Suzanne Pittson made her mark as a jazz vocalist with a series of daring albums exploring compositions by Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane, and Freddie Hubbard. Collaborating with her husband, the resourceful pianist/keyboardist Jeff Pittson, she delivered dexterously scatted lines with her sleek soprano, or sang original lyrics crafted around the contours of surging post-bop themes.
About a year ago, their son Evan Pittson, who was finishing a degree in visual art at City College of New York, asked about sitting in on a gig the couple had coming up in New York City. He had played viola since grade school but the request “came from out of nowhere,” Suzanne says. “I had been thinking to myself I want to go in a different musical direction. We brought him up to play and the audience was mesmerized. I guess this is our new direction.”
Joined by El Cerrito bassist Dan Feiszli and New York-based drummer Dave Meade, the recently formed Pittson Family Band makes its Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. The concert is part of a rare California tour for the Bay Area natives, who moved east in 2005 when Suzanne landed an assistant professorship at City College of New York, where she’s the director of the jazz vocal program and chair of the music program.
Quite suddenly the Family Band became their creative focus, providing a forum to reimagine material from her breakthrough 1996 album Blues and the Abstract Truth (a collaboration with heavyweights like Charles Mingus trumpeter Jack Walrath, bassist Harvie Swartz, and Headhunters drummer Mike Clark). The Pittsons are also developing new songs informed by their interest in electronics. “I’ve got a pedal board with an Auto-wah and harmonizer,” she says. “I’ve always had this dream of being like Michael Brecker with his EWI,” or electronic wind instrument.
Jeff and Suzanne have worked together extensively over the years, and he’s played a key role on all her recordings, including the most recent, Out of the Hub: The Music of Freddie Hubbard (Vineland Records), a critically hailed project featuring top shelf New York players like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist Steve Wilson. Adding Evan’s viola into the sonic mix requires recalibrating the Pittsons’ sound.
While he continues to work as a freelance graphic designer, Evan has thrown himself into the group, reveling in the opportunity to hone his approach as an improviser on electric viola, an instrument with little or no pedigree in straight ahead jazz. Deeply inspired by tenor saxophonists like Michael Brecker and Steve Grossman, he’s followed in the footsteps of his parents, who have closely studied the solos of commanding horn players.
“I had this instrument that was sympathetic to a rich sound, not as idiosyncratic or obvious as the violin,” says Evan, 23. “I needed an electric instrument to get over drums, and that allowed me to explore this sound further. I use some effects pedals to achieve an atmospheric state. I’m interested in exploring this idiom, in seeing what this instrument can do in this setting.”
Jeff and Suzanne were mainstays on the Bay Area jazz scene for years, and she was also a noted educator, teaching at the Jazzschool and UC Berkeley from 2002-2005 as part of the UC Jazz program. For Jeff, the sonic seachange of the Family Band also came at a perfect time. After holding down a day job in IT at a publishing company for nine years he was ready for more playing and writing opportunities when the company shut down.
“Everybody said I want to do something with a different sound, and I’m very excited to support the two of them,” he says. “We’ve had some gigs where Evan’s the chief soloist. I just comped, but I was creating so many colors I felt like I was soloing the whole time. This music is really taking on a life of its own.”
Recommended gigs: Theis; Howard Alden at Berkeley Choro Ensemble
Stopping by Jupiter on Tuesday I caught the first installment of Adam Theis’s Mobtet with keyboardist Kevin Wong and Colin Hogan on drums, a trio with a sinewy funk sound. Alternating between trombone and electric bass, Theis is an essential Bay Area mover and shaker, both for his tireless work organizing gigs and ensembles, and for the low-down danceable aesthetic that informs everything he plays. He’s bringing in a rotating cast of players this month for Jupiter’s Tuesday Jazzidency, offering a great opportunity to get acquainted with the Godfather of the ‘bone.
In what seems to be a new tradition, guitar great Howard Alden returns to town for another Brazilian expedition, joining Berkeley Choro Ensemble Saturday at the Hillside Club. Featuring flutist Jane Lenoir, clarinetist Harvey Wainapel, percussionist Brian Rice and Ricardo Peixoto, on seven-string Brazilian guitar, the band is devoted to the spritely Brazilian instrumental style dating back to the late 1800s, but that continues to thrive in the 21st century.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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