Summertime Jazz: Still Alive and Swingin' in Los Angeles
The Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet may have pushed the limit of the "jazz" festival label even further, particularly in its instrumentation. With Horvitz on piano, joined by Ron Miles (trumpet), Peggy Lee (cello), and Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), the ensemble alternately produced haunting, screeching, reflective, cacophonous and joyous sounds that encompassed the entire spectrum of human emotion.
As day turned to night, a cool breeze and warm applause greeted the Nels Cline Singers and Jeff Parker, who responded with heated sonic distortions of their own. These guys scratched, scraped, slapped and pounded their instruments for maximum effect, all the while looking like delirious teenagers given free reign in their high school's woodworking and metal shop.
And while jazz traditionalists (there probably weren't many in attendance), may have cringed during these raucous excursions, the band's interpretation of Ornette Coleman's "Congeniality" was a festival highlight. Their initial statement of the melody triggered immediate cries of recognition and appreciation from the hip audience. Leader, guitarist and twin brother of Alex Cline, Nels, his exertions manic in intensity, blurred the line between his roles as creative musician and mad scientist. Devin Hoff, a depraved look on his face, did things to his bass that I'd forbid a child to witness. Drummer Scott Amendola, jaw clamped down tightly on his sticks, resembled a psychiatric patient undergoing electroshock therapy. Meanwhile, Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker, heeding fellow Chicago legend Oscar Brown's advice to " keep cool," brought balance and sanity to the proceedings, as he sat back and calmly let loose his own blues inflected improvisations.
Bennie Maupin and Dolphyana, a band formed as a tribute to the late, great L.A. native, Eric Dolphy, closed out the festival. Dolphy, whose premature death was one of the jazz world's great tragedies, had entrusted several of his final compositions with a friend before departing on a European tour that he would not survive. Years later, these compositions were turned over to flutist, James Newton, who then passed this material on to Mr. Maupin, knowing that the reed master had been inspired by Dolphy to take on the bass clarinet. Their set included some of this never before heard material, as well as original works by Maupin. Darek Oles opened with a pensive bass line on Dolphy's "Something Sweet, Something Tender." The sonorous tone of Maupin's bass clarinet mingled seductively with the light, airy sound of Nestor Torres' flute. On Dolphy's "Out to Lunch," drum master, Billy Hart, launched into a riveting solo. Unlike too many younger drummers who overwhelm a solo with speed and power, Hart demonstrated the value of nuance, changing tempo and intensity with a veteran's ease. The evening's musical program concluded with a Maupin original, "Message to Prez," from his recent CD, Penumbra (Cryptogramophone Records, 2006). Maupin's hypnotic bass clarinet, so memorable on the Miles Davis classic, Bitches Brew (Columbia Records, 1969>, seemed supernaturally empowered to reach out to Mr. Lester Young in the far beyond.
As the lights came on and the band packed away their instruments, the evening's emcee, LeRoy Downs, KKJZ DJ and virtual host on his Jazzcat Website, thanked the crowd for its enthusiastic and warm embrace of the festival's challenging musical program called out Somazzi for a well deserved hand for organizing this rare and desperately needed affair. And on that note, let's hope that Southern California will always have enough brave, hip and dedicated souls to keep jazz alive.