Review of Live! at Kingfly – the Strip District’s weekly jazz night

Head to Kingfly Spirits on Thursdays (7pm to 10pm) for Live! at Kingfly - where musicians are encouraged to experiment in a fun, unique space.

by David Bernabo | November 11, 2019

I arrive late. That’s the kind of thing that you can do at a show like this. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Vibraphonist Jeff Berman is leading a new quartet through a lovely version of Carla Bley’s “Syndrome,” a tune penned for her first husband, pianist Paul Bley. It’s not quite a standard, but I recognize it because Berman plays it often, and lately, he has been playing it often at Live! at Kingfly, a weekly jazz series at Kingfly Spirits in the Strip District.

There’s a bit of old and new in the air tonight. Kingfly is a new craft distillery with a cocktail bar and event space, but Live! at Kingfly is actually an old idea revisited.

Hat Tip to Space Exchange, a former music series at Thunderbird Cafe

Back in 2012, saxophonist Ben Opie, drummer David Throckmorton, guitarists Colter Harper and Chris Parker, and bassist Matt Booth founded the Space Exchange music series at Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville. The series was a space for musicians to work out new ideas, rotate combinations of performers, and pay tribute to idols like Anthony Braxton or Paul Motian during themed concerts.

The series wasn’t exclusively jazz, but it leaned that way. And it was different from other jazz nights, because it wasn’t a jam session – audience members showing up with their instruments would not be rewarded with a seat on the stage.

When Thunderbird Cafe temporarily closed in 2016 to expand capacity, Space Exchange said goodbye.

Live! at Kingfly – rebooting an experimental music series, now in the Strip

Retaining the general format, Live! at Kingfly finds a band playing two sets a night every Thursday. Ben Opie curates. A healthy crowd shows up. Drinks flow from the bar. 

As I like both jazz and cocktails, I have taken it upon myself to attend three Live! at Kingfly events, to drink anywhere from one to 12 drinks, and report back my findings.

Full disclosure: As a musician, myself, I have collaborated with a number of these musicians. 

Night One – an unnamed quartet

Tonight’s quartet doesn’t have a name, but it’s a change of pace for vibraphonist and composer Jeff Berman.

With his somewhat usual quartet, BLINK, Berman is surrounded by heavyweight, seasoned players, but tonight’s set finds him working with a younger crew: guitarist Anthony Ambroso, bassist Eli Naragon, and percussionist Hugo Cruz.

I order an Eye Opener and settle in. The grappa is made in-house, gently sweetened by orange juice and made bitter by espresso. It is delicious and puts me in a receptive mood.

The overall volume is low. Cruz is playing hand drums instead of a drum kit and the vibraphone, mic’d and run through the PA system, sometimes feels a little quiet. But this stage houses four players that dive into some gnarly rhythmic workouts, all without ego and with plenty of groove.

Berman’s rapid-fire vibraphone solos take cues from the melody before toeing the line of in and out (of the tonal sphere). There’s never a sense of being lost; it’s more like controlled exploration. If you need a comparison for Berman’s playing, think ECM Records legend Gary Burton with a healthy dose of a minimalist, like Terry Riley or Steve Reich.

A new, unnamed composition closes the first set. Berman does his best to bend those discrete pieces of metal up a half-step in a fantastic solo. Ambroso’s guitar lays down a dizzying sequence of ideas – a few country licks tossed into a stew of tasty jazz runs. The band then forms a rhythmic grid that Cruz pummels with polyrhythms and syncopation, all the while looking like he is having a blast.

Night Two – Naiad

Night two. I’m late again.

It’s a few weeks later and Naiad are cooking, swinging through a tune that wouldn’t be out of place from Miles Davis’s second quintet. Naiad is a quartet led by former Brooklyn resident and new Pittsburgher saxophonist Patrick Breiner, a member of the mighty all-tenor saxophone band Battle Trance along with many other groups.

Photo: David Bernabo

Naiad is a band that could only exist today, in a world where Tony Williams pioneered the loosest swing imaginable, where free jazz happened and is still divisive, where the Art Ensemble of Chicago broke down genre barriers, where nobody likes smooth jazz but ambient artists are having a field day, and where a bunch of contemporary NYC groups combine technical chops, complex writing, and the will to experiment and get weird.

Naiad sounds like the kind of group that stops through Pittsburgh on a tour. They are quick to take things “out” and break form. They immediately groove with each other and play with edge. Original songs that were composed the morning of the concert feel like seasoned excerpts from a band’s long-worked book.

