Achievement Unlocked: Vortex Jazz Club

The Markov Chain at the Vortex Jazz Club, London, on 2 December 2015Early this month, I made my first-ever trip to the UK, visiting London on business. There wasn’t much time to get around, especially considering we were near the London ExCel conference facility, well to the east of anything in London that I’d heard of.

But I did sneak out on my final night to visit the Vortex Jazz Club, a cozy second-story music space and bar that’s been a cornerstone of creative jazz worldwide. Saxophone legend Evan Parker performs there once a month on a kind of permanent residency.

Cafe Oto, nearby, also features plenty of experimental music, but I had only one evening available. The Markov Chain, a piano-bass-drums combo of improvised jazz, won out.

Both venues are in the neighborhood of Dalston, one of those formerly low-rent areas where ethnic foods and skateboarders collide with redevelopment money and hipsters. The area has that city grime to it, and the surface similarities to Manhattan’s Lower East Side were actually a little comforting.

vortexThe Vortex itself is off the main drag, in a small plaza that’s now named Aim Bailey Place after Derek Bailey. The shot at left, from the Hackney Hive site, gives you a pretty good impression.

It’s a friendly place where they didn’t mind that I wasn’t drinking alcohol that night. (I honestly felt bad about that and contributed to the till via multiple mineral waters and couple bags of crisps.) The place filled up by showtime — many attendees being friends of the band, certainly, but not all. I wasn’t the only one who’d staked out a table early, and music fans’ reservations filled out the front row.

The Markov Chain is a free improvisation group that infuses plenty of jazz idiom into their playing — although extended technique did show up a bit during the show, particularly with bassist Tim Fairhall.

Pianist and bandleader Adam Fairhall (Tim’s brother) has had a couple of other projects out, including The Imaginary Delta, a septet suite released by Slam Productions. Possibly the best known member of the trio is drummer Paul Hession, who’s recorded frequently for Slam and Bruce’s Fingers — the latter having also put out The Markov Chain’s eponymous CD.

markovchain-stThe show at the Vortex started with Adam Fairhall doing a solo piano piece lasting maybe 20 minutes. It was a stunning mashup of old and new jazz styles, bursting with references to boogie-woogie and ragtime. Lots of blues colors, and some near-classical, concert-hall-style jazz, and sprinklings of free improv.

One particularly memorable stretch built off of a rolling 6/8 boogie-woogie theme in the bassline, with right-hand playing that was tonal and massive, built from fistfuls of chords.

After a break, the Markov Chain played two pieces — a long improvisation tracking maybe 40 minutes, and a 10-minute “encore” piece.

The longer piece was an exercise in sustained energy — not one solid wall of music, but a fast-paced series of episodes. I don’t recall any long quiet stretches, although there were plenty of passages where one player dropped out, leaving the other two in an extended duet.

Hessian is an excellent drummer, a whirlwind with a feather touch. And Tim Fairhall was captivating on bass — lots of pizzicato with big intervallic leaps, and later, a string-mashing bowing style.

The 10-minute followup stared in a mode crystalline and careful, one of the few settings they hadn’t explored in the longer piece.

I liked these guys. I’ve been enjoying their CD, where every track is an anagram of The Markov Chain. (“Monk Crave Hi Hat” is a particularly catchy title.) I was exhausted from the work week, but I was glad to see the Vortex and to experience this music. I’m rarely unhappy after I’ve taken the extra effort to go find out what’s out there.

My Journey Into Los Angeles Jazz History

Recently I’ve been blogging about The Gathering, a Kickstarter project to complete a documentary focused on the creative music scene down there. Discovering the project has been just one step in a whole process that’s unfolded rather quickly for me in the last several weeks.

Horace Tapscott is well known as a free jazz pioneer who turned down the New York life to cultivate a community in L.A. What I’ve been looking into is the scene that he built up and that continued after his death in 1999.

The music is pure jazz, heavy with that McCoy Tyner sound of grand, sweeping chords, often accented with irresistible basslines that bring a touch of soul jazz. There can be a big-band slickness to the music, but it’s hardy stuff, coming from the hearts of central and east L.A. performers, not the minds of Hollywood producers.

