On Tuesday afternoon, a colleague who lives there told me downtown Los Angeles has become the hip place to live.
He wasn’t bragging; he was bemoaning. He has to put up with the crowded stores and parking lots — not to mention the even thicker traffic on I-110.
Maybe it was coincidence, but that evening as I headed to Little Tokyo for Weller Court, the small, clean shopping center that houses the Blue Whale jazz club, I think I caught a taste of what he was talking about. Orochon, the spicy ramen counter, was overflowing, with a line outside waiting for tables. And at the Blue Whale itself, all the seats were filled when I came in at the beginning of the Armen Nalbandian Trio’s first set.
During my infrequent visits — maybe three in the past six years? — I’d become accustomed to almost having Weller Court to myself. I was expecting a nearly empty Blue Whale. It was Tuesday night. It was raining. And yet, Little Tokyo was alive and jumping.
I wasn’t the only one surprised. Pianist Nalbandian was too, as he happily told the crowd at the end of the first set. It was a pretty live crowd, too.
I was in L.A. this past week for a work assignment, and it wasn’t looking like I would have a chance for an evening out, especially with early morning events to attend each day. The quartet Sigmund Fudge — straightahead guitar/keys-led jazz with a touch of attitude — was tempting, but I didn’t have the energy Monday night and already knew I’d be struggling the next morning.
But Tuesday at about 8:00 p.m., I found myself with a surprising reserve of energy. Before fatigue could catch up with my body and brain, I headed for Japantown. Nalbandian seemed like a good bet, with a rhythm section of familiar names: Eric Revis on bass and Nasheed Waits on drums.
Nalbandian’s music draws from traditional jazz, as you can hear on the solo records on his Blacksmith Brother label, but he’s also a fan of noisy tricks such as playing the inside of the piano. He used the trio format nicely, giving Revis and Waits (and himself) plenty of leash.
One number had an extended intro from Waits that you wouldn’t call abstract — but it wasn’t your typical drum solo: clicking and fast, with irregular stresses. Revis, at center stage, was fun to watch, especially during his hard-digging solos.
They played a couple of world-premiere tracks including one that I think was called “Nogu,” named after a restaurant. (The crowd got a good laugh out of that. I think we were all expecting a metaphysical Asian backstory.) The set-closer, “Aries,” was a relatively long, episodic piece with lots of high-throttle group improvisation.
There was also an ornate Nalbandian solo (was it “Just a Gigolo,” or am I remembering that from the radio?) and a reading of Monk’s “Light Blue.”
Nalbandian hangs out in some big circles. His website includes a glowing quote from Matthew Shipp, and he’s recorded with Han Bennik, an improv session that mixes swing with creative mischief. In May, he’s presenting a trio with saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Guillermo E. Brown. That will be at E.T.A. in Highland Park, another Los Angeles-area venue.
His one album with Revis and Waits is called Quiet As It’s Kept (Blacksmith Brother, 2011), and it features Fender Rhodes rather than acoustic piano, for a sound that’s more quilted but no less high-energy.
When you volunteer at a radio station, a lot of music passes through your ears. You forget a lot of it of course — but you retain a lot more than you’d think.
I remember, for instance, learning about all kinds of great Southern California musicians through the labels pfMentum and Cryptogramophone. In the Vinny Golia and Nels Cline camp, for instance, there’s bassist Steuart Liebig, who produced lots of creative stuff, from the chamber-jazz suits of Pomegranate to three CDs from his out-jazz bar band, The Mentones. (“Bar band” is my description; they rock out and even have a harmonica player.)
Liebig’s prolific nature helped him stick in memory, but others managed to stay there despite crossing my orbit only once, often because the music was good and the CD was at my fingertips in rotation for nine weeks, like a reliable friend.
Mix of free jazz and psych guitar in a multifaceted jam. Many tracks start off with a low-level burble of electronics, synth, and drums, a bit like experimental dance electronica. Then, the sax and trumpet come in for some free-jazz sounds often backed by a solid and ferocious drum beat. Some nutty guitar also adds a psych/fusiony kind of craziness. Great stuff with a fresh sound.
But after its time in rotation was up, DR. MiNT dropped off my radar.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years …
After being contacted by the trio Sound Etiquette, I checked out their label, Orenda — which turned out to be carrying the torch for some of the Southern California creative-jazz scene. One of the bands on their roster turned out to be Dr. MiNT — and memories of Visions and Nightmares came flooding back.
It got even better: Dr. MiNT was still active. They just dropped new album, Voices in the Void (officially released on Jan. 27), and they’re performing Sunday night, Jan. 29, as part of the Orenda third-anniversary bash, being held at Los Angeles’ Blue Whale jazz club.
