Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Hey folks, it's been a looooong time since we've offered another installment of our Snerd's Dictionary to L.A.'s underground and experimental music scenes (go here for the first installment and the definition for "Snerd.") We're going to try to make this a monthly thing as we've fallen woefully behind in keeping it updated. No more! The "B"-section is now in the process of being updated. You can check out the new entries (marked in red text) here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THE JAMES BROWN MIXTAPE: A Conversation with RJ Smith (Pt. 2)


THE BEAST: In the early 90s, Polydor released Soul Pride, a collection of James Brown “organ instrumentals.” Turns out he recorded eleven of these albums between 1961 and 1971, which blew my mind. As you mention in the book, the organ and the drums were Brown’s first instruments.
RJ SMITH: He loved playing the drums, although he wasn’t a very good drummer. He felt it, certainly better than I ever could. I think the “gut feel” part of his brain really came out in his organ solos. I mean, the organ is such a great instrument for making these sort of mashing, smeary sounds and he loved that. It kind of worked for him. If I’m not breaking it down on a purely musical level, yeah, he did some great organ songs. Most of the time, when he's doing a long jam and he goes to the organ, the sound gets kind of wandering or whatever, but on a song like “Make It Funky!” he begins with the organ and goes off from there. And it’s wild, terrific stuff.

What do you think is the most important deep cut of Brown’s career – the one people might not be as aware of as much as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “I Got You” or “Sex Machine”?
It's not the ultimate or anything, but I really like the track “I’ve Got Money,” which is the B-side of a single released in 1962 that didn’t do anything on the charts. It’s a session this great drummer Clayton Fillyau played on. It’s the first really reductive record Brown made – just a guitar and a few horns, and the drumming is insane. It was basically the road map to get to “Cold Sweat,” with all the parts sort of pulled out and standing alone but not put together yet. In fact, you can get a version of the song where you can turn one of the speakers off and get just the drum and the bass with no vocals. It’s awesome, and so radical.

This might be slightly off topic, but I’ve been reading a lot about the Punk and Post-Punk music of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. What I found amazing was even those worlds absorbed the music and persona of James Brown, whether ironically or not. In L.A. you had Black Randy & The Metro Squad playing a punk-soul version of “Say It Out Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)" -- and offending a lot of people in the process. In New York, there was James Chance and the Contortions doing their art-damaged white boy take on Brown. Even in a place like Austin, Texas, you had Joe “King” Carrasco lifting Brown’s cape act. How do you account for a musical generation that rejected so much, yet James Brown manages to slip though their “legit” radar?
Brown wasn’t exactly “cool” in the late ‘70s. In the Disco era, he was putting out some good records, trying to get them on the charts and failing. There’s something about hard funk and noise that was starting to connect to young white audiences. There was a lot of “noise” and repetition in those ‘70s records, especially the album cuts that go on for eight or nine minutes. There’s basically only two chords to those songs! There was something so raw, so wrong about it that felt really good.

Punks were always about the “wrong” sounds…
What’s more punk rock that “Ain’t It Funky Now”? It’s so fast and frantic. There's this interview with [drummer] “Tiger” Martin where he talked about one of the games he and the Collins brothers would play when they were in that band. I think they were taking amphetamines at the time, and they’d try to play as fast as they could to see if the old man could keep up.

Could he?
Yeah! He might eventually call out for “Georgia on My Mind,” just to catch his breath, but they were trying to see how much they could make James Brown sweat. [laughter]

You mentioned those long, sweaty tracks he cut in the 1970s. Why did the song titles get so long? Wow! Yeah, that’s a brilliant question. I don’t know.

After a while they started resembling e.e. cummings poems. I think my favorite is “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Shut the Door I’ll Get It Myself).”
Here’s how I think it happened: They’re in the studio, they’re jamming, making it work as they go, and at the end someone says, “Hey James, what’s the name of that one?” and he says the first thing that comes out of his head, and it's be two sentences long, and you’d better write down exactly what he said and put it on the album or he's going to find out about it and pay you a visit. [laughter] You wrote down what he said and ran with it! I read this interview with the writer who wrote Brown’s first really good autobiography, Bruce Tucker…and there was a moment in the conversation when Brown, who didn’t care about a lot of things, wanted to know what the book title was going to be. Tucker told him the title the publishing company was pushing for – “The Godfather of Soul” or something like that -- but Brown had his own ideas, and they were exactly like the song titles! “I think you should call it ‘Super Bull Taurus Genius of Funk and Rhythm and Blues and an American Original’.” That was the title. “Uh, well I don’t know James, I’ll have to phone the publisher on that one…” [laughter]

Let's talk about the late part of Brown’s career, which in many ways is the wildest and the weirdest. I guess you can split it into two overlapping sections: the 1978 arrest to the 1988 arrest and “Living in America” to his death – both linked by his increased drug use. What’s odd about this time was, during the period he’s in prison in the late 1980s, his career becomes rehabilitated.
I think he's been smoking PCP for awhile by the late '80s, but he was always able to hide it and control it. By the time of the high-speed chase [in 1988], he had lost that control. It had a power over him by then, and it was really affecting every corner of his life.

