Lede: Music Made Miracles Happen
Writer: Vince Robinson
Publication: The Cleveland Observer
Date: September 19, 2023

The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival presented by Citizens brought musical magic over a four-day stretch last weekend. The annual event is powered by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center and was curated by Orlando Watson, a Clevelander who left a post in the Tri-C Jazzfest, spread his wings and landed in the city of three rivers with a partial mission of bringing the two cities together with culture as the common denominator.

Performances in the first day included Madison McFerrin and Nigel Hall, followed by Friday’s lineup of Ledisi, Cleveland’s Hubb’s Groove, Jonathan Barber and Selecta, a DJ with an amazing repertoire of musical mixes. Hubb’s Groove brought it that night, according to Watson, lighting up the AWAACC, embellishing a stellar performance by Ledisi.

On Saturday and Sunday, the festival moved to Highmark Stadium, a soccer field with a majestic view of the Pittsburgh skyline, replete with river, bridges, train tracks and skyscrapers. The soccer field held three stages that hosted the acts sequentially, requiring minimal translocation by patrons who quickly caught on to moving to each stage.

Attendance-wise, the PIJF pales in comparison to larger festivals in Detroit and Chicago. Highmark has an intimacy that serves it well. On Saturday, festival goers were treated to smooth sounds from Bob James, Howie Alexander and Christie Dashiell, before this writer arrived. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra delivered a high-powered dose of Latin music in the late afternoon sun.

Then it was time for pianist Orrin Evans come with both barrels blazing as he fired up bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Mark Whitfield II, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonist/flautist Gary Thomas in real deal jazz.

Grammy Award-winning P.J. Morton punctuated his predecessor’s performance with a high-spirited gallop through some of his own hits and those of others that sparkled in the early evening starlight, making way for headliners Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

After being presented with an award by the festival, Jam and Lewis turned up the audience with a plethora of hits by many of the artists they produced, including Cherelle, the S.O.S. Band, Ann Nesby of Sounds of Blackness, Kevin Ford (as Alexander O’Neal), and Korea’s Crystal Kay (as Janet Jackson). The stage was set as a living room. As they plowed through the hits, the singers brought the songs to life over tracks being played in the background for an audience that was largely unaware (or didn’t seem to care).
On Sunday, the prospect of rain dampened attendance, but the tried and true were treated to masterful performances by Chelsea Baratz, Gerald Albright, Jose James, Nicholas Payton, Kurt Elling, Keyon Harrold and Gregory Porter (a perennial participant in the festival).

Particularly noteworthy was the set by James and his interpretation of songs by Erykah Badu. The Minnesota native was sporting a fitted NY baseball cap he assured fans was not a Yankees cap, then proceeded to give Erykah her propers musically.

Nicholas Payton manned his Fender Rhodes electric piano, a Hohner Clavinet and Hammond B-3 on top of the added spice of his trumpet strategically hanging next to him. His compositions took listeners down an etherial musical path that primed them for the hugely energetic Kurt Elling’s Superblue with Charlie Hunter, a musical force in his own right. Hunter doubled as bassist and guitarist with a six-string bass he manages to play bass and “guitar” licks simultaneously as Elling bounces in a sort of hyper-animation for a 55 year-old vocalist.

Keyon Harrold merged jazz, hip hop and R&B, presenting songstress Lulu Fresh, the iconic Pharoahe Monch and his own brand of trumpet virtuosity that had patrons rocking hard.

The evening wound to a close with Gregory Porter’s deeply resonant velvet vocal reverberating against the bluff that backgrounds the stadium, bringing the miracle full circle. The rain managed to wait until the last notes were sung, giving the faithful a just reward for their perseverance and a fitting end to a beautiful four days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pianist Orrin Evans with bassist Robert Hurst, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Gary Thomas and drummer Mark Whitfield II

Singer Ann Nesby of the Sounds of Blackness performs with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, the SOS Band, Cherelle and others.

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