Jazz horns, funk bass, psychedelic guitar, a touch of metal, occasional flashes of electronics — it’s all here on Voices, as is a new strategy that’s paying off handsomely: Unlike their older albums, this one is not fully improvised. Instead, on-the-spot improvisations were smoothed over to create compositions.
That’s basically the description of a normal free-jazz band, I know (although other artists might groom the compositions more, whereas DR. MiNT tries to preserve the suddenness of it all). But I like that they’re trying a different approach — and I like the result, which comes across sharply focused.
Much as I enjoyed Visions and Nightmares, I have to admit it drags sometimes. Long-form improvisations do benefit from quiet stretches, but it’s tricky to keep the momentum and “storyline” going while recharging. DR. MiNT didn’t fully achieve that on Visions.
Voices in the Void is tighter. “Down to One” is a healthy blast, opening with a very brief horn fanfare before letting Gavin Templeton’s free-funk sax and Alex Noice’s rock-out guitar take over.
Caleb Dolister’s snappy drum work has a lot to do with DR. MiNT’s sound. He’s the battery driving “Down to One” and the power punch behind the blasting midtempo of “Nymbists.” As that track turns jazzy, with criss-crossing horns, Dolister downshifts nicely to reset the mood while keeping the sound crisp.
“spacerobot[dance]” shows off a funky beat dolled up with a touch of EDM (garbly electronic sounds possibly generated by guitar). Templeton and trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom deliver inspired solos over Sam Minaie’s rolling, synth-like bassline.
“n-drift” is terrifically clean and bright — an ace trumpet solo gets augmented with fusion-esque guitar and sprinkles of electronics, and it’s a really nice moment when the band flows into a rolling composed segment. Below, see a live performance of this one from the Blue Whale last year.
So that’s been my re-introduction to DR. MiNT and my introduction to Orenda records. The band members are featured on plenty of other Orenda releases, so there’s a lot to explore in there.
As for pfMentum and Cryptogramophone, they’re still fighting the good fight. pfMentum founder Jeff Kaiser has left California but still releases albums at a prolific rate; the label’s latest features Bay Area electronics wizard Tim Perkis. Violinist Jeff Gauthier has slowed down with Cryptogramophone, but the label is gearing up for the March 10 release of Alex Cline’s latest, Ocean of Vows.
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.
1. Lucia Iannello — Maintenant (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.
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.
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.
4. 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.
5. 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. Unsungcompilation.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
It’s satisfying, the way Ross Hammond’s burning, blues-infused guitar co-mingles Vinny Golia’s saxophone. Maybe it’s just a natural combination of timbres, but when the two combine for unison lines on “Tricycle,” a track late on Cathedrals, it’s like two colors that become stronger next to each other, where the complements and contrasts hit the eye together. It gets even better when they swirl together in overlapping solos.
Cathedrals is Hammond’s second album with the L.A. all-star backing band of Golia (soprano and tenor sax, and flute), Steuart Liebig (bass) and Alex Cline (drums), and of course, that sax/guitar combination sound is the album’s foundation. It’s a blend worth savoring, and all four players go all-out to create their often furious free-jazz brew.
I’d mentioned a rock/psych lilt to the first album, Adored, and that’s certainly present here, maybe in something like a soul-jazz vein when it comes to the chugging guitar and free-flying flute on “Hopped Up on Adrenaline.” Hammond’s slow-sunburst guitar comes out firing as his solo takes over, and I love the way Golia’s flute fills in a few final spaces before letting the guitar fully take hold:
Sometimes, Cathedrals feels like an instrumental rock album that just happens to have free-jazz guys on it. “This Goes With Your Leather” chugs and burns like something from the jukebox at a biker bar. Sure, it starts with unaccompanied sax improv, but Golia makes some damned convincing harmonica noises with the soprano, and that bluesy, blazing sound carries over when the band digs into a hard, fast beat. (Liebig’s band, The Mentones, used an actual harmonica to tread this territory; their albums are worth seeking out.)
“She Gets Her Wine from a Box” has a jazzy theme to it, appropriately whimsical (and excerpted below). It’s followed by jumpy solos first from Hammond, then from a caffeinated Golia.
The title track shows that you can have a free-jazz freak-out within the confines of a mellow tune. Carrying the vague feeling of a gospel song, it opens gradually, riding on warm contentment before twisting into a vicious soloing space for Cline. The others get fired up as well, but it seems as if at any given point, either Golia or Hammond is carrying on with the original, even-handed mood. They’re not exactly calm, just rooted.
It’s easy to see why Hammond wanted to revisit this band, this time with compositions written especially for them. The results are energetic and insightful, and yes, they rock. I’m hoping there’s enough headroom for another couple of albums out of this band.