Keeping Time for an L.A. Tradition
Angel City Jazz Fest tests rhythmic and geographic boundaries
By Bliss Bowen
Think of jazz and you might imagine a saxophonist sounding out a harmonic phrase; or a pianist laying down chords behind a torch singer’s melody; or a loose crew trading solos and trying out new ideas at an after-hours jam. Disciplined yet musically elastic, heatedly emotional or coolly cerebral, the form encompasses all those scenarios.
In Los Angeles from the 1920s through the 1950s, jazz percolated out of miles of nightclubs along Central Avenue hosting jazz and R&B hotshots like Benny Carter, Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Big Jay McNeely, Charles Mingus and Big Joe Turner, and, later, West Coast cool. Culturally and musically, Central Avenue was unique in the country, and the music scene surrounding it was vital and varied.
L.A.’s jazz community is no longer centralized, but its boundary-testing spirit remains. It informs the theme of this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival: “Inside Out,” referencing the constantly shifting relationship between formal structure and improvisation, or traditional and free jazz.
Running Sept. 30 through Oct. 16, the fest is comprised of nine concerts at eight venues across Los Angeles — including The Edye performance space at The Broad Stage and the Moss Theater at New Roads School, both in Santa Monica.
Angel City’s splashiest concert is dominated by veterans like NEA Jazz Master Pharoah Sanders, who rose to fame in the mid-1960s blowing tenor sax behind John Coltrane. On Oct. 2 at Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheatre, the free jazz pioneer will be part of the Spirits trio (with oudist Brahim Fribgane and percussionist Adam Rudolph) performing the world premiere of “Our Lady of Los Angeles Suite” alongside drummer José Gurría’s 22-piece Gurrisonic Orchestra, featuring clarinetist Don Byron and Grammy-winning Quetzal frontwoman Martha Gonzalez. The Gurrisonic Orchestra will also salute Ornette Coleman by performing his “Skies of America” with saxophonist Justo Almario and onetime Coleman guitarist Tom McNalley.
Also under the Angel City banner: Prodigious avant-garde woodwind player Vinny Golia shares a bill with Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey’s sax-and-drums duo at L.A. City College’s Clausen Hall on Oct. 1. On Oct. 15, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a frequent collaborator of pianist Vijay Iyer’s, will front a five-piece band at Clausen Hall and reprise pieces from his Charlie Parker-saluting album “Bird Calls.” Co-headlining that night will be classically trained, gospel-influenced pianist Joshua White, whose set will feature spoken word from Dwight Trible.
There’s likely to be more experimentation on display at the Edye, which will host saxophonist Steve Lehman’s three-piece and David Binney’s sax-drums-and-electronics trio on Oct. 7, and Extreme Bass Night on Oct. 14. The latter features eclectic local jazz and rock bassist Steuart Liebig, playing solo electric bass and electronics; sometime Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar bassist Miles Mosley; Tim Lefebvre, who usually steers the groove in the Tedeschi Trucks Band; and frequent session bassist and orchestra soloist Mike Valerio, playing contrabass and electric bass. Lefebvre will play in separate duos with beat maker Troy Ziegler and keyboardist Rachel Eckroch; Mosley will be fingering and bowing his bass while working his pedalboard alongside drummer Tony Austin.
Democratic trio Thumbscrew — guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — will close out the festival at the Moss Theater on Oct. 16. They’ll split the bill with guitarist Joel Harrison, who’ll be performing music from his moody album “Spirit House” backed by trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassoonist Paul Hanson and drummer Brian Blade.
That’s a lot of jazz for a two-week stretch, little of it geared toward tradition. For listeners who like their music without labels or their jazz flavored with other genres, it’s an opportunity to see some of L.A.’s most creatively curious players in action.
The 9th annual Angel City Jazz Festival runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 16 at various venues. Visit angelcityjazz.com for tickets ($15 to $35 for the Santa Monica shows) and more information.