A Fireside Chat With Vinny Golia
“ It really is an exciting period in the music, especially for this city [Los Angeles]. There is quite a bit happening, especially spurred on by the younger players at the moment. ”
An old friend once took me to see Vinny Golia at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then, I have made it a mission to listen to every recorded note from Golia (not the easiest of tasks) and his 9Winds label. The 9Winds catalog includes recordings with the late Richard Grossman, the late John Carter, sessions with the criminally unrecorded Roberto Miranda and Bobby Bradford, Bertram Turetzky, George Lewis, Tony Malaby, Rich Halley, Michael Vlatkovich, Wadada Leo Smith, Steve Adams of ROVA, Nels and Alex Cline, Rob Blakeslee, John Rapson, Tim Berne, the late Glenn Spearman, Paul Smoker, Baikida Carroll (my fingers are starting to cramp), as well as Golia and his Large Ensemble. To know anything about improvised music in Los Angeles is to know Golia. To know anything about improvised music is to know 9Winds. In fact, I would go so far and be so bold as to say that a record store doesn't know its a-hole from its ear-hole if they don't carry something from the 9Winds catalog or have a bin card that reads "Vinny Golia." This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary for Golia's 9Winds label. But it would be nothing better than an even money bet that not one periodical will note that, yet another reason for me to bow my head in shame. Ladies and gentlemen, Vinny Golia, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Congratulations are in order.
Vinny Golia: I guess we get a little credit this year. The first thing we recorded was October 11, 1977. Now, after a long time, there is a couple of new people that want to gain more control of what they are doing like Jeff Gauthier. I think they feel as though sometimes their music is not as well received because the people who associate them with this label kind of expect them to be playing music that is similar to this music. All in all, it has been a pretty good documentation of my growth and a few other people on the label. It has been pretty essential for us to document a lot of the musicians that exist here. Otherwise, they would have nothing.
FJ: The knock on Los Angeles has been good weather, bad jazz. Angelinos have a close association with the bandwagon. If it ain't popular or perceived cool, it ain't Hollywood.
VG: If it is billed as an event, you get a lot of people to come out to things. It is kind of funny that way, but it has always kind of been that way. We've had times when the music was pretty much right up in front. One year, John Carter, Horace (Tapscott), and Bobby Bradford all played at the Hollywood Bowl for the Playboy Jazz Festival. The Art Ensemble was here. It was a pretty good period of time. But that music and the people that appreciated it was supported more on the West Coast by some of the press people. It was considered a vital music. Through the years, it seems to have lost any support from the press except for a few people, yourself, Kirk Silsbee (Los Angeles New Times), and Greg Burk (LA Weekly). Most of the other people just don't support it in the press. It is a funny question. The music is going to be the music no matter what and it doesn't really need to be solidified by others. The problem is since Los Angeles is such a gigantic space, you need the press to inform people that these things are happening in different areas of the city. It is very essential for that because you can have as much grassroots connection as possible, but until you really let people know that these concerts are happening and these people are still active, then there is a certain laissez faire thing that happens.
FJ: The "if a tree falls in the woods" theory.
VG: Yeah, these people are around and they are playing, but unless you get the support of that, and also think it is important to expand the base of the listeners that come to hear us because they need to know that these things are happening and that there are places where people can come to see this music. I think it is very important. People in New York would never go, for years, to see the loft and SoHo people until they started writing about them. They create an imagery and then people go to check out what it is that everybody's talking about. We like to play for audiences that are more than thirty occasionally and sometimes by word of mouth, we get a hundred people who will come and see us play. But by not having the mass of people that will support the music, we lose out on certain venues and also, it makes it appear to the press that this is something that only a few people do, which is not the case.
FJ: Which venues have welcomed avant music in Los Angeles?
VG: Believe it or not, the same venues that do the other forms of jazz and improvised music, the Jazz Bakery has been very supportive to people who mostly come from out of town. Catalina's has also been supportive through the years of having people like Bobby and myself play and Horace Tapscott, of course. The newer places are the Eagle Rock Community Center. Alex Cline has been putting on a series there. And Rocco's has been very supportive in putting on events. He put on a week of 9 Winds artists at his club and some of the younger players have started a series called the Okiro Series which takes place on Sundays. It is unbelievable. They bring anyone from locals to Willem Breuker Kollektief. It is really fantastic. There are four or five venues where you can hear pretty vital music. And granted, some of the music will be at different levels because some of the people are younger and some of the people are more established. Part of the joy is to see younger players and keep checking in on them and see how they are progressing. It is also fantastic to see more established players and see how they are doing and how they have changed and if they've changed. It really is an exciting period in the music, especially for this city. There is quite a bit happening, especially spurred on by the younger players at the moment.
