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.

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