In Angel City, A Jazz Festival

Los Angeles is not always thought of as a jazz capital. New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and, on the West Coast, San Francisco make stronger claims, but there is an important history of the music in Southern California. From the early migration of Kid Ory and other hot jazz players from New Orleans to the development of the Central Avenue scene of the 1930s and 1940s, the music was of a piece with black migration to Los Angeles that crested in the war years and immediately after. In the 1950s, the jazz scene supported a number of significant independent record labels such as Pacific Jazz and Contemporary, and as I write in Blue Notes in Black and White, these companies helped create a visual culture for the music referencing the good life in sunny postwar Southern California. Chapter 4 features an interview with William Claxton, the foremost photographer of the modern jazz scene on the West Coast in the 1950s. By the time of the black arts movement in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles, the jazz scene seemed to have passed a peak in popularity.

William Claxton’s album cover photography (this one for a Pacific Jazz compilation) linked jazz to the California good life of the 1950s.

But the story certainly does not end there. Avant-garde and progressive jazz, in particular, have followings in Los Angeles, and one of the most important annual expressions of this is the Angel City Jazz Festival. Supported this year by the pioneering Jazz Bakery presenting organization, Angel City continued its musician-driven mission to bring important younger innovators and more venerable trailblazers together. The festival and the Jazz Bakery–anticipating a move to a new Frank Gehry-designed home in Culver City–are creative programmers unafraid to venture outside the mainstream of the music. I caught only the two last evenings of the Angel City festival at UCLA’s Royce Hall featuring national touring acts. I’ll write about Bill Frisell’s work a bit later, but I’m still processing what I heard on the last night from Vijay Iyer.

Bob Dylan once famously referred to Robbie Robertson as a “mathematical guitar genius.” In pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, leading his trio on Angel City Jazz’s final night at Royce Hall, we had a published mathematician and Berkeley Ph.D. (in Technology and the Arts) leading a trio, quartet, and sextet. The genius part is more subjective, but Iyer is clearly onto something different in the realm of the jazz trio. Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore display the virtuosity and interactivity that made Brad Mehldau’s trio so significant. The trio also employs the kind of rock power (with Gilmore’s modified hip-hop beats mixed in) that vaulted EST and the Bad Plus into the forefront of jazz trios. It is an intense but flowing brew that has put Iyer at the top of a variety of recent critic’s polls. Mehldau covers the moody Radiohead and Nick Drake, the Bad Plus Blondie and Nirvana. Iyer gives us Heatwave’s “The Star of a Story” and (on his recent album, Accelerando) Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” Heatwave composer Rod Temperton’s Euro-disco seems a perfect fit for the Iyer Trio’s propulsive sound, and it underscores Iyer’s globetrotting, anything-goes aesthetic, reminding me of his work with poet Mike Ladd on the 2003 release In What Language? On that recording, Iyer’s rippling music evoked the post-9/11 world of airport security checks and other diasporic indignities with a rhythmic intensity that matched the chilling immediacy of Ladd’s sardonic traveler’s tales.

It is hard not to compare Iyer to his rough contemporaries Mehldau and Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, but in performance Iyer reminded me of no one more than Ahmad Jamal, he of the light touch. Iyer’s engagement with his bandmates is less directorial and more conversational than Jamal’s, but his rhythmic discipline is as impressive as the older master’s. Iyer spends more time with both hands south of middle C than anyone I can think of. The result is much more than “doubling the bass” and it blurs the old line between comping and soloing. It all makes for a engrossing listening experience.

Iyer’s three-part set included his former mentor, alto saxophonist and M-Base visionary Steve Coleman, for a surprisingly muted quartet middle session. Matters picked up considerably when cornetist Graham Haynes and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim joined Coleman on the front line. The sextet’s work created plenty of anticipation for what will surely be a record in the near future. Coleman’s final extended solo of the night was his finest, a lyrical prayer whose grace and agility closed a strong evening of music making.

“We played a lot of music,” the leader said that the end of two and a half hours, and he referred to what was played within the time, not the length of time it took to play it.

For more on jazz in Los Angeles:

Clora Bryant, et. al., Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (University of California Press).

Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 (University of California Press).

Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Duke University Press).


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