Despite everything else that’s happened this year, 2017 was a good year for seeing national jazz acts in Pittsburgh. At loft-style spaces and mid-level theaters all the way up to museum auditoriums, a healthy dose of improvised music came to town this year. Before this otherwise-trying year heads out the door, the city hosts two last adventurous shows, just a few days apart. The acts are united in the spirit of improvisation, but deliver it in two vastly different ways.
Drummer Louis Hayes knew the direction he wanted to take from a very young age. Growing up in Detroit, he wanted to be a successful musician, like those before him who had moved up and out of the Motor City’s bustling jazz scene. He was trying to figure out how, when, in 1956, he received a call from pianist Horace Silver, inviting the then-19-year-old Hayes to join his band. Within days, Hayes met the pianist at the New York train station, and they struck up a rapport that would last more than five decades.
Silver’s compositions set the standard for hard bop, combining the harmonies of bebop with groove and melodies that drew on gospel and blues. Hayes’ keen accompaniment played a crucial role in songs like the polyrhythmic “Señor Blues.” “I learned a lot about how to play compositions from Horace,” Hayes says. “I never tried to count. I just felt it. That way I was free to do what I wanted to do.”
Hayes says the pianist liked to rehearse frequently, and his quintets spent a good deal of time on the road. He recalls coming to the Crawford Grill, in the Hill District, shortly after hooking up with the pianist. Hard bop’s appeal has endured, but Hayes was too caught up in the music at the time to think about its legacy. “We were just playing the art form, creating and growing,” he says. “And enjoying what we were doing. It was a challenge. So, in order to be around those people, you had to be able to live up to the challenge.”
When Silver passed away in 2014, Hayes received many offers to participate in tributes to the late pianist. Hayes was already leading the Cannonball Legacy, a group that saluted another high-profile boss of his, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. But the drummer was cautious about jumping into just any project devoted to Silver. “I had a rapport with Horace’s first wife and son. That’s what helped me make my mind up, why I got into this,” Hayes says. “His wife and son wanted me to do it. Horace would say certain things to me about this before he passed.”
Serenade for Horace features 10 Silver compositions, along with a Hayes original that salutes his boss. Released on Blue Note, the label where it all began, it features the drummer in the company of Pittsburgh native Steve Nelson on vibes and heavy bassist Dezron Douglas, who arranged the album with Hayes. “We all felt good about it, and we all are friends. So it was easy for us to pull this together and make it work.”
Guitarist Nels Cline’s discography takes up a lot of space, both in terms of quantity and style. Along with numerous improvisational projects, his instrumental trio Nels Cline Singers, and last year’s mood-music update Lovers, Cline is probably best known for playing in Wilco, which he has done for 13 years. One project that hasn’t been well documented is the cooperative trio in which he plays with saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Gerald Cleaver; that act comes to town this week.
“This seems like our third winter that we’re going to do these little tours,” Cline says, from his home in Brooklyn. “Larry decided that since he tends to come out [to the East Coast] this time of year, we should try to play some gigs. It’s really that simple. We don’t have a recorded document yet or a moniker and for some reason we can still get gigs.”
Ochs, of the longstanding Rova Saxophone Quartet, knew Cline when the guitarist lived in California, and they’ve worked together in numerous settings. Ochs’ playing “references certain aspects of the saxophone vocabulary that one just doesn’t hear that way,” Cline says. “His playing is powerful, even though he’s not trying to be one of those macho screamer-saxophone guys.”
The trio convened when Ochs invited Cline to join him and Cleaver at a performance in Brooklyn a few years ago. Cline had wanted to play with Cleaver for a while, so he jumped at the chance. Without any preparation beforehand, they developed an immediate rapport. “I love playing with Gerald, because he can do so many different things,” Cline says. “Some nights, Gerald is playing beats almost the whole time. I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t expect that. They’d expect [nothing but] free-jazz drumming.”
With all the music that he plays, Cline says free improvisation is the one type where he feels confident or relaxed. It seems like an odd statement from someone who can blow minds any time he picks up his instrument, but he explains: “Music generally tends to be pretty hard for me. But just starting from zero and going —that’s my favorite zone. Particularly with individuals [with whom] one can feel, at the end, that something satisfactory or inspiring has been created.”