As PCP will sometimes do…
Yeah, it has that tendency. Supposedly, on his deathbed he was still smoking it. There are many things to say about this, but right or wrong, smart or dumb, that’s an amazing thing to be in your 70s smoking angel dust. For me, the question is not "Why?" but "How?!"

And he was still touring! He had two heart attacks! Why do you think he continued smoking after prison? Did his career comeback embolden him in some way?
Well, it’s quite possible that Brown’s wife at the time, Adrienne [Rodriguez] had a lot of influence on him. He was smoking before he met her, but together they definitely brought out the worst in each other in that regard. I think it’s plausible that she used that to kind of control him, like an enabler/co-dependent sort of thing. But yeah: Why? Because he couldn’t stop. I think there was something about needing that escape somehow…It was his way to get out of his own head, in a way that wasn’t violent. But to flip it around a bit, what’s horrible is that we have to look and talk about that part of his life, but it’s wrong that, for some people, he became less than human, a played-out joke, a beast that America could laugh at. The way he spoke was mocked. There’s a way to look at how his behavior was rooted in his life and experience and understand where it came from. But what's worse is to look at that behavior and turn the person who did it into an animal.

He kept it up for a long time. When did Brown begin to feel the physical effects of years of onstage abuse on his body?
His midsection you see it, his knees you see it, especially when he came out of prison. He was kind of changed man physically. You see it a lot in the shows during the last two years where a lot of sexy women walking across the stage holding American flags. Turns out, when James did the splits, a woman was supposed to walk in front of him with a flag so that he could get back up and not have it look embarrassing. It totally worked, but if you watch those shows for awhile, you realize, ‘Okay, that’s what’s going on.’ He was definitely taking those short cuts with the knees and the splits.

But he’s still doing splits at 73 years old! And playing eighty-one shows a year!
Yep. He was still giving it everything he had.

Your sections on Brown’s relationship to the various incarnations of the Civil Rights movement makes for a complex read. He really seemed like Candide or Malcolm McDowell’s character in O Lucky Man! in that he’s in the bubble of his classic road show and sort of keeps accidentally bumping up into this other road show that will eventually, inevitably involve him.
Civil Rights sort of fell on him, and he had to rise to the occasion – much more than Northerners like Sam Cooke or Clyde McPhatter, who had a position staked out that they were out in front of. Brown was behind it at first, but found himself trying to figure out a course for himself that would be honest and righteous and lucrative. He was treading water for awhile there, but the guy was so ambitious, he kept rising to the challenge in his own way, getting big audiences, giving his opinions on things when people asked, he did interesting records like “Say It Out Loud”…Would he have done that record if he didn’t feel he had to “feed the machine”? In some ways that’s what that record is about – he was expected to have an opinion and he was getting pressure from all sides. He really believed it though, which is why that record is so insanely great.

And yet it came right after “America is My Home,” which you note is more like those stilted right- wing songs of the late ‘60s like Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” or Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.”
It’s not a great track, but it’s not a bad one either. He was trying. He loved what America meant to him, that was his love poem to it, and it allowed him to be sort of critical of the Vietnam War protests, which he never really fully accepted. He was never going to be directly critical of the antiwar movement, but he wasn’t going to join the protests either. He went to Vietnam and entertained the troops. That was his part.

He could be so eloquent on the subject of race, but always addressed it from a personal level, which anyone could understand. There’s that scene in the film When We Were Kings where he’s sitting around with Muhammad Ali, Lloyd Price and Don King. He says very quietly, “Treat someone the way you’d want them to treat you” or something like that. There was no ego or flash there, just a black man sitting on a couch in Africa, laying it all out very simple.
He gave a lot interviews where he gave his stock answers or ignored questions that bored him, but once in a while, when the camera was on him, he would say very simple and very cool things like that. Later his life, he started giving interviews when, I’m sorry to say, he sounds pretty high. But he also said some revealing things that he normally wouldn’t have said. The truth came out on occasion. There’s an incredible interview online that Brown did with Michael Tilson Thomas and there’s some amazing, poetic passages in there, speaking about what “The One” means and other things. It’s still all over the map, but there’s some deep stuff in there. In the end, you can't deny the man was a poet.

Monday, March 19, 2012

THE JAMES BROWN MIXTAPE: A Conversation with RJ Smith (Pt. 1)

Between 2007 and last week, the music journalist RJ Smith all but disappeared. His columns vanished from Los Angeles magazine, where he is a senior editor, as well as Blender and Spin, where he is a columnist and contributor. He was not seen on panels at the L.A. Times Book Festival or in the audience at readings at Skylight Books or Vroman’s. Only three possibilities were afoot. Smith was either: (a) dead, (b) moved, or (c) working on a book.

