Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ANGEL CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2012: Let The Music Take You

Shepp Sings!
[all photos courtesy of Myles Regan]

On Sunday night, two sort-of uptight ladies (in the jazz parlance of yesteryear: “moldy figs”) are sitting eating from plastic clam shells filled with chicken salad next to one of those giant open ‘EXIT’ doors at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Onstage, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s quintet is taking a pause while their baby-faced drummer Justin Brown is introducing himself to the open-jawed crowd with a thunderous, extended drum solo that’s half Art Blakey, half Speed Metal. The lunching ladies seem stunned frozen with their sporks by the four-armed ferocity of Brown's attack. Then, one slowly gets up and walks slowly towards the open door as if transfixed. And closes it.

There was so much music spilling out of every crevice of the Ford Amphitheatre on the Angel City Jazz Festival’s third day of celebrating modern jazz Artists and the Legends who inspired them that one might have be tempted to find an Exit just to catch one’s breath. (Read our account of the second night at REDCAT here.) But even outside the theatre on Edison Plaza there was music, a collection of smaller combos under the banner of Gary Fukishima's L.A. Jazz Collective. The only answer? Submit.

Vardan Ovsepian, Damian Erskine, Peter Erskine

The concert started out like a fox in the late-afternoon, perfect-for-a-picnic-basket sunshine with a new trio led by ex-Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine with his bassist nephew Damian Erksine and pianist Vardan Ovsepian, who unfurled songs from their new CD Joy Luck, including a subtle and slippery cover of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for the 1950s TV show Dr. Kildare. Ovsepian, alongside Tigran Hamasayan, is part of an interesting trend of fierce young Armenian jazz pianists; both splice in dissonant tones alongside breathtaking waves of classical lyricism and a scent of Eastern Europe folk traditions (i.e., gypsy angst). Erskine The Younger took brief guitar-like solos with his custom Skjold electric bass that recalled Jaco Pastorius’ more restrained moments. At the end of the set, Erskine The Elder called out a ‘Happy Birthday’ to the great Chicago drummer “Papa Joe” Jones.

Mr. Arco: Mark Dresser

The performances grew with intensity as the hills behind the stage grew dark and the stage lights conjured up long shadows on the rock walls. Next up was a quintet led by double-bass guru Mark Dresser, up from his teaching gig at UC San Diego. Throughout the band’s opening salvo – an exotic segue of “Digestivo” into “Telemojo” followed by “Rasaman” – Dresser executed stinging slides up and down his double-bass bass neck that intertwined with the spindly, sandpapery sounds of Denman Maroney’s “hyperpiano.” (Essentially a grand piano tricked out to be played on almost every surface.) Dresser had pulled saxophonist/clarinetist Marty Ehrlich back from New York, and along with special guest Legend (and former teacher of both men) Bobby Bradford, relived their Pomona College glory days back in the early 1970s playing in the ad-hoc free jazz collective Black Music Infinity with Stanley Crouch. They paid tribute to Bradford with a tempo rubato take on the cornetist’s “Comin’ On” and “BBJC,” a song dedicated to Bradford’s late musical partner, clarinetist John Carter from Dresser’s 1994 “Castles for Carter” suite. Ehrlich might have been the only clarinetist one could think of (Ben Goldberg a close second) who could match Carter’s infamous high-pitch, warped-NOLO clarinet runs.

Dresser, Mr. Bradford, Michael Dessen
The next quintet was a perfect example of men working apart together. The sax-trumpet duo of Ambrose Akinmusire and Walter Smith III played their melodies in tight tandem, like the close and telekinetic interplay of Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard from the Jazz Messengers or even that of Shorter and Miles Davis in Davis’ mid-60’s quintet. Akinmusire performed just two songs from from his critically lauded 2011 CD When The Heart Emerges Glistening in favor of new material. (The kid's young; he's probably written four songs by the time you read this) He stood behind the band during the solos before stepping up to deliver a trumpet sound that aped Davis’ short lyrical bursts while retaining Clifford Brown’s metric complexity – but with a sharp, piercing toreador tone that brined with new ideas all his own.
Ambrose Akinmusire, Harish Raghaven, Walter Smith III

The headliner, promethean New York saxophonist Archie Shepp, hadn’t graced an L.A. stage since 1986, and he seemed to be re-acclimating himself as he sat patiently on his stool for at least ten minutes while he and the band tweaked the sound engineers with twists of their fingers and quick nods. Looking like a Kansas City hepcat in a loose-fitting blue-grey suit with long coat and matching fedora, Shepp extended a hand (or maybe a middle finger) to the hometown crowd with “Hope 2,” a song dedicated to the late, under-appreciated pianist Elmo Hope, who decamped from New York to L.A. in 1957 when he lost his cabaret card -- only to return four years later when he found L.A. too creatively frustrating. When Shepp soloed, on could hear the collective sigh, Ah, there it is. Shepp, leaning back on his perch, played deep oakbarrel yawps on his tenor sax. And then, depending on who you later asked, something quite extraordinary happened.

Akinmusire, Avery Sharpe, Shepp

Shepp was known back in the ‘60s and ‘70s for his turgid, Afrocentric “fire music,” his outspoken (and often profane) criticisms of American racism and his unforgettable 1965 appearance on the free-jazz Rosetta stone, John Coltrane’s Ascension. (He once composed a song about Malcolm X titled “Rufus (Swung His Face at Last to the Wind, Then His Neck Snapped)”.) Yet, with a swingin’ backup more suited to the Cotton Club, Shepp popped his sax back in its holder, took the mike, stepped off the stool, and began to sing Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” snapping his fingers, digging in with ribald growls in a deep baritone halfway between blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon and Clint Eastwood’s favorite jazz singer Johnny Hartman, getting the crowd into the act for the first time all day. He did it again with a Billy Strayhorn ballad. (Apparently, he’s been singing a lot in concert lately.) Despite the alternating expressions of joy and horror in the audience, Shepp was actually having fun. He was paying heed to his “Legends”—a deft bit of deflecting from the worship the crowd was read to unload on him.

But back to the Fire Music. Akinmusire and trumpet returned for a roiling “Ujaama,” where Shepp showed his “DJing” skills by splicing in quotes from “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Dizzy Gillespie into his BBQ-smoked solos while the young ‘un blew smeared (if abbreviated) whippoorwill tones. Then, Shepp brought everybody “back to the slavery times” when he asked drummer Steve McCraven, who was wearing leather pants, to come out from behind his kit and demonstrate the ancient “hambone” routine. Then he read poetry. Across the 101 at the Hollywood Bowl, the crowd erupted for Florence + the Machine.


As the Beast was getting ready to take our leave of the Ford, sad news quickly spread virally from a cellphone call from saxophonist/flautist Henry Threadgill in New York: Cornetist/composer Lawrence “Butch” Morris [pictured below] a Legend in his own right who with his brother Wilber came up through Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra and later went on to an esteemed career with saxophonist David Murray, has cancer. If you have any connection with Mr. Threadgill, he'd be the one to call or e-mail for aid/support/prayers/fundraising. (You can also try the 'Contact' page of Mr. Morris' website for inquiries.) If any of this information is incorrect, please contact us here or on FB so we can keep things accurate, updated and mindful of any unnecessary trauma to those most affected.

[photo of Butch Morris courtesy of Mark Weber]

Thanks. Prayers & Peace.


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