Tuesday, October 12, 2010

ANGEL CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2010: Demokratic Vistas

After a two-day break, the Angel City Jazz Festival returned for its second leg on Thursday night with an emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration—mainly between music and the visual arts. A bit of this was hinted at the Royal/T Café last week with the dinner/music/dance/video combo of the memorable “Cookin’ It Up” show, but both Thursday and Friday nights really drove home the interaction between  images and how artists respond to them. At the helm of the musical side of things were two L.A. composers whom I have been thinking about in the same breath a lot lately for their similarities: the festival’s keynote guitarist Nels Cline and the festival’s unofficial first lady, pianist Motoko Honda. Both conjure whole orchestras out of their respective instruments; both are musically omnivorous; both don’t hide behind their gadgets but utilize them improvisational devices in the bigger mix; both aggregate punk-rock energy with studious avant-garde discipline; and both have no limits to their talent.

Thursday night was the second buzz-worthy event since Henry Grimes on opening night: The LACMA-sanctioned premiere of DIRTY BABY, the picture/poetry/music “triologue” between L.A. badass painter Ed Ruscha, San Francisco-based producer/poet David Breskin and Mr. Cline. (A bethumbed review copy of the $125 coffee-sized tome with attendant “DIRTY NELS” CD sat like a giant doorstop in the museum bookstore.) Before beginning his readings, Mr. Breskin, a suitably intense and prickly gentleman with a lethal-looking shaved head who took very loud and elongated pulls on his bottled water, commented about how the boxes of fresh copies of the DIRTY BABY book were seized at U.S. Customs after being shipped in from its Italian printers; apparently, the book’s title scrawled all over the boxes convinced authorities they had hit the motherlode of confiscated child pornography. Oh Ed, still throwing people for a loop after 50 years!

David Breskin makes cellphone owners fear for their lives
(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)

The show was split into two parts, the first of which was a less successful melding of the involved art forms than the second. Mr. Breskin began – after acknowledging the evening as being the 55th anniversary of the reading of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl – with nearly a half hour hour of continuous short readings of his tart, ironic ghazals (sort of like Arabic haiku with refrain). In the book they are combined with 66 prints of Ruscha’s little-seen “dumb block” paintings from the 1980s and 1990s: dreamy, murky silhouettes with those punk-rocky black-censorship bars over where text would normally be.

The DIRTY band, first set (from left): Wayne Peet, Jeremy Drake, Danny Frankel, Glenn Taylor, Scott Amendola, Todd Sickafoose, Nels Cline, Bill Barrett
(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)

Cline followed with no less than, in Breskin’s words, “a time-lapse history of 6,000 years of Western Civilization.” His dream nonet of Left Coast players (whom Breskin dubbed "The People of the West") rose to the challenge with the stunningly epic and ambitious 42-minute title cut, which split itself into at least five different mini-suites that ranged from white squalls of noise to sweeping lyrical expanses that recalled composers like Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copeland. (It was Cline’s own personal There Will Be Blood soundtrack—the title of which is even repeated in one of Breskin’s ghazals.) The standout instrument of the first set was the prairie-ghost whisper of Bill Barnett’s chromatic harmonica. This, taken with Glenn Taylor's delicate pedal-steel shadings, framed the suite as some sort of strange and fragmented Western opera.

(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)

In the second set, Breskin’s terse readings turned bragging and hostile (“You Will Eat Hot Lead,” “I Thought I Told You That We Won’t Stop” “You Talk You Get Killed”) as he tackled the cracked mirror of America’s wars in the Middle East. These were interwoven more organically with Cline’s short bursts of bliss and vinegar. Besides electric guitar, Cline used what appeared to be a series of smaller and smaller acoustic guitars, including one that looked and sounded like a Cuban armónico, that lent the score a waft of Middle Eastern incense.

Lady about to attack her piano: Motoko Honda
(photo courtesy of Myles Regan)

Friday night’s marriage of imagery and music was no less epic, despite the fact that there was only one musician onstage instead of fourteen. Pianist and sound sculptress Motoko Honda preluded the premiere of Steven Elkins’ frequently poetic documentary The Reach of Resonance (think Fast, Cheap and Out of Control with musical mavericks) by stating her confusion at being asked to compose a piece inspired by the film. “I am mostly an improviser,” she said almost apologetically before sitting down for a furious and anarchic 20-minute tour de force in which she practically crawled inside the instrument. Mixing lyrical, almost George Winston-like etudes with a prepared technique I can only describe as “flossing" -- slipping a fishing line around the piano strings and moving them back and forth rapidly to create a sound not unlike a methed-out bee swarm  -- she beautifully refracted the film’s mind-bending investigations into the outer reaches of musical inspiration, or what composer Jon Rose, one of the film’s four subjects, tellingly labels “sonic terrorism." Mmm, not a bad buzzword for the ACJ festival as a whole.


Our apologies to Mr. John Abercrombie, who closed out the festival Saturday night with his Quartet. The Beast took ill and couldn't swing it, but here are some lovely and candid shots of the master at work:

From left: John Abercrombie, Joey Baron, Thomas Morgan, Mark Feldman
(all photos courtesy of Myles Regan)

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