Turns out it was “C.” And not just any book – Smith was tackling the meaty topic of James Joseph Brown, the colossus of American Soul, Funk and R&B. What lay ahead for Smith was what lay ahead for Pete Guralnick when he tackled the topic of Elvis Presley: How do you begin to approach such an iconic figure with new eyes? Guralnick wound up with two volumes on Presley, but Smith manages to get the essence of the Godfather of Soul, his times and his music in just 388 pages, an experience that feels like an epic – as Brown’s long career was – but a compact one. Nothing seems to have been left out even though you know something has.

What is here is embossed with a richness of detail and a deep-focus eye on Brown's place in musical and cultural history. The familiar, larger-than-life figure of JAMES BROWN in all his guises emerges anew from the fog of competing perceptions and decades of marbled worship. Well, of course, he doesn’t just emerge from Smith's prose, he shimmies out on one foot, does a split, kicks the mike stand over and pulls it back up with the mike cord, then does a spin, all the while screaming in his gritty, bracing voice while his pompadour gleams in the lights, “Bayyyyyyyy-BAHHHHH!!!” Then he tells David Susskind to pound sand.

All of it had roots, which is one of about 100 different revelations Smith unearths about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. We sat down on the day The One: The Life and Music of James Brown was released to talk with RJ about the biographical topic of his – or anyone’s – lifetime.

The one on The One: RJ Smith

THE BEAST: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
RJ SMITH: Jesus, I felt the guy’s weight on me all the time. I did this interview this morning where the interviewer said, “I’m sure you’re already working on your next book, probably about Lady Gaga?” I was like, “No, you don’t understand; there is no topic after James Brown." [laughter] I’m sure I’ll another book. I have no idea what that will be, but James Brown you could spend your life writing about…You can’t follow him, on stage or as a subject. Here’s a guy who was so much bigger than life and so incredibly creative. You admire him and fear him and feel he’s a true genius. I figured I’d better get it right. I felt that a lot.

A lot of biographers talk about the sort of anxiety-slash-letdown over finishing such an epic topic, much less starting one…
Yeah, I did feel that a bit. Now that the book is out, people I couldn’t get to talk call me and say, “I can do the interview now.” I mean, I want to do it. I can’t put it in the book but still want to talk to them. I feel like Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff. Eventually I’ll hit the ground, but I’m already over the cliff, so…

How did you begin to approach the truckloads material that’s out there?
I started with a chronology, every piece of data with a date attached to it that I could come up with, all the major events, and work from there. Collect everything. Every scrap and clipping I could find. I had some kind of rough road map of where I thought the story would go, and then a list of all the names to be contacted. Even before you get your homework done you gotta start reaching out to these people because it could take months before someone says 'yes' or 'no' or even if you’ve got the right number. Or you call up someone and they, “Sure, let’s do it right now” and your like, “Uhhh, I was hoping October…” You gotta jump, man, you gotta jump.

What came as the biggest surprise to you about James Brown?
Just learning what it was like to be around the guy. What’s great is that everybody I talked to, whether they were close to Brown or not or whether they wanted to talk or not, had at least five great stories that only they had, because he was so great at being ‘James Brown' and deciding what he needed from people and what he would do to get it. Everyone had a great story, and they also weren’t clearly telling me everything they knew, I could tell. Maybe they weren’t pretty things, maybe they were messy things, but to see what it was like to be that close to him…You figure that someone that amazing and gifted must be fun to be around and he wasn’t always so fun. One of the things Bootsy Collins said he dreaded was after a show a message would come back to him: “James wants you to hang tonight. You’re flying on his plane.”

That’s a BAD thing?
Apparently, nothing good would happen. [laughter] Because you’d be stuck with him, and it wasn’t a two-way conversation; it was a one-way speech about how great he was and you had no opinions. You were just there to be his audience. And you could only screw it up. All you could do was say something to make him mad at you or make him fine you. You weren’t going to get anything good out of it. And you definitely weren’t getting laid that night!

That’s weird to hear someone like Bootsy say that. In your book, you really center in on how Bootsy’s generation of sidemen basically told Brown to “fuck off” with his fines. They were actually young and dumb enough to challenge his authority.
Yeah. Bootsy just figured out what worked for the people who survived the longest with Brown: You had to be willing to walk away at any time, to not depend on him for your life or your livelihood. Bootsy was always like, ‘Hey, I can go back to Cincinnati and play the bars and I’d be fine.’ He’s in his twenties when he joins Brown’s band, so what the hell, right? If you thought Brown was your ticket to stardom, you eventually realized the only way you were going to be a star is if you left Brown. He had his featured players like Maceo [Parker], but he would always end up competing with you.

