Whether it's in a club over cocktails or in a dingy basement somewhere in the forgotten side streets of the city, musicians are meeting up throughout the week to network, collaborate, create, hang out and learn about each other. The place where this all comes together is the jam session.
Over the next several weeks, Found Sound will profile five jam sessions across Pittsburgh to provide an inside look at the wellspring of some of the groups and musicians who are regulars on the local scene. At these sessions, raw improvisation leads to remarkable moments, all for the fraction of the price of a concert ticket.
Even on a warm summer night, the streets of East Liberty are vacant. The street lamps illuminate a quiet, residential neighborhood. But if you happen to be walking down Baum Boulevard around 9 o'clock on a Wednesday night, you might be able to pick up a faint, funky groove. Follow your ear to Tana, an Ethiopian restaurant nestled tightly in the commercial strip below the solemn towers of East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
As you enter the restaurant, soft wood accents and earth-colored walls meet your eyes while the warm, exotic smell of foreign spices greets your nostrils. At the top of the stairs, down the hallway, as you turn the corner of the bar, you are hit square in the face with a heavy funk stew being cooked up by four of the tightest cats in Pittsburgh. The sounds of popping strings and clanging cymbals are jaw-dropping.
The band is spread in the middle of the restaurant, tables sprawling out to the left or the right. After the initial shock wears off, it's easy to tell that this is something special. John C. Hall Jr. lays down an unquestionable groove on the bass as he nods along to the beat and chomps on chewing gum. Hall has been leading the jam for over 15 years – a Pittsburgh staple.
To his right it Max Leake, peering over his glasses as he comps on his keyboard. In the back is Chuck Anderson, his chin high and lower lip strong as his hands dance over the drums and cymbals. To the far left is Mark Lucas, body twisting around his guitar as he pulls notes soulfully out of thin air.
The jam becomes more intense as the tables begin to fill with regulars who are smiling, shaking hands, hugging and constantly moving to the music. It's hard to keep a smile from creeping into the corners of your mouth and your head from moving along to the beat.
After about an hour, the house band steps down for a break. The energy in the bar changes like a wave as a burly, dreadlocked man with a Metallica shirt carrying a large drum and some buckets enters the space. His presence is electrifying, immediately calling attention to his larger-than-life appearance. Instrument cases are stashed in corners behind some of the people sitting at tables. Other musicians trickle in with cases of all different shapes and sizes.
Hall returns to the microphone with the excitement of the night beginning to escalate. "Ok," he says," we're going to change things up now. We're in for a special treat. Elec, you here? Let's get you in on this one."
The dreadlocked man brings his drums over to the stage and sets up in front of Anderson's kit. With the rest of the band back on stage, Hall kicks them off into tune, a fast, funky groove. Elec Simon's face twists into a smile as he hammers out rhythms on his drums, flooring the entire restaurant with his showmanship and his technique.
When the tune is over, the musicians are met with thunderous applause, and Hall calls up a singer and a new guitar player. The group continues to morph with each continuing tune as drummers, bassists, guitar players, keyboard players, trumpet players and vocalists have their turn to jam alone. Some are old friends of the session who fit seamlessly into the house band. Others are young musicians, eager to make an impression on the older cats.
The smiles of fellow musicians and nodding heads of the audience are signs that the group is cooking. When things slow down, the musicians' faces turn blank and audience members start to talk, or get up to leave. By the end of the night, everybody is grooved out, people depart the bar smiling, hugging, laughing, singing and whistling the tunes of the night.
Tana Ethiopian Cuisine - 5929 Baum Blvd.
Wednesday Nights - 8:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Cover: None (Common courtesy is to buy a drink.)
Skill Level: Professional.