I’ve had a lot of fun exploring this world and learning about Leimert Park. I’m now itching to go see the area, just to be there for a few minutes. (And now, I can even pronounce it correctly — it’s luh-MERT.)

Here’s the webchain that brought me here.

iannello-maintenant.jpg1. Lucia IannelloMaintenant (Slam, 2015)

The starting block was an episode of Taran’s Free Jazz Hour, a podcast covering a wealth of adventurous jazz. One track, “Desert Fairy Princess” performed by trumpeter Lucia Iannello, featured an irresistable bassline and a low-key jazz groove. And it was on Slam, a label I respect. What the heck — I took the plunge and bought a copy.

Maintenant is a good CD mixing inside jazz with a floaty take on free improvisation. But the credits revealed something interesting: “Desert Fairy Princess” and another track, “Peyote Dream No. III,” had been written by Jesse Sharps, and “Ballad for Samuel” was by Horace Tapscott.

The CD’s concept, it turned out was to record Iannello’s own compositions alongside songs by members of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (P.A.P.A.), Tapscott’s vehicle for energizing the African-American artistic community in L.A.

Tapscott I knew. But Jesse Sharps? I had to find out.

sharps-sharps2. Jesse Sharps Quintet & P.A.P.A. — Sharps and Flats (Nimbus West, 2005)

It turns out many compositions from the P.A.P.A. collective became standards among this Leimert Park community. “Desert Fairy Princess” is one (and is featured on The Gathering’s CD); another is “The Goat and the Ramjam,” which kicks off this album. It’s got more of that sound that had drawn me into Iannello’s music.

The album consists of six quintet tunes and one 16-minute piece from a 14-member version of P.A.P.A. that includes Tapscott on piano (although Sharps is listed as the bandleader).

It’s all well executed jazz — on the straight side, but in a creative mode that shows a soul. There’s more going on here than just another session.

I was spurred to learn more. Luckily for me, a project involving Jesse Sharps had just started up.

thegathering-sax3. The Gathering

That project was the abovementioned Kickstarter, of course, which aims to fund post-production of a documentary called The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz.

The Kickstarter video told me a lot more about the community I’d stumbled onto — and, maybe more importantly, fixed its center of gravity at Leimert Park. The name meant nothing to me at first glance.

The Gathering is a big band combining jazz veterans and adept youngsters to carry on the community that Horace Tapscott set into motion. Multiple versions of the band have convened over the years, but the concert performed in 2005, the subject of the documentary, was the first. It also resulted in a CD that came out in 2008. It’s still available on CDBaby in downloadable form.

mimi-m4. Mimi Melnick’s liner notes

That CD came with 5,000 words of liner notes by Mimi Melnick, a local supporter and patron of the music who hosts concerts at her house (and plays a mean boogie-woogie piano herself — check the ending of Paige’s promo film.)

The entire essay is posted on The Gathering’s website. Melnick goes into deep detail about the musicians and their histories — and about the community itself, down to the detail of where Leimert Park is located.

Turns out, it’s in a part of central L.A. called the Crenshaw district.

That’s where my parents are from. Dad grew up in a house just on the other side of Crenshaw Blvd.

Local pride bubbled up in me. Even though I’m Asian-American, I felt like I shared a connection with this African-American community. Even though we left L.A. before the heyday of Tapscott’s work, I felt like I was researching my own past.

I don’t believe I’ve even seen Leimert Park before. Our trips to L.A. were spent visiting family, so I’ve only recently begun discovering the city. We’ve become closer to relatives in the Echo Park area, for instance. Now I’ve got another part of the city to explore.

Last night, I mentioned Leimert Park to my parents — and of course, they knew exactly what I was talking about. They were vaguely aware of an artistic community around there; Dad even mentioned remembering some kind of theater around Western and 45th. Going back to Melnick’s liner notes, I see she does mention a venue near that address. It was a community center called The Gathering. Jesse Sharps named his band after it.

nimbuscollective5. Nimbus West

So, now I’m hooked. I’ve begun delving into the catalogue of Nimbus West, the record label started by Tom Albach after he’d heard Tapscott’s music. It’s the only place where some of these musicians have been documented.