But he’d make sure to call them out onstage or on record when he liked what they were doing: ‘Maceo, Brutha!’ ‘Bootsy, jam!’ ‘Hit me, Fred!’
Yeah, he could made you a star that way, by just saying your name. Like for the rest of his life, when people meet Fred Wesley, they’re gonna yell out ‘Hit me, Fred!’ [laughter]

There are so many mythic, fabulist-type tales that surround Brown – like the part in the book where Brown and Bobby Byrd meet by literally colliding on the baseball field in the reformatory – that seem too good to be true. How did you approach the problem of separating truth from fiction?
I tried to have a few people that seemed like decent arbiters, who I could run stories by and see if they matched up. Like this guy, Alan Leeds, who was Brown’s road manager [1971-73] and went on to work for Prince, Chris Rock and D’Angleno. Amazing guy! He sees the big picture. He’s also a writer – he wrote the liner notes for [the box set] Star Time. Alan’s got a basement full of old contracts and tour lists and amazing photos, all this documentation of his time with Brown.

Did he let you go through his archives?
No, he shared his stories with me but not the archives. It’s complicated, but he helped immensely and I am insanely grateful. But there are at least three categories of Brown stories. There are the ones that are too good to be true, so you have to find the truth. If it doesn’t pass the smell test for you, chances are someone will write a letter after the book is published or someone in the family will come back and say, “I can tell you why you got it wrong.” Sometimes it sounds good but it doesn’t feel good. Then there are the ones you can check…Bobby Byrd [Brown's co-vocalist in the Famous Flames] is a perfect example. He gave tons of interviews over the years about Brown and was really generous with his time, but his memory was not great. He told stories to five different people in five different versions of a story, and it’s impossible to know in those early days something like, “Did [Brown’s] gospel group come before the Flames?” or “Who was in the Flames at such and such time?” You can get an approximation, but Byrd changed his stories over the years because he was trying to remember them, decades after the fact. Then there are the ones that are really good that you’ll never know the truth of and sometimes you go with a couple of them if they’re entertaining, but not if they’re Holy Writ. For example, some people say he and the Flames recorded a gospel single before “Please Please Please”…It’s been in print, but no one’s ever come up with that record and no one’s ever proved it, so I wasn’t going to put it in. You have to make calls like that.

One of the many fascinating parts about Brown’s early years was the area he grew up in along the Georgia-South Carolina border, which was almost like a Black Appalachia. Did you find any indication that Brown’s absorbed any influences from the pre-electric, rural music that was played there?
I think those traditions haven’t been documented that much, the unique sounds of “Affrilacia,” as they called it. I think part of it was the mix of music and culture of that region that informed him early on. The blues weren’t really big in that area; it came later because of the geographic isolation. In those house parties that were around when Brown was there, in Toccoa [Georgia] and those mountainous areas, they might have a blues tune, a gospel tune, a ragtime tune—a lot of different music at those parties. I think Brown absorbed that mix, that idea of entertainment and what it meant to be an entertainer. You had to give your audience a lot of different things to find your way in. You couldn’t stay with any one thing for too long. You see that a lot in the early Famous Flames records.

You write a lot in the book about Brown’s complicated relationship with his adopted hometown of Augusta, Georgia, which sort of reminded me of Memphis, Tennessee’s relationship with Elvis or Hernando, Mississippi’s relationship with Jerry Lee Lewis. These places were very protective of their musical celebs, which inevitably led to them kicking up dust and causing trouble.
Augusta was Home. Brown wanted to live there the rest of his life. He lived in New York for much of the ‘60s, but in the ‘70s he was back in Augusta. It was complicated. It was definitely a racist place – not the most or least in the South, but definitely a contender. He could definitely feel the love from the town every time he went out of the house. I mean, you could walk down the street and see James Brown pumping gas or run into him at the music store. How awesome would that be? But also in Augusta he could do stuff that would get a lot of attention if he did it in New York or L.A. and people would let it slide. Brown was definitely a Southerner – that was a big revelation for me. I mean, I’m from Detroit, I’ve lived in the north and the west all my life, so my observations can only be somewhat limited, but it’s really clear to me, to the degree that you can separate out being a black man in the south from being a Southerner, he really felt both those things in different ways and I don’t know which one came first. I mean, he was great friend of Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater! On a personal level he connected with those guys. Thurmond was one of the great Southern racists of my life, certainly of the last half-century, but I expect they understood where each other was coming from. I think Brown felt more comfortable with white Southern guys than with white Northern guys. “I know where I stand with Strom Thurmond whereas the white guy in the north will say all the right things to me and then short me a hundred bucks.” In a way, I think he felt that white Southerners were more honest.

