The World's Most Dangerous Musicians
L.A.'s Post-Jazz Scene
by Greg Burk
The most dangerous music is like a reverse pipe bomb: Instead of killing people, it makes them come alive. It exists because it has to; it's an irrepressible gift. In return for giving it, the musician does not expect to generate capital, encourage groin service, move feet, promote product or vend religion. Such a gift clearly threatens the American way of life.
All music is dangerous, but which most? Not pop; pop stars (and their fans) get destroyed. Not classical, which relegates greatness to the past. Not folk - - aspirin for the oppressed. The most dangerous music includes "new" music, experimental music and the jazz fringe, all with a deep current of improv; its threats are liberation, innovation, community and spirituality.
Every burg contains dangerous musicians; Los Angeles conceals an especially amazing bunch, and they're happy with their hiding place. One after another, they heap the same unexpected praise on this city: Its sprawl and its distance from acknowledged hubs of the avant-garde (New York, Berlin) allow its artists to develop without conforming. In spite of how long they've been plotting - - most for 20 years or more - - some of the current seditionists remain secret enough to need introduction. So here it is. Ç
LOS ANGELES: MOTHER OF INVENTION
Los Angeles has long served as a hideout for revolutionaries. In the early 1930s, an Austrian-born Jew named Arnold Schoenberg smelled the coming Nazi horror and moved to our city. He had invented the 12-tone compositional method, which a contemporary Time magazine article described as "so complicated that only he and a couple other fellows understand what it is all about." It took a kid from L.A. to out-extreme the master: John Cage, who studied with Schoenberg at UCLA from 1935 to 1937, completely reconceived what music was, making even Igor Stravinsky (another L.A. resident for much of the '40s and '50s) seem conservative.
It's amusing to imagine Schoenberg's upsetter vibrations traveling the mere three miles from USC, where he taught soon after arriving here, to 1545 E. 52nd St., the first Los Angeles home of Charles Mingus. But the truth is that the great bassist-composer downloaded Schoenbergian modern harmonies by way of the neoclassical arrangements Billy Strayhorn constructed for Mingus' idol, Duke Ellington.
The mid-'40s visits of beboppers ç Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie opened the ears of L.A. musicians - - including those of Mingus and his friend Eric Dolphy, a wizardly wind player - - to the possibility of incorporating any note, not just the ones everyone considered "musical," into their improvisations. And the post-Parker trend reached its furthest ex ploration when Fort Worth saxist Ornette Coleman hooked up with New Orleans' Ed Blackwell, Iowa's Charlie Haden, and L.A.'s Don Cherry and Billy Higgins in the City of the Angels to play Coleman's "harmolodic" music, which did away with chord changes altogether.
When Coleman split town for good as the '60s dawned, the torch was passed to those of his associates who remained here off and on, including bassist Haden, trumpeter Cherry, drummer Higgins, cornetist Bobby Bradford and clarinetist John Carter. The Dolphy line continued through flutist James Newton. A powerful influence on the next generation was Philadelphia import Richard Grossman, a former bebopper whose pulseless piano approach reflected his respect for Schoenberg and Cage. And it'd be hard to slight the impact of regional pop-fringe artists Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, who turned obsessions with Edgard Varèse and the blues, respectively, into unprecedented individualizations.
Of the aforementioned, only Coleman, Beefheart, Haden, Higgins, Bradford and Newton remain alive. Only the last four remain in Los Angeles. And of those four locals, only the last two still consistently walk the dangerous edge.
What does it mean that four of the next five guys teach at CalArts? It means the school isn't afraid of the edge, having long mined the talents of electronic-music pioneer Morton Subotnick, among many others. Charlie Haden, one of this era's most penetrating musical minds, also has a lot of influence there. All five listed here have found new ways to blow into old instruments.
James Newton is the pre-eminent living avant-garde flutist and a monster composer - - for evidence, try his 1994 Suite for Frida Kahlo (Audioquest). Snapshot: Newton blowing holes in the wall at the Kool Jazz Festival in the late '80s. This instrument is made out of metal, dammit.
Bobby Bradford. This Texan likes to toss hunks of funk, blues and whatever into a stew that's always new, having founded his Mo'tet for that purpose. Never harsh, Bradford is one gentleman whose cornet can find the melody in the thorniest thicket.
Vinny Golia taught himself to blow everything from shakahuchi to contrabaritone sax, and has helmed the scene's most valuable record label, Nine Winds, for 21 years. Snapshot: Golia shoulder to shoulder with Bradford and bassist Roberto Miranda at a March tribute to Horace Tapscott, spieling out maybe his most intense, considered and burning solos ever - - and that's really, really saying something.
Wadada Leo Smith. An early recruit of Chicago's landmark Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, Smith was named to CalArts' Dizzy Gillespie chair five years ago and has pushed his smoke into our region's corners ever since. His trumpet and various instruments from around the world always lend an element of shamanic magic. Soak up Prataksis (Nine Winds), with Golia and bassist Bertram Turetzky.
