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ANGEL CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2009 DAY ONE: A 7-Hour Continuous Jazzgasm

The Gathering (from left): Michael Nash, Thomas Stones, Nick Rosen, Jesse Sharps, Ivan Cotton and Dwight Trible at the ACJF [photo courtesy of the L.A. Times]

The heat finally broke in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend—or “Festival Weekend” as the natives have come to know it. There were at least two other jazz festivals besides the Angel City Jazz Festival, including the West Coast Jazz Party and the Sweet & Hot Festival, but the one the ACJF most had a kinship with was Sean Carlson’s FYF Festival downtown. Both were marathon celebrations of liberating and cathartic sounds that have oozed up out of the primordial stew of the noise/
experimental/creative music undergrounds and have started to infiltrate the wider musical spectrum: think of FYF headliners No Age and their scruffy compatriots at The Smell being granted long appreciative essay in The New Yorker; or Smell alum/ACJF headliner Nels Cline’s tide of rapt worshipt by Wilco fandom, many of whom still don’t realize his career (like his brother Alex) has now hit it’s 30th year.

The fact that both concerts were staged a mere 20 miles apart at different outdoor venues on the same weekend makes one think of pretentious words like “zeitgeist” and “renaissance.” Yep, there is plenty of adventurous and rapturous music out there, and it make some think of what Allen Ginsberg said when he first heard Bob Dylan: “The future is in good hands.”

The Beast of course was there for all of it, and we tried vaingloriously to not treat it like a party. The two-day event became for us a series of constant diversions: on our way to the bathroom, or a smoke, or food, or drink, we ran into familiar faces and running conversations everywhere: writers Greg Burk, Kirk Silsbee (in snappy Panama hat and sunglasses, as usual working on 17 different articles simultaneously) and Phil “Brick” Wahl, KXLU radio host Michael Davis, a beaming Celia Tapscott with her granddaughter Raisha and son-in-law Michael Dett-Wilcots.


The festival were filled with small moments like this: Devin Hoff studying a hand-transcribed score to Bobby Bradford’s “Coming On" before going onstage (and playing the proverbial shite out of it); a wide-eyed kid coming up to Scott Amendola and asking in quiet awe, “Um, that Ben Goldberg guy, um, he’s amazing—is he still here? I’d really like to meet him”; Alex Cline’s wife Karen and daughter Naomi dancing barefoot while Alex led his band onstage; butoh dancer Oguri sitting (yes, barefoot) in the corner of the green room, quietly reading; Carla Bozulich and Jeff Gauthier kneeling by the stage checking out Wayne Horvitz’s set; Nels Cline, sitting in the audience, leaning forward intently to study Larry Koonse’s guitar playing; drummer Jim Black, who seemed to be everywhere at once and enjoying himself immensely, wandering around with what looked to be a snifter; Motoko Honda meticulously packing away her many effects boxes; Jesse Sharps recommending Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes to a bandmate; the Buddhist chanting coming from behind Bennie Maupin’s dressing-room door; Master of Ceremonies Leroy Downs calling festival co-organizer Rocco Somazzi onstage for a hero's ovation from the crowd; saxophonist Azar Lawrence materializing backstage, dressed to the nines and shaking many hands, to check out Bennie Maupin & Dolphyana's set.

Musically, there was about 130 great moments spread out over this two-day party, and the Beast managed to capture a few of them (our hand can only write so fast). Here’s Day One in vaguely chronological order:

4pm The trio Plays Monk whips though a dizzying relief map of perverted Monk covers, from “Eronel” and “Skippy” to “Teo” and “Epistrophy.” A barely recognizable “Reflections” showcases Devin Hoff’s red-faced grimaces during a frisky duet with Scott Amendola’s drums. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg leans against the grand piano and quietly drinks it all in.

Giant sea anemone blocks the sun for the Satoko Fuji Four [photo courtesy of Tres Records]

5:02pm Witnessing pianist Satoko Fujii’s death-defying 50-minute improvisation: bassist Mark Dresser bowing eerie, wiry insect sounds amidst Fuji’s tense, fever-dream vapours and Jim Black drumming like he’s having particularly inspirational seizures. Fujii’s hubbo Natsuki Tamura appears twenty minutes into the performance and quickly becomes one of our faves. His playing is a film noirish mix of Mark Isham and Chet Baker, and he earns laughs from the bemused crowd for his frequent, comically timed blats and squeals.