Strange, then, that Brown and Jimmy Carter did not get along. Why couldn’t he find common ground with a white liberal Democrat from his home state?
Carter kept his distance from Brown. He doesn’t sound like that sociable of a guy to begin with. Carter doesn’t seem like a guy who returns calls and sends ‘thank you’ card and writes back when you write him. And that meant a lot to Brown. If your were the President, and you just respond to a letter from James Brown with something your aide wrote, you’re his friend for life. Even Reagan knew that.

And he loved Reagan! He called him “my number one cowboy.” Brown’s relationship with politics and politicians across both parties – especially those mind-boggling sections on him and Richard Nixon – is so complicated and yet so simple: pure pragmatism. Syd Nathan [Brown's boss at King Records] was the same way. Do you think Brown absorbed Nathan’s lessons on the bottom line and applied to his political affiliations?
That’s a good point. Certainly on a level of pure capitalism, Brown and Nathan were on the same page. Brown saw it first hand watching Nathan run King Records: good business led to good cultural practices. Syd Nathan wasn’t a racist, but he wasn’t a Civil Rights firebrand either. He didn’t care. It didn’t make sense to him not to make money every possible way he could. Who even knew if he voted? It’s an old-school principle that we now we think it began with rap music, the idea of staying in the community, developing the community, being the source of all social good, the concept of “giving back.” Rappers are always policed for the degree they do this, by fans and other rappers…but taking care of your community is part of what being politically ‘right on’ is about, that means investing in black businesses, lending money to friends and family, having an entourage on your payroll.

“Individual accomplishment reflected the whole community,” I think, is what you write in the book... Yeah, but to run a good business and make a lot of money – is that Liberal or Conservative? Its both!

It’s American!
Yeah! That’s why Brown ultimately differed from the Black Panthers and so many of those groups, he always emphasized their points of agreement, but he was very critical of Black Nationalists and people who thought they could create a system outside of capitalism or a white majority. His view was, ‘That’s what we’ve got now and we have to work within that, right or wrong.’

You mentioned rap music, which is almost unthinkable without James Brown. But reviewing the man’s life, there is so much about it that was prototypical: the threats against the DJs in Philly; being criticized for being “insufficiently black”; the endless series of singles he cut in just hours; the entourages, the guns, the bling, his early lyric about “no squealin.” The man’s entire life -- not just his music -- was a blueprint for hip-hop!
Would there be hip hop without James Brown? Probably, but it would be a much narrower niche. He was really hard-wired into the whole street-culture thing…like when he was living in New York in the mid-60s and the Flames recorded the song “Try Me,” and a guitar player was telling me that “Try Me” was this street expression when you were trying to hit on a woman -- "Hey baby, try me" -- so that song was meant to piggyback on slang term of the time that hip guys and their girls would know. Certainly by the 1960s, with records like “Cold Sweat” and “Out of Sight,” he’s hanging out, he’s listening to this stuff that guys are saying on the corner, he’s pulling it out and using it.

Like reportage, or, as you call it in the book, "mash notes from the id."
One amazing thing about James Brown to me was that you could write about Cuban roots or Latin music and how it overlaps with what he was doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s – you can hear it in “Cold Sweat,” for example. Certainly when he played in Africa, it made sense because he was bringing something back home. I think Brown listened to African records more than he let on. He pretended it was all “James Brown music,” but he paid attention with his ears wherever he went. And, in a way, it was all James Brown. He didn’t have available to him a lot of African records – no like we do now – he just connected with the ideas at the roots of that tradition of music making, because it was in him.

One of the great experiences of this book is watching Brown construct, bit by bit, the persona he would eventually hit the world with. To me it was like watching Batman Begins and seeing how Bruce Wayne pieces his costume together. Brown takes the hair from Little Richard, the cape act from the wrestler Gorgeous George, the dance steps from the clubs and the streets, the rigorous military precision of his act from his early stint in prison...It’s strange: he’s a true original and yet he borrowed from everyone, even gay carnival culture!
What I had never heard before about Brown was, early on in his career, when he’s got his own band finally in the late ‘50, early ‘60s, he’s got the money to keep them on the road and he’s refining this multi-faceted stage show where the band is becoming self-contained. They did a set playing covers and instrumentals before Brown even got out there. But Brown is in the audience, watching people, listening to what they’re saying, studying what they’re wearing, taking in all the dance steps from Miami or Cleveland and then doing those steps the very next night on stage. I get that. I never thought of that before.

It was total D.I.Y.! In fact, that whole world of the Chitlin Circuit and the early labels like King and Peacock, it reminded me of the indie labels of today but just with more people getting ripped off.
Yeah, on all sides. [laughter]

[Tune in Wednesday for the conclusion of our interview, where we get into Brown’s unlikely influence on post-punk, the strange sub-career of James Brown organ instrumentals, and why the song titles got so long in the ‘70s.]

Thursday, March 8, 2012

THE L.A. RELAY: Spirit-Jazz in Encino → Improvised Orgy in Eagle Rock

We haven’t done an L.A. Relay in quite awhile. Why? Because it’s exhausting and stressful for the Beast. But occasionally there are two things happening at far ends of the L.A. basin on the same day and we feel compelled to make them both.

