a result, I had to include in my list two pop concerts by artists who historically borrowed heavily from jazz. And for the record, I'm not mentioning any shows, such as Martin Taylor at the Guild, that sounded more like jam sessions -- if I expected one of those, I'd have brought my horn. That said, here are the highlights of 2000:

1. Monty Alexander and Yard Movement (Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, Oct. 5) Reggae-jazz or jazz-reggae? The elasticity of jazz forces you to decide which is more important. Or perhaps not. I won't say that if Bob Marley tried to play jazz it would sound like this, but ... Whatever, this show featuring the Jamaican pianist and his back-up group proved the concert of the year -- and since it was being recorded for a live album, pretty soon you'll be able to buy it. Yet another recording at the Guild, which apparently has garnered quite a reputation among musicians as a fantastic place to play.

2. George Benson (I.C. Light Amphitheatre, June 9) A very, very close second. Despite his standing as another of Pittsburgh's long line of jazz legends, the erstwhile doo-wopper is first and foremost an entertainer independent of whatever style of music he does. Having never before seen him perform live, I was pleasantly surprised with his energy and stage presence. Pittsburghers who came to hear his pop hits weren't disappointed; the jazz fans in the audience, on the other hand, including yours truly, might have been.

3. Hubert Laws (MCG, Dec. 7) This studio legend and ex-Crusader, arguably the first to bring jazz flute to a wider pop music audience -- sorry, Herbie Mann -- made his mark that night. Moving from classical to jazz and funk, he showed that playing flute isn't just for sissies. Pianist David Budway, another local boy making good, and long-time fusion keyboardist Rob Mullins traded off quite a bit throughout, making for some exciting music.

4. Steely Dan (Post-Gazette Pavilion, July 2) We all know that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have never pretended to be pop superstars or showmen, so when guitarist Becker announced, "Here's an old blues" as an intro to what turned out to be "Pretzel Logic," it was clear they cared only about making good music, of which there was plenty. Not too many artists can take 12 years off and still sound fresh; the duo, with eight backing musicians and three vocalists, was in fine form throughout. Of course, my colleague Tony Norman may be the only person at the Post-Gazette -- heck, in Pittsburgh -- who knows what Fagen was singing about. A local connection: Trombonist Jim Pugh of the Dan's touring ensemble is an alumnus of Butler Area High School.

5. Chicago (Post-Gazette Pavilion, July 30) My colleague Scott Mervis wrote in the July 28 Weekend Magazine that he hoped for my sake that "the old warhorse [would dig] deep and find some inspiration, rather than just blandly blowing through the hits." I don't know if my less-than-complimentary comments published about my favorite band in the "On the Arts" column the week before, which got me backstage afterward to meet the horn section, had anything to do with it, but Chicago was on fire that night -- no pun intended. It was old, familiar stuff to be sure, but, as fellow saxophonist Walt Parazaider told me, the guys really seemed to enjoy themselves -- "that's why we live in a suitcase for six weeks."

HONORABLE MENTION: Fred Hersch, Carnegie Music Hall (Jan. 24)

"A Century of Americana," David Amram, Nnenna Freelon and the T.S. Monk Sextet (MGC, March 9)



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