A+ A-

"Three Chords and You're Into Jazz"

This review was originally written for a class I took about jazz music. The writing is a bit different on this one because of that. I had a lot of fun writing it, so I wanted to post it up here. This event was also a totally different experience for me, one that I hope to replicate sometime. Maybe you will too.

Earlier tonight, May 19th, I attended a recurring event, Off Minor Jazz, at Alphabet City in Pittsburgh (not the Alphabet City in New York City). Alphabet City is part of City of Asylum, an organization that works with writers from countries that have limited their freedom of speech. Tonight’s performance was part of their monthly jazz performances and entitled “4 on 6” after the piece by guitarist Wes Montgomery. Appropriately, this concert was centered around jazz guitar. The performance featured three trios and one sextet. Thomas Wendt and Tony DePaolis played brushed drums and pizzicato upright bass respectively for each group; the difference was the guitar player.

The first guitarist was Eric Susoeff, a professor of jazz guitar at Duquesne University. Susoeff moved to Pittsburgh from California in the 1970s. His first piece was his composition “The Do-Over”, a Latin jazz piece based on Brazilian samba with a theme of redemption. The first chorus was by Susoeff, the next by DePaolis, and them Wendt and Susoeff traded fours. Susoeff’s second piece was another of his compositions, “Promise”. Susoeff mentioned that this piece originated from a discussion with a previous girlfriend. The piece again had a Latin influence. Susoeff again took the first chorus and DePaolis the second, but Susoeff again took the third. The last piece was the jazz standard “Without a Song”. This is a classic AABA form of 16 bars, for the A parts, and 8 bars, for the B parts. Susoeff’s version of the song went into a Latin direction as was done with the earlier pieces. The drums were very exciting. Here, the choruses were taken by Susoeff, DePaolis, and then Wendt. This order continued for the most part throughout the night.

The next trio to step forth was led by Pittsburgh native, Mark Strickland. Strickland had a few funny anecdotes to tell about George Benson and Chad Evans. Strickland used the Wes Montgomery thumb-style for his pieces. He did not give a name for the first piece but mentioned that it was a blues song. “With the blues, you cannot lose,” Strickland remarked. The song was a 12-bar AAB form. Strickland took the first chorus, DePaolis the second, and Wendt the third. Strickland remarked how it was tough to follow Susoeff, said that George Benson was always out for blood, and then went into his second piece, “Easy to Love”. This was another blues-influenced AAB piece. Strickland took the first chorus, and DePaolis took the second. Wendt and Strickland traded fours for the last section. Strickland’s final song was another unentitled one, this time in a post-bop style. For this piece, he played all of the choruses.

The last trio of the night was led by John Shannon. Shannon is much younger than Susoeff or Strickland. Shannon graduated from Berklee and lived in New York City for a time. His set began with an original composition, “Fresh Water Prayer”. Shannon did some fast-picking during his set with tremolo lines cutting through the mix. There was a feeling of mystery in the air. The piece was hard-bop and featured the usual guitar, bass, and drums chronology of choruses. Shannon mentioned a new jazz club he was opening in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood before he began his second song, McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”. This is another post-bop number in a 32-bar AAB form. DePaolis created a very swinging, walking bass. Shannon went a bit overboard for part of his initial chorus, but the song was good. Wendt provided the second chorus with his own degree of showmanship, and Shannon finished with the last one. I really liked Shannon’s guitar parts; the sound was again very mysterious. The final song that Shannon’s trio played was “Isfahan” by Pittsburgh legend Billy Strayhorn. It uses a 32-bar ABAC form as a sultry ballad. Shannon took the first and third choruses with DePaolis taking the middle. When Shannon finished, there was a special treat to close out the night.

The last band was a sextet composed of all of the previous players and a student at Duquesne University named Greg Jones. There were four guitar players in this band! They played Wes Montgomery’s “4 on 6” first. Jones took the first chorus, then Susoeff, Shannon, and Strickland. During the fifth chorus the group took turns trading fours with Wendt. Some of the guitarists did not play during all of the sections. Strickland provided excellent rhythm guitar the whole time, however. This song went in a swing direction with Strickland and Jones provided great blues licks. The last song was Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne”. Wendt mentioned that Burrell was suffering from a serious disease and had a GoFundMe up to support him at the moment. He encouraged those who could to donate. The sextet played the AAB 12-bar blues form excellently. The first chorus was taken soulfully by Strickland. Susoeff followed with a more trebly, angular chorus, and Shannon continued swinging with the third chorus from there. Jones took the last chorus with his own swing style.

It was a great show all around. My favorite piece was “Chitlins Con Carne”. As a person more familiar with rock and blues, I loved Jones’ and Strickland’s solos. I don’t believe that any of the pieces had much improvisation. Shannon was certainly the most idiosyncratic with his playing, reaching far out at times. Strickland reminded me of myself a lot, so he was very endearing to me. Susoeff’s Latin style was very interesting to hear live. All of the players were very good, and I would love to see them again. I spoke to Greg Jones a bit after the performance, and he expressed excitement about sharing the stage with such great players. He mentioned that each guitarist had chosen their own pieces, though Thomas Wendt had chosen the final two. Jones was somewhat sarcastic and self-consciously walled, but he was overall friendly. I intend to make a new habit of seeing live jazz. There are tons of jazz shows happening in Pittsburgh every week, and many of them, this one included, are free. With many young and old artists playing together, the music is sure to be interesting.

Skull Valley takes a look at the Pittsburgh jazz scene at Alphabet City.