First off, was a prototype set from the chamber ensemble calling themselves Masters of the Ark playing in the Encino living room of author and jazz enthusiast Mimi Melnick. (Check out one of our past reviews of a Mimi salon here.) Led by multi-instrumentalist and bassoon-voiced cat Jesse Sharps, it was a sort of an informal, get-the-kinks-out performance designed to raise funds for an upcoming music, dance and poetry retrospective of Horace "Papa" Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra. Introductions were made by Tapscott's son-in-law Michael Dett-Wilcots and granddaughter Raisha, current heads of the project and one of the curators of the voluminous archives left behind by the late pianist's arts collective UGMAA (The Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension). Wilcots explained that Tapscott tasked him with preserving the history of this influential underground jazz movement. “I’ve always been down there at the bottom of the pyramid, layin’ the bricks of the foundation," he smiled. "I wasn’t upfront, like Papa, or Jesse, so I’m shakin’in my shoes right now. But we’re here to try to raise enough money to get the party goin'.”

[photo by Mrs. Beast]

Assembled in the living room was a gold-label ensemble and the place was standing room only. (Thank God for a warm day and an outdoor patio.) There was Roberto Miguel Miranda on bass, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Sharps on various woodwinds and Cornell Fauler (replacing Don Littleton) on drums. In the piano seat of Bobby West sat his last-minute replacement, Grammy Award-winner Billy Childs (!!), an apt choice to tackle not just the complex classically-inflected music of Tapscott, but the various players’ own tributes to the late pianist and bandleader. Among the highlights was Miranda’s “Horacio” (written when the bassist was just 19), a Latin-tinged blast of California breeze and vista let loose in its intricate melodies. Atwood-Ferguson continued to prove himself a mercurial new talent on the L.A. scene by bringing a muscular vitality to his solos, bending his knees as he soloed like an Olympic swimmer launching off a diving board. (He really pushes his instrument like an Olympic coach to be sure.) Sharps and Miranda brought the wood (excuse the expression): Miranda plucking deep oaken notes from the bass while Sharp imitated drunken wood sprites with his wooden mini-flute.

Jesse Sharps and the back of Jeannette Lindsay's head
[photo by Mrs. Beast]

During the first song, if you could tilt your head just so, you could hear guest vocalist (and fellow Tapscott grad) Dwight Trible doing vocal warm-ups in the bedroom. Trible joined the ensemble for “I've Known Rivers” off his new album Cosmic. Childs unfurled a glistening wave of glissando while Atwood-Ferguson kept a single impossibly high note quavering in the air like a lightbeam, pushing Childs to take a surprisingly spare solo, more Bill Evans than Oscar Peterson. After a ballad sung by Trible, Sharps announced that this small group would tackled a complex, multi-part suite “Dem Folks," which: (a) was meant to be performed by a big orchestra; (b) hadn’t been performed since 1995; and (c) had three pages missing from the score. Okay then. "Folks" proved a ball-busting, time-changing Golem of a piece that contained at least five different streams simultaneously, including a slo-blues drag, an Army band march, European modernism and a bit of West African polyrhythm. (Sharps later told the Beast that it took the band two 6-hour sessions to master it all.) Sharps took a thundering soprano sax solo, running up and down the scales like a mouse trying to find an opening, and Childs followed with a hammering solo that matched Sharps’ in intensity. When it was all done 9and done successfully), Sharps reflected: “Classical and jazz is the same kind of music to me.”

We bowed out of the second set to grab a bite and make it over to the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts for the Open Gate Theater’s 15th Anniversary celebration, hosted by OGT artistic director Will Salmon and drummer Alex Cline. Originally started on Saturday nights in 2000 at the Pasadena American Legion Hall (first show: guitarist G.E. Stinson’s A Thousand Other Names), the monthly concert and performance series of mostly European and avant garde-influenced improvised music has been through at least four different locations before finding a comfortable (and supportive) nest in Eagle Rock. In his brief opening remarks, Cline addressed the issue of the constant tug to bail out on this monumental pain in the ass (he has to schlep his gear up from Culver City) by simply stating, “We are basically stuck in our ways.” He also reached out to anyone in the crowd for the status of trombonist Bruce Fowler, who apparently suffered either a heart attack or a stroke the week past—a comment on the scattered world of L.A. musicians if there ever was one.

[photo by Mrs. Beast]

But there were 25 other very talented people who had graced the OGT stage over the years assembled in a sort of in-the-round fashion -- the “round” being the audience, as one could turn one's head in any direction and see someone standing before a musical stand holding some sort of musical vessel. Often, the musicians were in the audience and would only reveal themselves by sliding out of a chair and taking their designated station when de facto conductor Cline would point. (Mrs. Beast mused: “Every time he walks through the audience, I'm afraid he’s going to point at me and I'll gave to go up and play something.”) The key phrase of this eve, in Cline's words, was "a whole lot of whatever happens.”