SF4 -- Take 2

6:30pm A bit of drama before The Gathering’s set: saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Cameron Graves have dropped out at the last minute, and replacement saxman Randall Fischer’s plane is delayed from San Francisco. (Overheard: “Well, let’s see. He’s just landed at LAX and the set starts in 5 minutes. Think he’ll make it?”) The set begins with leader Jesse Sharps’ 3-minute prologue on bass clarinet. (He splices in a quote from The Addams Family theme that delights the crowd.) The band kicks in for the turbulent rapture of “Leimert Park Blues,” which premiered last month at the World Stage Jazz Festival.

The Gathering under the eaves (violinist extraordinaire Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is on the far right) [photo courtesy of Tres Records]

Baby-faced Nick Rosen (whose hair seems to get shaggier with every passing gig) cuts muscular bass lines on “Mary on a Sunday” from Horace Tapscott’s autobiographical Drunken Mary Suite, written over a decade before Rosen was born. Pianist Michael Nash maintains a restrained presence amidst so much kinetic activity, especially during a kaftan-clad Dwight Trible’s careening vocalese on John Coltrane’s “Africa” (with a stone-splitting soprano sax solo from Mr. Sharps) and the sensual, Song of Solomon-style ode to a gone sista “Desert Fairy Princess," on which young 'un drummer Ivan Cotton exhibits some nifty Latin tendencies. The unquestionable standout on just about every song is the chamber-punk attack of violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, whose ferocious double-time solos expertly mesh with the band’s odd meters. Ferguson's sound calls up everything from angry hornets and Appalachin murder ballads to sea whales and an entire woodwind section. For the final song, Sharps steeps aside to let his old friend Thomas Stones take a poignant and lyrical flute showcase, his feathery, up-front melodies exquisitely resonated by the amphitheatre’s acoustics. A nice way to greet the dusk.

8pm Billy Childs’ Jazz-Chamber Ensemble is one of the most anticipated performances of the concert's second half, and the two-time Grammy winner does not disappoint, opening with “The Path Amongst the Trees,” a brand new song off his upcoming Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 2. (The song was inspired, in the pianist’s own words onstage, “by a beautiful drive I took on I-95 in upstate New York.”) The song, like the whole set, is buoyant elegance shot through with jolts of passion and given an almost cinematic (and often jarringly atonal) grandeur by the addition of the Eclipse String Quartet. (The EQ are placed at center stage with Child’s ensemble arranged organically around them in a circle as if enfolding them in an embrace – a testimony of sorts to Child’s generosity as a leader.) An intimate harp solo by Carol Robbins leads into a tit-for-tat duet between Childs and guitarist Larry Koonse. Next, Child’s piano mimics “Raindrop Patterns,” another new tune on which bassist Hamilton Price really shines. The closing song that exhibits Child’s literary enthusiasms, “Man Chasing the Horizon," based on an 1871 poem by Stephen Crane.

Larry Karush (long view) [photo courtesy of Tres Records]

9:15pm On a bare stage, a white-jacketed Larry Karush goes though some Zen breathing exercises before taking his seat at the piano. His performance is a debut of The Salsa Way, a suite of solo “comprovisations” that meld open improv with Latin-themed vamps and dense, Art Tatum-like ostinati that makes our head swim. Karush’s blurred hands over the keys are interrupted by occasional outbreaks of whimsy, like when his unusually long score unrolled off his piano onto the floor and almost off the front of the stage, or when he appeared to be dissatisfied with the score itself and appeared to “change” it (with what looked like pencil stub behind his ear) mid-note to his liking. Very intereresting performance.

10:17pm The Beast decides to finally venture backstage before the closing set. We nearly knock ourselves cold on a low-level concrete lip and accidentally walk into the Women’s bathroom. Perfect. Everything’s going smoothly. Recovering in the Ford’s underground green room/bomb shelter, we listen to Jesse Sharps and Billy Childs discussing the State of Music while filmmaker Tommy Paige and Thomas Stones discuss how taking tabla lessons might help one’s breath control on a horn. Hmmm. As we listen to Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy take the stage over the live intercom, Sharps stops midsentence, suddenly transfixed by the sounds of Vincent Chancey’s gravity-defying French horn on madcap covers of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” We listen rapt for about ten minutes before someone says: “What the hell are we doing down here for?” The ensuing mad dash up the four flights of stairs to the side of the stage feels like a bunch of excited teenagers sneaking into Shelley’s Manhole circa 1967 to catch their virgin glimpse of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. By the time we made it to the stage, Douglas was drenched in sweat, guarded on either side by ex-Lester Bowie sidemen Chancey and trombonist Luis Bonilla, two men who have taken mystifying or restrictive instruments and demystified and de-restricted them. Then there was the interplay between the novel rhythm section of drummer Nasheet Waits and tuba player Marcus Rojas on the closer "The Brass Ring," which got both men pats on the back when they came offstage. The audience agreed: standing ovation.


[*And yes, we'll try to get some more prime photos up ASAP]

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