They don’t hesitate. Mistakes are opportunities.

Kingfly is a spirits distillery, a cocktail bar and – on select nights – a music venue

Kingfly is a social place, and because of that, there is always a light din of discussion, clicking glasses, and hand dryers, but somehow it never dampens the excitement of the music. Kingfly feels like a listening room, even though bar patrons cheerily socialize about 50 ft. from the floor-level stage. It is a nice sounding space with surprisingly good acoustics. The wooden beams probably help, as do the massive carpets hugging the cement floors.

But tonight, it is quiet. There are only a handful of people around for the first set.

I sip my White Rum – carrot, allspice, lime – as the band kicks into “Smarty Chokes of Belmont.” It’s an uptempo tune full of jagged rhythms. A sax solo leads the charge with pianist Antonio Croes veering away from traditional comping into some repetitive patterns. Bassist Eli Naragon (making his second appearance in this review) and drummer Carter Freije swing fiercely, pushing and pulling the sense of time. A series of trading 8s allow Croes and Freije to trade solos with the whole band jumping on some group systems, creating a surprising, keep-you-on-your-toes sequence of events.

By the second set, a healthy crowd forms and the band really opens up. They take more chances. Breiner introduces circular breathing – it’s that thing that Kenny G was famous for, but it’s been a known technique since the 13th century when it was a key skill for metalsmiths.

In some ways, Live! at Kingfly is a place for experimentation, but it is, to some extent, a traditional jazz series. Even a band as creative as Naiad is playing within the context of a jazz quartet. They may push and pull within that context, but the music is recognizably jazz.

One Takeaway: Live! at Kingfly skews heavy on male musicians

It’s hard not to notice that all the musicians in this review have been male. In fact, if you look at the Live! at Kingfly show history, women-identifying and non-binary musicians are nearly non-existent. It’s a stark contrast to the contemporary classical music scene where women are running things in fantastic groups like Kamratōn and Nat 28. [Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Directors of NAT 28. In fact, I am the president of the board this year.] Or in the, for lack of a better term, experimental performance scene, which, currently, is experiencing a greater intersection of art form, race, gender, and mode of expression.

Chalk it up to generations of patriarchal exploitation of women or the bro-iness, sometimes real, sometimes perceived, of the local jazz scene and jazz music form, or, possibly, to the limited scope of the presented music. Whatever the reasons, very few women play music in this series so it was refreshing to see that saxophonist Lynn Speakman and her quintet were the next show on the calendar.

Night Three – celebrating Thelonius Monk

It’s Thelonius Monk’s 102nd birthday, so the band appropriately start with a Monk tune. A Speakman original follows with a fantastic bass solo from Jeff Grubbs. Speakman’s compositions have a coolness to them, like driving down a coastline or like pulling up to a mansion in an episode of Colombo, which for me is a very welcomed kind of sound. There’s an interest in sharp turnarounds, multi-section melodies with tight harmonies between trumpet and saxophone, and mixing straight, somewhat bossa nova rhythms with heavily swung passages. 

On Nat Adderly’s raucous “Fun,” James Moore busts out an inspired trumpet solo as the band run through tempo changes over a heavily syncopated rhythmic structure overseen by drummer Kyle Andrews. It’s a really fun tune. And it’s a solid set from a great band of players even though, for me, the music veers more traditional than the previous two groups.

What can folks expect in the future?

Live! at Kingfly is one of the few consistent spots where creative music is given space to fester, to spawn, and expand.

From an audience perspective, the music is consistently competent and enjoyable and, very often, exciting, mind expanding, and inspiring.

Via e-mail, Ben Opie points to an expansion of scope for the series.

In the near future, ECM recording artist Michael Formanek will play the series on November 14 and then, in the new year, theremin player Pamelia Stickney – she’s played with Yoko Ono and David Byrne – will perform at Live! at Kingfly. Exciting things to come.


Kingfly Spirits
Getting there
2613 Smallman St, Pittsburgh, PA 15222, USA
Mon-Tue Closed
Wed 11am–10pm
Thu-Sat 11am–11pm
Sun 2–10pm
More Info
David Bernabo

David Bernabo

David Bernabo is a writer, filmmaker, musician, dancer, and visual artist, performing with the bands Host Skull, Watererer, and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo.

He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

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