“Whatever” began with a twosome of Cline on varying percussion and Salmon on flute amd occasional Native American-informed chanting, followed by Salmon reading a poem by Rainer Maria-Rilke with Cline making a rare step from behind the drums to play autoharp and the delicate timbre of a Chinese pipa played by Bay Area transplant Jie Ma. Cline then summoned Japanese vocal sculpturist Kaoru, six-string bassist Steuart Liebig, percussionists Brad Dutz and Joe Berardi, keyboardist Wayne Peet and live electronicist Tim Perkis to the fore, and simple and unrelated sounds began mutating like the Stuxnet virus. Here one could watch the music grow from a paramecium to a full-bore animal, able to focus only on part of the grand tableau as it unfolded: Vinny Golia announcing his presence with a squealing sax skronk; Dan Clucas standing behind a white pillar and blasting one of his citrus-sour solos; William Roper in a suit and tie shoving a water bottle down the bell of his tuba (and later launching into an insane rant about pirates); Cline and Alan Cook looking like happy drum circlers as they pounded their eclectic traps; young 'uns like Tom McNalley bending notes like Carlos Santana and Charles Sharp answering with an ornery sax break. It was akin to, well, a 1970s key party sans wall-to-wall shag and wood panelling: four bassists in a thunderous circle, two saxes going at it while an accordion and a flute watched, a tuba and an accordion doing it doggy style...ahem, yes, well. It was good.*

After this cornucopia of Wacky, a chair was placed at the center of the hall for poetess Dorothea Grossman, a frequent collaborator with many of the musicians assembled. They responded to her  Jewish Emily Dickinson-in-L.A short poems (“25,000 Clams – that’s what I got a Pismo Beach”; “Sky-colored ocean, ocean colored sky -- I’ll have more beach, please”; “[Allen Ginsberg] looks nervous, like any good holy man who knows its almost over”) with blatting and raucous responses. The finale was truly grand: Salmon directing the entire ragged-but-right ensemble (with cards marked '1A,' '2E,' '7B') while reciting a "seafaring epic poem based on the life of Captain Kidd.” Like we said, wacky. Here’s to another 15 years!

*Go here for our pal Greg Burk's similarly porn-themed account of the Open Gate show.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

LIVE REVIEW: The Watts Prophets & Tim Berne's Snakeoil

This week the Beast treated ourselves to two consecutive nights that, taken together, are examples of what makes live-music alternatives in L.A. so thrilling—but also so disorienting. We walked two separate worlds that were joined by only the thinnest of connective tissue: music, jazz, improvisation, freedom, protest, community.

The first was the momentous two-night return of the Watts Prophets, the pioneering trio of urban wordsmiths who all cut their eloquent teeth at the legendary Watts Writers Workshop of the late 1960s. (Started by Budd Schulberg, a Jewish screenwriter, the Workshop was an example of what can be accomplished in the city due to "unnatural alliances.") What the Beast found odd was there was nary a mention of these shows in the mainstream L.A. press. Was this not a bit of indelible L.A. musical and cultural history returned intact? (I mean, all of the original Prophets are still alive and grandfatherin’, is that not an accomplishment in itself?)

Despite the location of a venue in Inglewood that was virtually unseen from the street behind a parking lot, the event mimicked in some weird (and intentional?) way the Academy Awards that were happening two nights later. There was a photo/press station, large round tables with reserved place settings, a check-in table, a red carpet and flashing camera bulbs. (Everyone was dressed to the nines, which reminded the Beast that every time we go south of the I-10, we must dress better than a hungover video store clerk.) Even an introductory poet wondered about what happens to all of the “meat” from celebrity nose jobs—something Billy Crystal wouldn’t have had the balls to say. (Chris Rock, maybe…) One does wish the Oscars could begin this way: “Can we have permission from an elder to speak?”

After a brief tribute to the recently passed Gil Scott-Heron, an award was handed out to Raspoet Ojenke, another Workshop grad. A fuzz-bearded shaman in African garb, the poet recently suffered a stroke and was wheeled up to the stage by woodwindist friend Jesse Sharps. (Both men worked with Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra.) Referred to as “the John Coltrane of poetry,” Ojenke received his award and smiled. “This is one of the rare times when I am void of words” he said just before proving himself wrong by telling the crowd, “May the light of the Most High continue to penetrate your forehead." (Yeah!) Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets (New York’s answer to the WP) stepped onstage and subtly – if good-naturedly – teased the locals with a story of his trip to L.A. in the late ‘60s when he watched the LAPD raid an entire city block (“I realized for the first time: California is a police state!”) before launching into a poem called “Fake Eyelashes.” He finished with one of the Last Poets’ “hits,” the Coleridgean epic “N*ggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Part stand-up comedy, part street rant, part call to arms, the song is packed with many devastating lines that still burn, including “N*ggers love everybody but themselves.”

