Like mad scientists working in their dungeon lab, the members of Stranger Convention were tinkering with the known -- and the unknown -- elements of jazz, searching to create a new form.
(Cue the flash of lightning.)
It's nujazz. And it's alive!
"We always wanted to play jazz honoring the tradition of jazz," said keyboardist and founding member Pulsar Li. "But we wanted an innovative sound. I think the best music balances innovation with a sound that is aesthetically pleasing. Balances harmonies and instrumentation.
"We don't listen to just jazz. We also listen to electronic and rock. We do covers of Radiohead and Bjork. But back in the day, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong would make jazz renditions of the popular songs of their time. It sounds kind of unique and new, but it's really in line with jazz tradition of taking something that people are listening to and trying to make something new out of it."
They call it nujazz.
"We made that up," Mr. Li said, "and then I typed it into Google and found out that it already was a genre. But all these genres are very loosey-goosey. I don't know if what we play matches the Webster's definition of nujazz."
Mr. Li, 28, grew up in North Carolina with a love of jazz. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music before returning to Duke -- for his medical degree.
His search for a good-paying day job brought him to Pittsburgh, where he is a resident in the department of anesthesia at UPMC Presbyterian and Montefiore. His love of music, however, was anything but asleep.
"After four years of not playing music in med school, I was desperate to get back into it," Mr. Li said.
He started playing in a band called Steeltown Soul. Along the way, he hooked up with drummer Dave Landes, via Craigslist. About two years ago, Mr. Li and Mr. Landes decided to branch out on their own with Stranger Convention. They recruited Jeff Koenitzer (alto) and Chris Skelly (electric, upright bass) to join them.
Tonight, the quartet will be playing at Most-Wanted Fine Art Gallery as part of the Unblurred arts event that is conducted along Penn Avenue in Friendship and Garfield the first Friday night of each month. Saxophonist Alex Kikuchi will be playing with them for the first time.
"It's kind of a quartet/quintet right now," Mr. Li said.
Coming to Pittsburgh from North Carolina, Mr. Li wasn't sure what to expect as far as jazz was concerned.
"I went to the jazz festival and there were a lot of people, a lot of venues," he said. "A cool mix of old, traditional, straight-up jazz and on the other side there's Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon and Pitt providing an academic, innovative modern jazz crowd as well. So in that sense, I was pleasantly surprised by what Pittsburgh has to offer.
"We're always trying to do new things, get new ideas from other musicians who are doing new things -- which Pittsburgh has no lack of. We're still in our early stages. I mean, it's an exciting time, but there are some stretches where we can't perform due to our schedules.
"We definitely have a niche. There's a genre that we play that other groups don't necessarily play, and that's what's exciting -- to have a product where there's a demand and not so much of a supply. We're just beginning to get a following."
But how does one choose between the fields of medicine and music?
"Why can't we all be both?" Mr. Li asked. "It's OK to have multiple interests and passions. This is what happens when you put a lot of energy into it. It's nice to turn a few heads."
Most-Wanted Fine Art Gallery is at 5015 Penn Ave. in Garfield. Stranger Convention will be playing somewhere between 9 and 10:30 p.m. And like all of Unblurred, it is free to the public.
If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at email@example.com or 412-263-1456. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/ First Published May 3, 2013 7:45 PM