Review: Pittsburgh Jazz Celebration looks to past, but not future

Some of the guests were missing at the Pittsburgh Jazz Celebration.
They were the musicians who are moving the music further into the 21st century.

On positive side, the June 16 concert at Heinz Hall, Downtown, was a rich look at Pittsburgh's jazz legacy, featuring a truly marvelous performance by singer Kurt Elling.

The music and bit of film from an in-construction documentary talked about the great work of jazz stars such as Art Blakey and Billy Strayhorn.

But the show in no way took a look at what is happening right now in the music. Where, for instance, was Ben Opie, the Squirrel Hill saxophonist who has moved jazz in so many directions?

Pittsburgh should be celebrating them, too.

Instead, the concert looked at a little-known jazz star: Stephen Foster. Trumpeter Sean Jones was the soloist in the medley of three Foster songs given a jazz flavor by the great arranger, Don Sebesky.

Foster is often credited with being America's first pop composer and Jones' playing certainly brought the works into the jazz ball park. But if a composer from the 1800s is going to be part of the festivities, so should someone looking ahead right now.

The concert was filled with talent though. Part of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild annual gala, it also was put on by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and WQED-TV.

The second half of the event featured the symphony, guest directed by Jeff Tyzik, backing up singer Elling, pianists Ramsey Lewis and David Budway, its own bassist Jeff Grubbs and trumpeter Jones.

They all performed pieces related to Pittsburgh music legends — including Foster. Closer to the jazz theme, though, was Lewis' offering of “Misty”, “Poinciana” and “Charade.”

Elling sang “I Apologize,” a Billy Eckstine hit, “Lush Life” by Strayhorn, and “On Broadway,” a song that is practically a theme for George Benson.

His version of “Lush Life” was remarkable in its harmonics, presentation of lyrics and use of his great baritone voice.

Budway and Grubbs presented little-known pieces by well-known jazz presences. The pianist played “Tonk,” a bounding bit of virtuosity by Strayhorn with a George Gershwin-like arrangement by Mike Tomaro.

Grubbs did two pieces of “Afterthoughts,” a suite by Pittsburgh-born bassist Ray Brown. He is a bass player for the orchestra, but showed off the talents his jazz fans know so well.

The show opened with a sextet featuring Jones, drummer Roger Humphries, trombonist Jay Ashby, saxophonist Joel Frahm, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and Budway.

They played three songs linked to Pittsburgh jazz legends: Stanley Turrentine's “Sugar,” Roy Eldridge's “Li'l Jazz” and Blakey's “One By One.”

Indeed, it was a festive evening, but the celebrations could have been carried further.