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.

A Take on L.A.’s Jazz History

To historians of ’60s/’70s free jazz, Los Angeles plays second fiddle to New York. More like sixth or seventh fiddle, actually.

Fortunately, there’s been an effort in recent years to preserve L.A. jazz history — in the work of the Nimbus West label, in Horace Tapscott’s reissues on Hatology, in the John Carter/Bobby Bradford 3-CD set issued by Mosaic in 2010.

Now, filmmakers hope to complete a documentary that would tie the past and present of Leimert Park, a south L.A. neighborhood and art enclave that was a home to Tapscott and to Jesse Sharps. The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz is a behind-the-scenes documentary of a 2005 concert, led by Sharps, that matched young musicians with veterans of Tapscott’s Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra.

A CD of the concert emerged in 2008, but the movie is still awating completion. Sharps and filmmaker Tom Paige have turned to Kickstarter to raise $18,500 for post-production, including composers’ licensing fees.

JesseFinal3-300x195
Jesse Sharps

For me, there’s a personal angle: My parents grew up in central L.A., and Leimert Park, which is the setting for the film, is just south of their neighborhood. The Crenshaw district used to be an upscale area; sadly, it’s better known today for the 1992 Rodney King riots. I never realized there was a cultural hub nearby, with places like the World Stage, an education and performance space founded by drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood in 1989.

As an event, The Gathering celebrated Leimert Park’s jazz history but was by no means a petroglyph. Part of Sharps’ purpose was to collect young musicians, to show how Tapscott’s energy and spirit still inspire. But it’s pretty cool to see some familiar names in the band roster, too:

  • Phil Ranelin (sax), who created Tribe in Detroit and knows a thing or two about community
  • Azar Lawrence (sax), who I’ve discussed here
  • Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), who’s active in the Vinny Golia and Emily Hay vectors of L.A. jazz
  • Roberto Miranda (bass), who’s part of the high-powered L.A. crew on Tim Berne’s early albums
  • Ndugu Chancler (drums), who’s played with Miles Davis and Weather Report
  • Kamau Daáood (poetry), the aforementioned World Stage founder.

The Gathering’s Kickstarter campaign will end on the morning of Dec. 15, twenty-five days from now. It’s off to an admittedly modest start, but I hope it gains steam. It would be a shame if this project, like so much of California’s jazz history, goes unnoticed.

Help Moe Put Another Beautiful Noise on Disc

Moe Staiano is up on Kickstarter again, this time hoping to commit a very special performance to vinyl.

For years, he’s been building large improv/orchestral pieces for Moekestra, a varying but always large and loud ensemble. The group began more than a decade ago with the epic “Death of a Piano,” and the concept reached a pinnacle in 2010 with “End of an Error,” a piece performed in Wels, Austria, at the Music Unlimited Festival.

For a while, it looked like that might be the final Moekestra appearance, and it certainly would have been a fitting finale. (Moekestra did reconvene this year.)

Finale or not, the fact that the band got an invitation all the way from Austria made this performance a special occasion.

The Kickstarter funding would go towards a vinyl release of those recordings. So, check out the proposal, and help produce a cool musical souvenir if you’re so inclined.

(For details on Staiano’s most recent Kickstarter-funded vinyl, check out Surplus 1980.)

Azar Lawrence Is Still Out There

Azar LawrenceMystic Journey (Furthermore, 2010)

Azar Lawrence is doing a live recording for his next album on Dec. 13-14 at the Jazz Standard in New York. He’s launched a Kickstarter fund for the costs of organizing the gig and producing the recording… although time is running out and he’s well short of the ambitious goal.

Does the name not ring a bell? Lawrence is a saxophonist based in Southern California who’s very much in the late-period-Coltrane mold. He was on Miles’ Dark Magus and worked with Earth, Wind and Fire — but I know him through his 1970s work with McCoy Tyner, specifically his towering sax on Tyner’s double album, Atlantis. It’s an album filled with that stormy-sea piano that was actually what first caught my ear about the 1964-and-beyond Coltrane albums, more so than Coltrane himself.

Lawrence has continued along similar lines. His most recent album, Mystic Journey, has a lot of that Coltrane-ish sound, particularly in the title track and “Summer Solstice,” both written by Lawrence. Pianist Benito Gonzalez’s channeling of Tyner is an appropriately big part of the sound. Other tracks take a rather straight-jazz approach, including the ballad “Say It Over Again” and Rashied Ali’s tropical tune, “Adrees.”

It doesn’t necessarily cut new ground, but I find I’m OK with that. That might sound odd considering I devote this blog’s energy to edgier music, the Steve Coleman and Tim Berne vectors of jazz. But it’s what I expected when I picked up the album, and maybe I’m also just glad to learn that Lawrence is alive and well.

