The Jazz Poetry Concert's seventh iteration was among the better installments of the free series -- and that's not even counting the surprise appearance by the world's most famous tightrope walkers.
Yes, those were three members of The Flying Wallendas (Tino, Alex and Aurelia) doing an unannounced 20-minute tightrope routine 15 feet above the stage of the New Hazlett Theater and before the eyes of some 500 delighted audience members.
Everybody likes the circus, but the staging made this a different kind of performance art: The Wallendas enacted their feats accompanied by an audio recording of Salman Rushdie reading from his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
That made the interlude work on a couple levels. First, Rushdie is a founder of City of Asylum, a decentralized, international effort to shelter and support writers persecuted in their home countries. (Pittsburgh's incarnation, co-founded by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, is independently run.) Second, Rushdie's reading made frequent reference to concepts like "orientation" and "stability." He was talking in cultural terms (among other metaphorical references that the night's international line-up of literary readers often echoed). But the corporeal balancing act fleshed the reading out nicely, and vice versa.
The very oddness of the Wallendas' appearance, no less than its entertainment value, might have upstaged a lesser show. That that didn't happen Saturday is due largely to the fact of Jazz Poetry stalwart and de facto music director Oliver Lake's pairing with New York-based band Tarbaby.
Simply put, the avant-jazz trio, joined by Lake on sax, tore the joint up with its three-tune first set, its closing number, and its partly improvised backing for the evening's poets.
Readers included the two current City of Asylum writers, Khet Mar (of Myanmar) and Israel Centeno, a Venezuelan who moved here in July. Khet read an essay (with a heavy political subtext), Centeno a fiction excerpt; both were accompanied by emcee Heather Pinson on violin.
But the evening really got into gear with Tarbaby's first set. Their music's dark undertow was expressed with joy. With Eric Revis' muscular articulations on stand-up bass underpinning it all, Nasheet Waits rode his drum kit like a runaway pony, Orrin Evans laced the beat with his in-control/out-of-control runs, and Lake was free to do everything from trilling to sounding a smoky riff followed by a pained squeal, muting his horn with his left knee, or thwacking his sax's valves like a percussion instrument.
Then came the Wallendas. But that didn't stop the momentum of the musicians, or of the guest poets who came next. The latter included Alexandra Petrova (who read in Russian, with translations projected on the giant screen upstage) and Hind Shoufani (Palestine).
Still, the evening hit another high with the final two poets. Tarbaby's sound, for instance, seemed especially well-suited to the somber, wintry tones of Finland's Tommi Parkko, whose translated verse included lines described phenemenon like "the severed nerve ending, the house whose walls have fallen." His poem about ice was backed by the growl of Revis' bowed bass, sounding like an iceberg's groan.
Finally came legendary poet, educator and activist Sonia Sanchez (who was celebrating her 77th birthday). Sanchez's performance style, already full of jazz influences, dovetailed powerfully with Lake and Tarbaby's, from her scat-driven poem "Peace" to the brutal "Poem for Some Women." Highlight: Lake's horn mimicking Sanchez's lunatic stage laughter as she read "Middle Passage," a poem she said was about the madness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
It was almost enough to make you forget the Flying Wallendas.