FJ: My hope is we appreciate the artists in their time and not lament them in death as we do with John Carter, Billy Higgins, and Horace Tapscott.
VG: Well, I am on the same soapbox for years. Guys like Teddy Edwards and Gerald Wilson are still alive and live here, yet the city doesn't really honor them in any manner or form. Musicians and clubs don't really seem to go out of the way to give tribute to those kinds of players. People have been in the trenches for a long time. There is so many people here and then when they die, everybody is sad about it and while they are alive, they ignore them. Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins are two of the other guys that come to mind. I know they don't live here, but people always talk about tenor player, tenor player, tenor players. Those people are still alive. Pete Christlieb is still here. Those are fantastic tenor players. I don't really need to hear a twenty-year-old kid play one when I can hear somebody who has been putting in his time really honing his craft for thirty, forty years. You get something else out of that. I can't really fathom why people say that nothing is happening here.
It is amazing that, in the case of Teddy Edwards, the guy has progressed in age, yet is still like a child, kind of inquisitive, a great player. It just boggles my mind that people don't write articles about him or just check in on his career making sure he is OK. Henry Grimes was just found here (Signal to Noise just printed an interview with Grimes). How bizarre is that? The guy is arguably one of the most creative and essential bass players of the Sixties and early Seventies, but disappears and he has been living in LA for thirty years. That is unbelievable. Sonny Simmons lived on the streets here. I am just saying that there is a certain neglect when people get to a certain point in their careers where it can be extremely frustrating. Lucky Thompson is another guy. All these people are alive, but yet, I am not saying you are supposed to build shrines to these guys, but they deserve a certain amount of respect for changing the face of music. That goes back to why the press is essential. You need to keep tabs on things. It is like an engine. If you don't keep turning it on, it doesn't run well. All the parts, recording, critics, the live performance, they are all essentials of the engine. It is up to everybody to make sure that everything is well oiled and running.
FJ: The most current crop of 9Winds releases includes your own Feeding Frenzy: Music for Woodwinds & String Quartet (pretty self-explanatory).
VG: Yeah, the main reason was some years ago, I started playing with Harry Scorzo (violin) and Harry is like one of the guys that we were talking about. Somehow, anytime notoriety, outside of musicians themselves, it seems to have escaped him, which is phenomenal because he is one of the most amazing musicians that I've encountered here in Los Angeles and especially for his instrument. The violin is not as friendly for certain musics. What we play is pretty much saxophone and trumpet dominated music. I started playing with Harry and just thinking that his improvising was fantastic in the groups that he played in. He would take a solo in the Large Ensemble and that would be great, but I wanted to see what we could do over a span of time and so I started this string quartet and through the years, some of the people moved away and one of the other string players couldn't do it after a while. We had done a few concerts through the years and I kept saying that if we got to a certain point, I would like to document it because it is a nice group and it is something different for me. I really like strings and I have always enjoyed playing with bass players. I have been very fortunate playing with a large variety of bass players, who are fantastic. The stars kind of aligned and the only problem was the woman who was going to play cello couldn't record and finally Rob Blakeslee suggested that I get Jonas Tauber and that worked out really well. We met up in Portland. Ken (Filiano) and I were doing concerts up there and he came in and we talked to him and he seemed very open to all kinds of stuff. Like us, he is a New York transplant, only he decided to live in Portland. Everything fell into place and it was really a joy. We did it in a day and mixed it and there it was.
FJ: Termed "third stream," is your approach different when you play with classically trained musicians?
VG: They improvise differently from jazz musicians. They work more from various, it is not a knock, but they don't work from a harmonic or melodic place. Some of the improv with classical musicians deal more with texture and timbre. It is a different way of approaching improvisation. It is just a totally different way. You do learn to play a little differently when you play with them. But Harry and Ken are much more schooled in the jazz tradition than I am. So it is a nice blend of personalities and where they come from.
FJ: And then there is the retrospectively absorbing John Rapson recording, Water and Blood: The Billy Higgins Improvisations.
VG: Oh, Fred, that is one of Billy's last things. I am really happy that he got to hear it before he passed on. That is a labor of love for John. That was a lot of work. When he first tells you these things, you go, "What?" And then when you hear it, it is just amazing to see the amount of work that he put into it. It is really beautiful playing and composition.
FJ: Encompassing two separate sessions, one in Los Angeles and one in Iowa.