There’s another thing: Just before going to New York recently, I’d read Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math blog, specifically his thoughts on Hank Jones and Mulgrew Miller. The lesson I took from that is that a musician doesn’t have to do “interview music” to be saying something worth hearing.  And then, at Downtown Music Gallery, I happened to spy Mystic Journey, and I’d always wondered if Azar Lawrence had continued his career — and the sum of it all was one very pleasant CD listening where I could revel in the lessons Lawrence was passing down from the Coltrane/Tyner era.

Maybe I’m also just glad that some artists are keeping that period alive. So much jazz energy is spent on preserving ragtime or (modernized) swing, or cocktail jazz. Having some spokespeople for the more freedom-seeking forms of “straight” jazz isn’t so bad a thing. And when the album shifts into gently nostalgic bebop mode for “Say It Over Again,” it’s actually quite nice.

Lawrence might not be saying anything wholly new, but I’m glad to hear him show off that he can say it.

Help Moe Make His Album!

UPDATE: We did it! Moe made his goal by $10, thanks to 75 generous contributors. Thanks, everyone.

There’s basically 1 day left …

July 4 is the Kickstarter deadline for funding the Moe! Staiano CD/LP recording project. By the time you read this, there’ll probably be less than 24 hours left, and at this writing, he’s so close to his $3,200 goal.

As mentioned before, the money would go towards printing CDs and LPs of Surplus 1980, a post-punk project that includes leftover songs from the defunct band Mute Socialite. There’s loud guitar goodness but also lots of other instruments, some vocals, and an all-around controlled-chaos philosophy in the music. (See Moe Staiano’s Next Album.)

But the link you really want to click (aside from the Kickstarter one) is this next one: The link to completed Surplus 1980 songs, posted to Soundcloud. You can find out exactly what kind of album you’re helping to create.

You can help put good music out to the world, and maybe even have Moe come to your house and make pancakes. Here’s the Kickstarter link.

Moe Staiano’s Next Album

Moe! Staiano has a new album recorded and is using Kickstarter to fund its release on CD and vinyl.  Go and listen; you might agree that it’s a worthy cause.

The band is called Surplus 1980 and it’s a successor to Mute Socialite, a band that impressed me with its punk energy, its jazz/prog complexity, and especially its tight musicianship. While I never saw Mute Socialite live, I really enjoyed their album, and once upon a time, I interviewed the whole band on the radio.

Mute Socialite started as a normal two-guitar rock quartet that eventually added trumpeter Liz Allbee. Surplus 1980 explodes the concept into a punchy pastiche, adding more horns, lots of vocalists (Mute Socialite, true to its name, was all-instrumental), a bit of piano here, a dose of bass clarinet there. I’m quite partial to the sound that the horns get on “Relapse in Response,” chirpy and riffy.

One nice thing about Kickstarter is that the artist can gather up small donations; you don’t have to put in more than the price of a CD if you don’t want to.

The other nice thing, though, is that Kickstarter can give a spotlight to projects that don’t have the publicity hook of live shows. Surplus 1980 is multilayered and instrumentally rich music, material that Moe! can’t show off, in full form, to bar and club crowds. That avenue of audience building (and revenue generating, assuming bands playing in clubs make any money) is closed.

The album is already recorded — brilliantly so, by Dan Rathbun, a cohort of Moe’s in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The hard part is done. Let’s help finish the easy part, the raw manufacturing. You can listen to a bunch of tracks on Soundcloud, then flip over to Kickstarter and help a good musician get some work out to the world.

A Kickstart for Polly Moller

Polly Moller has a special evening of her compositions coming up in December, and she’s using Kickstarter to help secure a grant to pay the musicians.

That is, she’s applying for a $1,000 grant that will only come through if she puts up a matching $1,000. Kickstarter helped her raise the money (and the project is still open for supplementary donations, through Nov. 3).

Moller’s program will be on Saturday, Dec. 18, at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. The program, which seems to combine directed improvisations and traditional composing, includes a piece for improvising quartet; solos for piccolo and voice; a duo with Gino Robair and someone playing “invented instruments;” and a new piece for quintet.  The evening caps with a conducted improvisation for 12 that dates back to 2006.

As for this Kickstarter thing …

It’s an interesting model for funding the arts (or any other kind of project) and for giving the audience a deeper way to participate. They get an ownership stake, figuratively or even literally. An artist posts a project to the site, challenging supporters to supply the funding. If the project doesn’t make its goal, all the money goes back.

(If you want to get all Web 2.0 pseudoscience-y about it, you can read about how sites like this create an addictively fun aspect to giving.)

In the case of music, Kickstarter seems popular for funding recordings. Free copies, T-shirts, and sheet music are among the common gifts for contributors. Moller is offering CD copies of the concert (which won’t be mass-produced), sheet music, and more.

Her project has already reached its goal. So, anything you pledge will immediately get charged to your credit card or PayPal account. Still, the goal simply means Moller gets a matching grant to help pay the musicians. It’s still not much of a payment, and it would certainly be nice to add a little more to the pool, to help Moller express gratitude to these dedicated musicians who are working hard to make her career milestone happen.

Find out more, here, but do it before Nov. 3  at 10:00 a.m. That’s the deadline.