Monday, July 25, 2011

LIVE REVIEW: "An Ark of Stars" (California Plaza, 7/23/11)

[Photo courtesy of Reggie Dunn]

The Beast loves/hates downtown. Whenever we go down there we get lost and confused in an urbanscape that seems to have shifted and changed since the last time we ventured down there. Case in point: Saturday night we made it down to the 50th Anniversary Concert by Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra (supported by its spiritual inheritor the Build an Ark Ensemble, led by concert organizer/producer/curator/DJ Carlos Nino). We stood in front of the stage between acts under a balmy July sky, wondering why there wasn't anyone there we knew. Then we heard the stage announcer: "Ladies and gentlemen, THE ROMANTICS!!!"

Build An Ark Ensemble, with vocalist Dwight Trible (center, in red)
conductor Carlos Nino (left, in white, behind the dred head)

Turns out we were at Pershing Square, the famed ex-hookup spot for gay hustlers. So we hoofed the two blocks up Bunker Hill. We actually caught a bit of vertigo as we rode what has to be one of the tallest escalators in SoCal up to California Plaza, an opulent bowl carved into the top of what has to be the highest and most sublime point in downtown LA. Onstage were about thirty musicians (including flautist Michael White, violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, percussionist Derf Reklaw, vocalist and co-leader Dwight Trible, and trombonist Phil Ranelin) being conducted by Nino, who was dressed in all-white. This was the Build an Ark Ensemble and it was raising a holy hell of mutated jazz and vocal genuflecting. Unfortunately, they played their last note the moment we planted our butts on the marble benches.

Carlos Nino and author Steve Isoardi talk about
Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra

The Ark took the stage at about 9pm and it was a bit strange to see this mighty band at such a remove. Due to the massive reflecting pool in front of the stage, the closest one could get to such sensualist and liberating music was about 500 feet away. Having been spoiled by seeing the entire Ark smashed into an Encino living room, or shoehorned into the tiny World Stage in Leimert Park -- where you were so close you could read the musicians' scores and feel the air blast from the saxophones -- to see the orchestra looking so small as to be easily trapped in a mason jar took some getting used to. On the other hand, to see the band as a "collective" unit, the distance enabled us to see the music rather than the individuals who made it -- a completely different experience.

One wonders what the iconaclastic Tapscott would have thought of his Afrocentric "guerilla street band" playing before the colored dancing water fountains and polished futuristic architecture of California Plaza, a sort of a micro-Hollywood Bowl setup with people on blankets and picnic lunches and those custom "gobo" lights splashed on the faces of surrounding skyscrapers. We won't dwell on the cultural implications, especially since Nino himself seemed excited beyond words when he introduced the Ark for a soft prelude featuring African drums, poetic incantations and tribal dancing. Then it was on to the pulsing, sephulchral build of the Ark standard "To the Great House," mellowed a bit from its usual intensity. Band director Michael Session informed the crowd: "We're just playin' Taps tonight" before leading the 15-piece Ark in Tapscott's lovely, time-shifting musical smooch to his wife "I Love Cecilia."

Michael Session (back to audience) conducts The Ark

The nonvocal part of the set was completed with another stalwart "The Dark Tree," Tapscott's ode to forgotten musicians and cultural roots, with the great bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda pulling an otherwordly moan out of his bass that reverberated from every sleek corner and right angle of the plaza. Poet Kamau Daa'ood unfurled his Taspcott tribute "Papa, the Lean Griot" in a gruff Tom Waitsian cadence, reciting the deathless line "I conjure spirits...on this piano so far out of tune it opens doors to other worlds" to great fanfare from the crowd.

"And women form bands of healing, quilting rhythms,
Tucking them into an ark of stars": Kamau Daa'ood

The real treat of the evening was when Dwight Trible returned with the 10-person strong Great Voice of UGMAA, whose chorales on the unification plea "People Like Us" cut right through the dancing waters. Trible even mentioned the fountains to the crowd: "They remind me of the waters that flow from Africa to America, and that sometimes we can't feel them." (He could have been mentioning how far away his audience was -- or the fact that the Ark, so used to stretching their songs up to 30 minutes, were furrowed into an hour-long set.) "Bring us home, y'all!" Trible exulted, before preceding to do just that with the closer "Little Africa," a song he has been singing for so long -- and in so many different ways -- that it arguably has become his calling card.

The Great Voice of UGMAA

NOTE: If you want to catch the Ark in a more accessible setting, they are playing a set at 3:20pm next Saturday, July 30, 2011 as part of the 16th Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival. And the line-up for the 2011 Angel City Jazz Festival has just been announced, with the Ark playing at 5pm on October1 at the Ford Amphitheatre. Not to be missed!

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