VG: Well, my understanding is Roberto (Miranda) and Billy, John recorded them playing duets and Rapson came in and then listened to the improvisations and had players from two separate camps improvise on top of certain things and he knew the type of improvisations. He kind of shaped the improvisations to what he wanted and from our improvisations, he wrote the body material from those things and then he orchestrated those things and put together these entire compositions based on the improvisations of Billy and Roberto. It was an amazing idea. It is working back into time instead of following a linear course. It was just amazing. It is quite unique. I know of no one else who works in this manner. It really keeps improvisation at the heart of things. Having players like Roberto and Billy just makes things have so much vitality that when you go in to play your parts, it is a very special thing.
FJ: And Damon Short's Go Figure featuring one of the most advanced trumpeters playing, Paul Smoker.
VG: Damon Short is a really fine drummer, but I wasn't aware of how good of a composer he was. He did a tour, again, Rob Blakeslee introduced him to me, more in terms of the playing. He had done a tour with Rob and I up and down the West Coast. Smoker and I and Ken, when Phil Haynes couldn't do our quartet, Damon came in and played some of the concerts and he did a great job, a really great job. We played a couple of festivals in Michigan. He had this tape that he played in the car and when I asked what that was, he said that it was something he had been shopping for a while and he couldn't get any interest in it. It sounded pretty hip to me and so he sent me a copy and it was that simple. He really was having a hard time. No one was interested in him because he, I would hate to say this, but we are both middle aged white guys and there is not as much interest in our music. We're not at the crux point. We're not young and coming up anymore. We're not old enough to be old, established mentors. He is kind of stuck in the middle and I thought his music was quite essential myself. He has got some beautiful stuff.
FJ: 9Winds has also just released a new Ken Filiano record.
VG: Ken talked about doing this solo record for years. He just talked about it and talked about it. Finally, I said that I was going to record the string quartet and he wanted to play on that and I told him that he could play on it if, the next day, I would book the studio and he goes in and do this studio solo project. So he said that he would do it and he did it and it is gorgeous. It is really good. It is a really good record. I am very happy with it and I am sure he is too.
FJ: And the future for 9Winds?
VG: I have a couple of things, the first volume of Music for Like Instruments, which is a series of compositions and things for players who all play instruments that are either the same or in the same key. It is an idea that I have been toying with for a few years. The first version is for three alto saxophones and myself on E flat saxophone. I play contrabass saxophone, sopranino saxophone, and baritone saxophone. It is like a saxophone quartet, only everything is pitched in E flat. That's a really fun thing. I am also working on, believe it or not, there is a new version of the contrabass saxophone, which I have, called a tubax. I am putting that music together. All the music is recorded. It just needs to be mixed. It is for various settings for the tubax. I really like playing this instrument quite a bit. The German guy, Eppelsheim, who invented it is a genius. It's an amazing instrument. The contrabass saxophone in its current, traditional form, first off, there is only about twenty-four of those in the world. It is a hard instrument to get around on and play. I've played Anthony Braxton's and played one that LA Sax has. They are mostly made by ORSI. They don't blend in that well. They have their uses, but it is not as useful an instrument as the tubax. He has redesigned the entire tubing to make it more like a contrabassoon. It is an amazing instrument that plays with the fluency of a baritone saxophone. You are playing way down in this octave below baritone range and you are just cruising around. It is a very rich tone. The tone is not as resounding as the giant saxophone, but this tone is more useful for sections and doing certain things. I have that coming out and also, Walter Thompson, the saxophonist, is doing another CD with us. I haven't really decided to go box set or DVD, but for the Large Ensemble, something about the history of the Large Ensemble. I am trying to toy with the idea of doing a little overview CD of 9Winds music that was on different sessions, but didn't make it on to disc. There is a couple sessions that I have with me playing with John (Carter) and Bobby (Bradford) and there is one or two other sessions just hanging around. That is what I am working on.
FJ: Imagine the stars aligned and there was gold at the end of the rainbow, where do you envision 9Winds in five years?
VG: I would like to play somewhere and have people stop saying, "You're from LA? I didn't know there was that kind of music there?" That would be nice if stars aligned. I would like to get a better at what I do, actually a lot better at what I do. And also, I would like 9Winds to be a little bit more of an entity that can support itself a little bit more and not particularly need me to keep throwing capital into it. I would like it to be a very good overview of different kinds of music.
FJ: With the pitter patter of little feet (Golia and his wife have a two-year-old daughter), honestly Vinny, I don't know where you find the time.
VG: (Laughing) She is two years old and she is hell on wheels. She is really fun and wants to play all the woodwind instruments and also sings rather well. She has a lot of sympathy for percussionists (laughing).
FJ: She is her father's daughter.
VG: I don't sleep much, but it is still fun. You only live once. Try to make the most of it.