William Roper. Wherever somebody is trying something different - - music, poetry, theater, performance art - - chances are good that Roper's tuba is gonna be sticking out of it somewhere. He's not just a foundational element to the larger ensembles of Golia and others such as pianist Glenn Horiuchi, but a technical-textural improviser who wears non-mainstream earglasses.
One-two-three-four . . . Nope. While percussion is the most basic of musical elements, it also has the least limitations. L.A.'s edge drummers add a few thousand nuances to the pound-on-a-log legacy, these three each in a completely different way.
Alex Cline. With cymbals, gongs, drums and his brain, Cline composes textures, not just tunes. There's a soaring, timeless quality to his music that combines spirit with emotion. Especially sensual is his new Sparks Fly Upward (Cryptogramo phone).
Adam Rudolph. Rising from the next generation out of Chicago after Wadada Leo Smith, Rudolph went to Africa to feel the heart of ç the drum, then found his own way to make it beat. His Moving Pictures band is about the most modern and natural "world" music you'll encounter. Snapshot: Rudolph squeals out a shivering tone from the head of a conga as the shadow of butoh dancer Oguri freezes against the whitewashed wall of the Electric Lodge.
Brad Dutz. Though he's been a soundtracker, a groove artist, a percolating vibraphonist - - and was even generating what might be called techno and ambient well before they impinged on mainstream consciousness - - this chameleon puts a common imprint on all his music. Call it curious concentration.
It's a love affair with alternating current. At first, musicians hardly knew what to do with the last 20 years' explosion of signal-manipulating technology. Then more and more of them figured out that you didn't have to play just notes anymore - - with equal variety and subtlety, you could play the electronic sounds themselves. This kind of improvisation has become a new strain of jazz. And yes, you have to be damn good to do it well. These L.A. residents are virtuosos.
Nels Cline. Erupting in duo with Thurston Moore or Carla Bozulich or Devin Sarno or Gregg Bendian; twangling with Mike Watt; tearing out long lines in a Tapscott tribute; ranging from heavy to heaven in his own groups (and we're just scanning a random page here) - - even more amazing than guitarist Cline's ubiquity is his ability to play exactly the appropriate thing in every context. His veins are wires, and that sure doesn't mean they don't bleed.
Steuart Liebig. To say only that he plays bass would be misleading. As an improviser, he commands a shocking array of effects. As a composer, he can create rigorous but liberating frameworks for wide-open jazz on one hand (Quartetto Stig) and harmonica honk on the other (Beutet). And mainly, he hears everybody else, assimilates it all and kicks it to another level.
Kaoru. In experimental improvisation, knowing just when to activate an old-time music box or retune a transistor radio is one thing, and Kaoru has the knack. But what you'll never see anyone else pull off is what she's done in Unique Cheerful Events (with Liebig, G.E. Stinson and Joseph Berardi): Sample the band as it's playing, release the sound back into the mix, treat it with delay or whatever, and create a self-reinforcing typhoon. Snapshot: Kaoru surrounded by UCE and the red walls of the defunct Alligator Lounge, slowly twisting a knob, calm in the apocalyptic storm.
G.E. Stinson. While he finds a lot of different devices with which to manipulate his guitar, the resulting sounds are moans, not shrieks - - maybe his Chicago roots encouraged a bluesman's taste. If you want an exotic atmosphere, just plug him in. Right of Violet (Nine Winds), his CD with Alex Cline and Jeff Gauthier, has enough undertow to draw most anybody down.
Jeff Gauthier. A founding member (with Nels Cline, Alex Cline and Eric Von Essen) of the chamber-jazz group Quartet Music in 1979, Gauthier has already played his classically rounded electric (and acoustic) violin on L.A.'s desolation row for over 20 years. And now, after countless edge projects, he's started a record label, Cryptogramophone, to document the music to maximum effect. If maiden releases by Jeanette Wrate's Northern Lights Ensemble and Alex Cline are any indication, this could indeed be our secret Deutsche Grammophon.
This isn't intended to be a complete list, only a marking of fence posts in a field so fertile that it keeps turning up new surprises. In no way does the omission of such valuable regional artists as John Bergamo, Susan Allen, Derf Reklaw, Arthur Jarvinen, Wayne Peet, Emily Hay, Lynn Johnston, Billy Mintz, Kraig Grady, Kira Vollman, etc., etc., indicate anything more than the fact that this isn't an encyclopedia. See 'em all: at the Pasadena Shakespeare Company's Sunday Evening Concerts, at the Faultlines series on 24th Street, at Venice's Electric Lodge, at Hollywood's own Knitting Factory when it opens next year. One day, this scene will be called historic. And you won't be faking when you brag that you were there.