Ahh opening night. The electric-shaver buzz in the air! The expectant crowds milling about! The familiar faces! The parking fees! Welcome to the Angel City Jazz Festival Year Three. And for some reason – maybe momentum, maybe a perverse urge towards a Viking-style funeral – this year's bill was the most radical one yet. After getting a toehold with the first two years, what the hell were festival organizers Jeff Gauthier and Rocco Somazzi thinking?
I would be the wrong person to ask that question. My urge towards the fringier fringes of Out There music is not a good indicator of my judgment of a festival roster’s bankability. The esteemed music critic Greg Burk (who also reviewed the festival) asked me Monday night over dinner what I thought of this year’s lineup of artists and I froze with mouthful of cured tuna hearts. “I think it’s great!” was all I could muster. Burk was coming at me from the Long View of things: in order for this music and for the only annual festival to celebrate it to survive, it needs to embrace both the Out and the In. (To whit: last year’s sandwiching of the relatively straight-ahead B3 organisms of Larry Goldings between guitar freek-a-leek Nels Cline and the prepared piano of Motoko Honda.) I was coming at it from the blissfully oblivious punk-rock stance of, “the more extreme the better!” Which is why I don’t run a record label. I like Viking funerals.
This year, the extreme was exhibited in the majority of acts over the first few days having absolutely no set list. There were exceptions -- Kneebody and Ravi Coltrane on Sunday and the Trible/Beasley duo on Saturday – but the main feature was inventing a journey for the ears that wasn’t always “fun” in the classic sense. Like a good novel the music contained all emotions, from anxiety to abandon, from confusion to rapture. Hell, there was boredom in there a few times too, and the task of both performers and audience alike to wrest free of it.
Saturday was the much-ballyhooed return to L.A. of Mr. Henry Grimes, the bassist who has become as celebrated for the Hollywood-worthy tale of his rediscovery and rehabilitation as his pioneering work with the godheads of free jazz (Ayler, Taylor, Shepp, Sanders, Coltrane, Coleman). In fact, Grimes’ “story” has been told twice and Social Network-style in two opposing accounts in the last two months: first by scholar Steven Isoardi (“The Return of Henry Grimes: A Memoir” -- emphasis on that last word) and then a month later in the new literary quarterly Slake by journalist Hank Cherry (“The Resurrection of Henry Grimes”). It's a story, underscored by Mr. Gauthier’s opening remarks, that encompasses “hope, creativity and not giving up in the face of dire circumstances” and “very much an L.A. story.” We won’t get into all that here – in fact, we shudder at the thought of Grimes' story making to the big screen and becoming another The Soloist, complete with Kanye West or Sean Combs bobbing for Oscar cred by playing the troubled bassist. Suffice to say, all the crackling anticipation in the REDCAT theatre precluded that Mr. Grimes would be received rapturously if he simply stood onstage and did nothing but scratch his ear. He did stand onstage, but nothing the man did was simple.
Mr. Grimes’ set was preceded by the duo of vocalist Dwight Trible and pianist John Beasley, who took their own sweet time setting a subtle, churchified mood for their short set. They began with an improvised duet and moving into more structured material like “Autumn Leaves” and a bracing medley of “The Spirit of Love” with the more dire standard “Strange Fruit,” with Trible creating cubistic psalms over Beasley’s soft tide pools and mathematical chimes. They even paid tribute to current economic woes (which, as indie jazz musicians, they must feel quite acutely) with the closer, “Backlash Blues.” Four bars in, someone yelled from the audience: “I like it already!!”