The Prophets: Otis O'Solomon (in sunglasses),
Father Amde Hamilton & Richard Dedeaux
[photo courtesy of Still Waters]

After a brief documentary film clip, where the likes of DJ Quik, DJ Shadow, Horace Tapscott, Rita Marley and the Dust Brothers sang their influence, the Prophets took the stage to a Standing O. Although grayed a bit, the old lions came on feisty and peppery, launching into the ecologically minded “Hey World” from their 1997 comeback album And Then the 90s Came. Their set also included the cheeky “Up To Me, Up To You” [sic] and a hilarious rant about cyberspace (“The Internet will set every man free…but when has a net set anything free?”) mixed with older favorites like the Nixon-era paranoia of “Everybody Watches” and the whimsical future shock of “Funny How Things Can Change.” The Beast was hoping for edgier material like “Black Pussy,” “Fucked” or “Kill” but this was not back in the day, and things once raw and shocking have been absorbed into our polite company. “Yep, I got a thug in the family,” admitted one of the poets. “Just like we all have a junkie in the family.”

What intrigued the Beast were the differences in the styles of the Poets and the Prophets. (Both shared L.A. stages at least twice, in 1969 and the mid-1990s.) Both specialize in sparking worldplay, but the former’s cadences are grittier and funkier, the obvious precursor to we now call Slam Poetry. The Prophets seemed more like a vaudeville act with brains, mixing their voices in comical calls and responses, leaning more heavily on puns and sound effects (making wind noises for the line “The world’s become so cold”), evoking the badinage of a trio of elders on the corner laughing about baggy pants and boxy hairstyles. Their link to rap, it seemed, came from the way all three would hit the last word of a phrase in unison, a practice so ingrained in modern hip hop as to have already been a cliché by 1990. But the Prophets and the Poets got there first – and that was the point of the whole evening.

In the Belly of the Whale: Snakeoil
[photo courtesy of Mary Keaton]

The next night we bopped over to Little Tokyo the following night to see another outlier, Tim Berne. The sold-out show and 45-minute long wait outside the Blue Whale proved Berne still has a lot of L-O-V-E in the Southland. (In the late '70s, the hulking, frizz-haired and frequently unshaven saxophonist was one of the first New York free players to reach out to L.A’s improvised music community when he was making his first records.) Berne was making the West Coast debut of his new bassless quartet Snakeoil, which just released its debut on ECM. And it was typical of Berne to open with a song that’s NOT on the new album. “Cornered” is a tune from Berne's 2011 collaboration with double bassist Bruno Chevillion, and started out with powerhouse player Oscar Noriega shucking jagged, halting melodies from his bass clarinet (not a mean feat). Berne lit into this musical bed with all sorts of whimsical tricks, squeezing out dog-whistle tones before sucking them back up the horn bell, then spitting them back out like kettle-steam in weird and challenging forms. With the song’s constant swings and dips, we thought this might be considered “Math Jazz.” (Punk-influenced drummer Ches Smith’s playing reminded us of Don Caballero's Damon Che.) Just as they got into the groove of a ten-minute vamp, the band abruptly STOPPED. They did this a few more times during the evening, and the jar felt through the crowd was always palpable.

Next up was “Spectacle,” a showpiece from the new album and a somewhat maddening exercise that relied on the drummer to hold things in place rather than propel them forward. Right when this was starting to get worrisome, Berne took off into a glorious Coltrane-esque solo, with all of the length and breadth that reference implies. Was it too expansive for a capacity crowd packed like sardines in this small club? Probably. If people left between the two sets, it was because Berne & Co. flogged them with so much workout sweat they needed to recluse themselves to sane oxygen. But regardless of this, Snakeoil molded and sculpted a rocking and listing treehouse of noise, with Berne and Noriega drawn close in a drunken atonal sway.

[photo courtesy of Marissa Calille]

The last piece was another not-on-the-new-album oddity, “Adobe Probe” (also the title of Berne’s septet with Snakeoil pianist Matt Mitchell). Berne and Noriega blew an unholy gale while Smith and Mitchell kept a marching-band-on-Oxycontin groove, and Mitchell’s Middle Eastern spiced piano really shined as a lyrical stopgap amidst all this chaos. After twelve minutes, both band and audience both needed a drink. For the second set, Snakeoil plastered the crowd with a mere two epics, “The Closer” and “Sketches of Pain,” the sum of which ran longer than the first set—and neither on the new album. The Beast made way for people stuck out in the waiting line, but during the second set, as our friend Greg Burk related, people were looking at one another, going “What does he think this is, New York?” Welcome Back, Mr. B.

[To read Greg Burk's take on Snakeoil’s performance, go here.]