Vinny Golia Large Ensemble: 20th Anniversary Concert

John Kelman By

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The Vinny Golia Large Ensemble
20th Anniversary Concert
Nine Winds NWDVD250

There was a time when there existed a clear delineation between jazz and classical musicians. More than simply a matter of repertoire, it had much to do with the fact that the raison d'être of jazz musicians was improvisation, while that of classical musicians was of interpretation. A fine line? Perhaps. But early experiments that brought musicians from both worlds together often failed because the jazz players were unable to work within the more rigid compositional confines of through-composed music, while classical players' attempts at improvisation sounded, at the very least, unconvincing.

But as music as a whole has ventured farther away from demarcation, so too have musicians found themselves living in many worlds. Many classical players—especially those who work with more contemporary repertoires—are now proving themselves to be imaginative improvisers. Jazz musicians can now be found comfortably crossing over into not only working with classical repertoire, but writing their own pieces that live in a similar ideological space. It's the appeal of free improvisation within a modernistic large-scale compositional framework that has broken down barriers to the point where, for many, they simply no longer exist.

Woodwind multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia has been living in the space where form and freedom coexist since 1971, when he gave up painting to devote himself to music full-time. In the ensuing years he's been something of a galvanizer to more than one generation of American West Coast musicians who are similarly attracted to dissolving the artificial borders of musical genres. Golia's projects have ranged from solos to duos including last year's The Entire Time with guitarist Nels Cline to small group encounters like this year's live One, Three, Two. But as unerringly adventurous as all his music has been, it's his Large Ensemble that's perhaps represented his most fearless combination of the tonal with the atonal, the rhythmic with the arrhythmic, and the melodic with the purely textural.

Since forming the ensemble in 1982, when it began as a fourteen-piece ensemble, it's grown not only in size and scope, but in musical aspiration. Make no mistake. This is not a jazz big band. The 35-piece incarnation of The Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, represented on the recently-released 20th Anniversary Concert DVD, is a chamber orchestra, but one where everyone is as comfortable extemporizing as they are following complex structure. The Ensemble is a veritable who's who of the Left Coast scene, including charter members Wayne Peet (keyboards); Alex Cline (percussion); John Fumo (trumpet) and Mike Vlatkovich (trombone) alongside more recent enlistees like Cryptogramophone label owner Jeff Gauthier (violin), Brad Dutz (percussion), Bruce Fowler (trombone), PfMENTUM label owner Jeff Kaiser (trumpet, flugelhorn), Scot Ray (trombone) and Bill Roper (tuba, spoken word). Many of these players are leaders in their own right, and the ensemble has a collective resume that's almost infinite in size and musical scope.

The 100-minute performance that makes up the lion's share of the DVD comes from a 2002 performance that features half a dozen recent Golia compositions. What is remarkable is the way that conductor Marc Lowenstein manages to maintain order within the potential chaos of improvisational sections that range from individual soloing to collective section free-play. While certain passages are strictly composed while others are more open-ended, the challenge for much of the performance is to determine who is engaged in pursuit of form as opposed to those being given free reign.

With the number of instruments at his disposal, there runs the risk of excessive density, and to be sure, parts of the performance are cacophonous maelstroms of sound. But from passages where everyone is in the pool at once emerge smaller subsections, including an outré organ spot from Peet around the 45-minute mark—apparently during "The Long Short Nite, but with the set running continuously, it's only thanks to the included notes that you'd ever know—that represents, however briefly, one of a few points in the set that actually swing in any kind of traditional sense.

That nearly everyone gets either separate or collective solo space is testament to Golia's encouraging democracy—another reason why he's been such a focal point on the Left Coast scene for nearly 35 years. Still, Golia gets his own opportunity to shine, with his sopranino solo at the tail end of the performance raising the question why he hasn't reached the same level of exposure and acclaim as British saxophonist Evan Parker. He's clearly as technically facile as Parker, with an equally broad application of extended techniques. But the unfortunate truth is that, for some reason, the Left Coast scene has always avoided the greater recognition it deserves, and that's a shame, because it represents as distinctive a voice as the edgier scenes in cities like Chicago, New York and London.

As the set draws to a close, Bill Roper delivers an impromptu speech that praises Golia, and it's clear from the response of the band members around him that Golia has carved a unique space in the Los Angeles scene—it's no hyperbole to suggest, in fact, that he's almost single-handedly responsible for the Left Coast scene as it is today.

From a technical perspective, 20th Anniversary Concert must have been a challenge. It's a spartan two-camera set-up—one out in the audience, attempting to capture the scope of the entire ensemble, and at times just barely succeeding, and another for close-ups. Still, it would appear that, unlike some video productions, there wasn't a camera person on stage'"not that there was any room for one. The sound is clear and crisp, but maintains the ambience of a live recording, making the whole experience of watching the DVD akin to being in the audience.

As extra features there is some rehearsal footage and a slide show of performance shots. But most interesting is the 50-minute interview footage, where many of the band members, along with Golia himself, talk about many things, including how this envelope- pushing music has evolved over the years.

Golia's music is rarely for the faint-at-heart, and a 35-piece ensemble like this clearly challenges those who like their music safe and predictable. But it's exciting stuff, and since financial practicalities would prohibit an ensemble of this size from embarking on any kind of tour, we can thank Golia for releasing this DVD—giving those of us not living in the Los Angeles area a chance to experience the excitement of a Large Ensemble concert in the comfort of our own home.

Visit Vinny Golia on the web.

Personnel: Eric Barber: woodwinds; Rob Blakeslee: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jessica Catron: cello; Daphne Chen: violin; Alex Cline: drums, percussion; Brad Dutz: percussion; Bruce Fowler: trombone; John Fumo: trumpet; Jeff Gauthier: violin; Ludvig Girdland: violin; Vinny Golia: woodwinds, composer; Ed Harkins: trumpets; Ivan Johnson: contrabass; Jeff Kaiser: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ronit Kirchman: violin; Alan Lechusza: woodwinds; Marc Lowenstein: conductor; Devin Maxwell: percussion, mallets; Joe McNally: contrabass; Guenevere Meascham: cello; Jason Mears: woodwinds; George McMullen: trombone; Hal Onserud: contrabass; Wayne Peet: piano, organ; Andrew Pask: woodwinds; Bill Plake: woodwinds; Scot Ray: trombone; Kim Richmond: woodwinds; Bill Roper: tuba, spoken word; Jennifer Roth: flutes; Eric Sbar: euphonium; Sara Schoenbeck: bassoon; Jonathan Stenney: bassoon, contrabassoon; Phil Teele: bass trombone; Michael Vlatkovich: trombone; Rob Zimmerman: cello.

Track Listing: Section B version 2; Raincheck for the Revolution; The Long Short Nite; One for Bennie; Goody Two Shoes & The Filthy Beast; History in Jakarta 2053, See You There...

Approximate Running Time: 100 minutes

Extras: Interviews with members of The Vinny Golia Large Ensemble (50 minutes); Rehearsal footage (10 minutes); slide show.


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