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"Guest Blogger": Kirk Silsbee

As part of our ongoing celebration of Crypto's 10th year in the red (ahem), we're featuring the writing of one Mr. Kirk Silsbee, who along with Greg Burk has been one of the deans of loCal jazz journalism for over 30 years. First up is "Livin' Large," a piece about the first rehearsals for Vinny Golia's Large Ensemble, which of course featured players who would go on to become part of the extended Crypto family. Enjoy!

Kirk Silsbee (right) presenting an award to Dr. Paul Martin, who treated Billy Higgins, at the Jazz Bakery in 2004
[photo by Skip Bolen]

by Kirk Silsbee

Twenty-four years ago in March, a group of fourteen musicians gathered in a church in the Valley on a smoggy Saturday afternoon. They were a disparate bunch, from different age groups, musical disciplines, and parts of the city. They looked at charts sketched out by a self-taught musician. It was multi-reed man Vinny Golia’s first venture leading a big band--his Large Ensemble—for its inaugural concert and the experience had its share of problems.

Saxophonist Gary Bias, who had committed to the concert at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, bowed out due to pressure from his boss, percussionist Willie Bobo. (Bias was replaced with Wynell Montgomery.) Clarinetist John Carter was diminished by a flu bug. Guitarist Nels Cline, who was written into the music, opted not to perform. At least one player--trumpeter John Fumo--had no prior knowledge of Golia’s music. Inexperience in writing for the accepted range of various instruments betrayed Golia and plagued his musicians. At one point, cornetist Bobby Bradford surveyed a particularly wide interval and spoke up. “Vinny, good lord! What is this?” He then muttered, “I’m gonna need a truss and some Preparation H to get through this thing.”

Golia’s music, while tilting toward 20th Century classical music--albeit with lots of improvisation--still had ties to traditional jazz pulses. The rhythm section discovered that Eric von Essen, though a marvelous contrabassist, was all at sea when called upon to play walking bass lines. Then there was the emergency appendectomy that Golia was in the process of recovering from. (He’d had to cancel a job in San Francisco because of it). Asked about his stitches after a rehearsal, Golia optimistically replied, “I played the baritone (saxophone) a week after the surgery and felt a little tug down there. Other than that, I feel fine.”

New York alto saxophonist Tim Berne was the most geographically far-flung participant. Though he’d met with indifference in New York, he’d been embraced by the L.A. new music players that made up the core of the Large Ensemble. As the instruments were being broken down after the initial three-and-a-half hour rehearsal, Berne touched a collective nerve when he playfully asked, “Is there anybody in this room who makes a living playing music?” It’s a question that Golia, who now teaches at Cal Arts, can affirmatively answer. Friday and Saturday’s Large Ensemble concerts at REDCAT represent perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Golia’s chosen path.

Vincent James, Jr.

That initial concert of the ever-expanding Large Ensemble, was a triumph. So is its continuing legacy. Not only for the self-actualizing Golia, but for the brave souls who have chosen to grapple with the technically difficult music. The Large Ensemble concerts (the conclaves only assemble for gigs) have been a focal point for cutting-edge music in Southern California. Gifted musicians from all over the country — and even other countries — have made first contact through Golia. Canadian cellist Peggy Lee was a stunning soloist at the Harbor College concert in ’96. Tuba player Eric Messerschmidt played blazing lines with the agility of a bebop trumpeter in ’87 at Hop Singh’s. Asked where he came from, Golia’s deadpan reply was, “He works at Disneyland.”

Golia’s writing is notorious for the way it defies the limitations of instruments and the people who play them. Fumo, who has played in most of the Large Ensemble concerts, recalls an early exchange with Golia. “He asked me, ‘How high can I write for you?’ I told him, ‘Anything you want.’” Fumo chuckles like a man on his way to the gallows as he adds, “Little did I know…”

The lore surrounding the Large Ensemble includes an exchange between tuba player William Roper and Golia. “Vinny,” complained Roper, manuscript in hand, “I can’t play this.” Golia tried to reassure him: “But I heard you play it once; I just wrote it out for you.” “Yeah,” Roper protested, “but there’s a difference between reading and playing.”

Saxophonist Bill Plake has been onboard since the ’91 concert at Harbor College. “What’s remained consistent through the years,” he observes, “is that the music is always very difficult to execute. A lot of what Vinny writes is beyond the normal capacity of the instrument. He’ll ask for a low G on a piccolo,” says Plake, shaking his head, “and it doesn’t exist.“

“Also,” he adds, “there’s never enough time to adequately prepare the music. But something happens in the performances,” as a slight look of disbelief creeps into Plake’s eyes, “and everything just seems to come together…somehow. I’ve heard (trombonist) Mike Vlatkovich—who is an amazing musician—play some of the most spectacular solos I’ve ever heard him play with the Large Ensemble. Vinny just has this way of getting people to step into the unknown.”

There was a time when postcards would mysteriously appear in musicians’ mailboxes, notifying them of Large Ensemble rehearsals. Those who showed up were automatically in. It was a risky process, one that amounted to a roll of the dice for the leader, who never quite knew what he’d have to work with. These days email significantly streamlines the process.

Golia sheds some light on his current selection process. “People find their ways into the Large Ensemble in a couple of ways,” he says. “Since I’ve been at Cal Arts, I’m around young players who come through Leo Smith’s program or through the jazz program. It’s a constant training ground and when I see someone who’s got something special, I wait for a spot to fit them in, whether it’s the Music For Like Instruments small groups or the Large Ensemble.”

“Then there are people,” he continues, “that I hear around town, like (reed player) Cory Wright. He’s one of these people who can just do anything. He’ll be filling in for Kim Richmond on alto sax this weekend, and that’s a big job. Then, people tell me about others, like Steve Adams, the saxophone player. I learned about him from (bassist) Ken Filiano.”

Some musicians identify an area of interest, then trane in and refine it over their careers. Golia, on the other hand, is an omnivore, and the Large Ensemble (40-some members as of this weekend; he’s unsure exactly) reflects that expanding curiosity. It took on a string section years ago and now sports a percussion phalanx. A distant goal is to link the band in performance with a standing orchestra like the L.A. Philharmonic. If it sounds unlikely and logistically impossible, don’t bet against Vinny.

Golia contends that he has complete recall when it comes to the many Large Ensemble concerts over the years. “I remember them all,” he smiles. “Most of the memories are good, like Don Cherry dancing down the aisle at Schoenberg when he had to leave early. Or Horace Tapscott playing 'Happy Birthday' on the piano for my 40th birthday concert.”

“I remember everything about the ’96 tour, up and down the coast. People signed on to that tour just to see what would happen. We drove up to Berkeley in a rented bus, unpacked and played an incredible concert. We got right back into the bus and drove straight through to Eugene.”

The sincerity in Golia’s voice is unmistakable when he considers what other musicians have given to his music and he says, “I’m very fortunate and very humbled by the Large Ensemble experience." (originally published in L.A. Citybeat, 3/30/06)

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