AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
What's jazz? It's an innocent enough question. Get together a dozen
aficionados who think they know and ask them. You'll likely end
up with a dozen different answers. Is jazz just something made up
on the spot? Can anyone play it? How is it different from pop?
Can you play it wrong? Is it for dancing? If the Blue-hots have
anything to say about it, jazz is an ingredient in a much larger dish.
But it's the main ingredient. And the dish swings.
To understand the Blue-hots you would need to be reading this
from newsprint while sitting in a darkened leather booth
waiting for the show to start in a Las Vegas
cabaret, with your second martini in hand. Or you
need to be clicking fingers to the second set of a smoky hard
bop act in the Village where the beatniks are practicing prosody
to the rhythmic cacophony, and the singer is putting away another
gin and tonic before the tenor player reaches the bridge. Or you could
just be where you are right now with a longing to be back in a time
when live music was real and everywhere. Maybe that is jazz.
The Blue-hots are based out of Pittsburgh with roots in Brooklyn,
New York. They are led by local pianist and songwriter, Ian Kane,
who skillfully guides listeners down stirring nostalgia trips. His songs
are sophisticated yet effortless, moody, hip, memorable. Vocally, Kane punches
out the angular harmonies with Justin Macuga, a consummate
professional baritone who looks like he just walked out of a Madison
Avenue advertising agency circa 1962. Adding the third voice around
the microphone is Cierra Tyler, an alto with a dusty vocal quality
and the subtle grace of someone from the pictures.
The Blue-hots are the backing band for several regional notables.
Ronni Weiss, the diminutive alto with a monumental voice,
Marti Aggazzio, a kittenish singer who can
captivate an audience, and Brayd, the simply-named native of State College,
who commands the stage with a reedy, sonorous tone.
The band's repertoire reads like a random sampling of 20th century
American tunes. Starting at 1950 and stretching thirty years in either direction
will give you the width of its umbrella. They mix eras with ease. A bebop
head may give way to a 1920s romp which then returns to the bebop head.
Time signatures and key changes are routine. Tempos and moods shift
on a dime. Originals blend with standards. Pre-1960 jazz influences are
everywhere, like confetti in the air. Yet there is a clarity among these elements; a
sensibly designed presentation. And it is to the credit of the rhythm section,
some of Pittsburgh's finest, unheralded cats, that the Blue-hots are able to
present the collage of musical brands that they do.
In 1931 Duke Ellington said "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." To most people he's talking about a certain kind of rhythm or maybe the importance of playing with passion. But these readings tend to miss the full beauty of the words. Swing means the presence of something special, the click factor. It is the switch that goes on when the stimulus somehow connects us with the universe, or at least the cat sitting next to us. It is the undefinable "it" factor that makes us tune in and keeps us there. It is beauty first and novelty second. It's the exhilaration we feel when we are made to run on all cylinders. The Blue-hots aspire to reach that level of swinging-ness. Like all of us, they sometimes hit and sometimes miss. But the Blue-hots listener is better for having joined them on their sentimental yet swinging journey.
So if you are afraid that so-called jazz has lost its traction among the youth of today, this group will at least plant a seed of doubt in your mind about that conclusion and at best will get our toes tapping, fingers snapping or your feet dancing with their shows and you will be glad you spent the time and the dime to check them out.