Swallowed by Blue Whale

Just spent a week in L.A. with The Nels Cline Singers and Steve Coleman’s new one as driving music. And while I didn’t have much free time, as often happens on these trips, I did want to take an evening to stop by the Blue Whale.

It’s a jazz club in Little Tokyo, downtown, tucked away in an upper corner of an open-air shopping center. It’s surrounded mostly by restaurants, ranging from upscale, traditional-looking Japanese to hipster-friendly ramen. I’d come to know the Blue Whale by seeing it on the itineraries of various artists — in fact, a ROVA show that’s coming in May got a blurb in last Sunday’s L.A. Times.

Most of the time, the Blue Whale features music a little closer to the mainstream. Really, any kind of jazz could be presented there. The decor is very modern, done up in colors of granite and concrete and stainless steel. It can be a hip watering hole (complete with vicious mixed-drink prices) or a serious art-music venue (complete with poetry on the ceiling).

One caveat: There’s no talking allowed during the music. You can order food and drink at the bar, but that’s far back enough from the stage that you won’t be heard. For all its loungy trappings, the Blue Whale is serious about the music.

The seating is minimalist: couches around the perimeter and big ottomans in the center that double as chairs and food tables. When I got there, people had already surrounded the perimeter, and I felt too self-conscious to plop down in the center, closer to the stage. During the night, though, that center area filled up pretty well. There were at least 50 people there by the end of the first set.

The performer that night was pianist Kait Dunton, presenting music mostly in a quintet format with trumpet and sax, sometimes paring it back to a standard trio. Imagine a comforting piano jazz infused with bumpy time signatures and some unexpected turns into stoney chords. The saxophonist turned in some fairly usual soloing, but the trumpeter took free rein to get into some spattery and squeaky sounds, some of which were particularly effective (and got a good reaction from the crowd) during a piece called “Night.”

Most of Dunton’s material was original and new, as new as the previous weekend. The second set consisted of one long suite, “Mountain Suite,” conjuring a journey down a path, through “Night” and dreams, and ending at the mountain. Nice stuff.

Dunton’s slightly older stuff is available on a 2008 CD — see CD Baby.

(Hey, I’ve heard of those guys…)

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