Henry Grimes, with Olive Oil
The auditorium was dead quiet when Grimey & Co. shuffled out of the wings like gunfighting pilgrims. Grimes, dressed in baggy black pants, rumpled Hawaiian shirt and canary-yellow headband (his rotating headgear is like the jazz world’s version of the Bears' Jim McMahon), bent over the green-painted bass named “Olive Oil” (a gift from N.Y. loft vet William Parker) and started his knotty boxer’s hands dancing over the strings. This was the first of at least three improvisations that ranged from hellacious cacophony to near-silent meditation. The drama was heightened by the musicians (with minimal rehearsal and minimal direction) struggling across the tightrope together. It was 15 minutes before any kind of noticeable rhythm started and in that time Grimes switched from arco to pizzicato and then over to violin, while pianist Ben Rosenboom switched from the keyboard to the inner strings of the piano, Vinny Golia switched from baritone sax to clarinet to bass clarinet, Alex Cline switched from wire brushes to mallets to whatever else he had up his sleeve, and poor Dwight Trible (a last minute addition) switched from standing up to sitting down, as it appeared he was having difficulty fitting his vocals into the cracks of the ensemble’s intensity. But for intensity, one needed to look no further than the MVP of the evening Alex Cline, who towards the end of the set shattered the almost-quaint egalitarianism of the band by launching into a chest-rumbling and heavily caffeinated tribal beat that drew the rest of the players – even the maestro himself, who appeared not to once notice he had any bandmates – into its let’s-go-out-on-a-high-note sway.
Nels tears the Ford a new one
(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)
If Saturday night was the feather tickling, Sunday evening at the Ford Amphitheatre was the motherlode of weirdness, the anti-Hollywood Bowl. The bicoastal quintet Kneebody played like a bunch of young punks who just came from a show at The Smell. Vinny Golia returned for some funkified cold fusion with a youthful ensemble culled from his CalArts students. (Did we actually catch Golia dancing a little onstage?!). Nels Cline practically stomped a hole in the stage floor as he and saxist Tim Berne and three-armed drummer Jim Black went for the apocalyptic orgasm in an entirely improvised set that included Berne’s siren-like wails that he muted by sticking an empty Arrowhead water bottle into the bell of his horn.
(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)
Wadada Leo Smith, who also backed Mr. Grimes on Saturday and who likes to stand at the edge of his bands like a character in the margins of an old MAD magazine, led his Golden Quartet in a groove-tinged set with some powerful players, including hot keyboardist Vijay Iyer (whose own current Solos CD is getting rapturous buzz) and the bewitching John Lindberg, who ran his bass through a pedal and created an otherworldly and elongated sound I can only regrettably call “bowelly.” (This made the L.A. Times jazz critic Chris Barton laugh -- although thank god he didn't mention it in his review of the show.) With their serpentine interplay and clean, well-lighted songs, the quintet led by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (second son of John and Alice) and trumpeter Ralph Alessi tucked us into bed and kissed us on the cheek.
(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)
The next night at Culver City's Royal/T Cafe was more of a cozy, family affair that mixed musical improvisation with multimedia flash and culinary wizardry courtesy of visiting chefs Paul Canales and Kelsey Bergstrom. (Indeed, Carol Kim's live video feeds of musicians and kitchen staff heightened the similarities between food and music—and further proved to me that chefs are the new DJs.) There was a metal tub packed with ice and stacked with bottles of Rahsaan Roland Kirk Dark Lager. There were silver multi-storied dishes of farmer’s market green beans and grissini dip. There were tablecloths, for god’s sake. All accompanied by the strangest dinner music we’ve ever heard, a true ebbing-and-flowing blast of West Coast airs anchored by the leadership of bassist Mark Dresser and pianist Myra Melford, who played a white mini-grand besmirched with subway graffiti, and brought to the brink by the butoh dance master Oguri, who squeezed himself between the banquet tables like that Tooms guy from The X Files. The Brothers Cline took a brief duo interlude during Dresser's "Rasa" that made one marvel at the talented womb they both were sprung from—and how ageless both seem when they are playing together. (Nels' recent collaborator and bride-to-be Yuka Honda was almost invisible behind Melford's piano, hunched over a tiny keyboard-sized piece of electronics called a Tenori-on.) The second set veered almost shockingly into verboten blues territory, with violinist Jeff Gauthier and Mark Dresser chasing each other in mad-stringed brotherhood. (I’m not sure of this, but some loud female voice kept yelling out “Mark Dresser! Yeah! Play it! Wooo!” during his solo, and I swear to God it might have been Ms. Melford, whom I’ve heard utter few words in person.) At the end of this wonderful evening, both Rocco and Jeff were spent but smiling. What do they know that we don’t?
Drawing by Deborah Drooz on my notebook
while I was in the Men's Room at the Royal/T
Check out the Ford performances on YouTube's Angel City Jazz TV page.