The Nimbus Collective seemed like a good place to start. It’s a sextet that released a double-CD, Live in Lotusland (Nimbus West, 2010) based on a 1987 concert. As I noted here, the band didn’t last long, unfortunately.

“The Goat and the Ramjam” makes another appearance here, as does “Retribution, Reparation,” another composition that appears on multiple Nimbus West CDs. That one’s written by pianist Nate Morgan, and it features an urgent, yearning theme that climbs and falls at a rapid pace. I’ve been humming it for days.

I was sad to learn Nate Morgan had passed away in 2013 after suffering a stroke in 2008. If it weren’t for Nimbus West, we might not have any document of his playing.

The first of his albums I’ve sampled is Retribution, Reparation, which of course includes the title track. There’s also “Mass Madness,” a breakneck free-jazz piece with a pinpoint sprint of a solo by Danny Cortez on trumpet. (The band consists mostly of Nimbus Collective members, including Cortez.)

While the Kickstarter project is looking like a longshot, I’m hoping to see that movie someday. Meanwhile, I have a lot more ground to traverse, and I’d encourage you to give this music a try yourself. Most of the Nimbus West catalogue is available on iTunes and eMusic — and you can sample some of it in one blow with the L.A. Unsung compilation.

L.A. Jazz: More About The Gathering

worldstage-frontThe Kickstarter for The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz ends Tuesday morning. (See previous posts here and here.)

Filmmaker Tom Paige has posted an 11-minute segment to Vimeo — it gives you a nice sampling of the music and the musicians involved, and you get a taste of Leimert Park, a down-to-earth, old-school neighborhood in central L.A., just south of where my parents grew up.

The link above goes straight to Vimeo, and you can also see the video on The Gathering’s web site.

To recap: It’s a documentary celebrating the jazz community around central L.A. It’s about the past, where Horace Tapscott was a key instigator, but also the present, with some exciting young players involved in the 2005 concert that serves as the film’s focal point.

To reiterate: This isn’t “L.A.” music; it’s earnest Coltrane/Tyner style jazz with some later-era free-jazz elements — such as Roberto Miranda’s conducted improvisation, “Agony in the Garden,” which I embedded in the previous post.

(Photo: The World Stage, a Leimert Park venue. Its future was in doubt a couple of years ago; the still is from a video about the situation.)

Some Soulful L.A. Jazz Needs Your Help

KamauFinal2With only a few days left, the Kickstarter for the film The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz is still well short of its goal.

That would be a tough blow for a group of musicians who’ve had their share of them. The liner notes of The Nimbus Collective’s Live in Lotusland CD say it well:

The social consequences of trying to play serious music in an area as shallow and fad-driven as Los Angeles and its environs were too much to deal with, and the band broke up after playing less than a dozen times.

Since discovering this project — which would fund post-production of a documentary film of a 2005 concert (more info here) —  I’ve been sampling bits of the L.A. jazz scene. Not cheesy smooth jazz or Hollywood big-band stuff, mind you, but a soulful, post-post-bop style that had Horace Tapscott as a captain and John Carter and Bobby Bradford as champions.

Vinny Golia helps lead the L.A. charge these days — and of course, this region nurtured Nels Cline and Alex Cline, too. But I hadn’t heard the terrific music of Jesse Sharps (above) or the late Nate Morgan. Both were part of the Nimbus Collective; Live in Lotusland documents a 1987 concert with energetic music rooted in that mid-late Coltrane era, spiced with ear-opening solos. You’ll find their work, and much of Tapscott’s, documented on the Nimbus West record label.

It’s a lively corner of the jazz world that doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. Check out The Gathering’s Kickstarter page.

Here’s one of The Gathering’s more avant-garde tracks: “Agony in the Garden,” by Roberto Miranda. I’d also recommend the epic 26-minute version of “Desert Fairy Princess,” a Jesse Sharps composition with a catchy mellow-funk bassline.