by Greg Cutler, Published: 2010-10-06
We missed the first half of Kneebody’s set, but it didn’t matter because having never heard them before we were treated to a musical experience that boggles the mind. We got to hear two and a half songs, but that was enough to place them on a high shelf in my mind’s music library. All of the musicians brought their own brand of awesome to the stage Sunday evening, October 3 2010. Kneebody was playing with 9.0+ points and a 5.3 degree of difficulty. They are not afraid to challenge themselves and each other with intricate rhythms, transitions, and key changes that rolled out effortlessly. Kneebody has a unique system of musical cues that they use to indicate when to change tempo and key. Anyone in the band can cue each individual in the band to play a solo and they have to react on time. It is like watching a game. Nate Wood sits in the back on drums. He steers Kneebody off the edge of the world and the crew comes along for the ride keeping up the pace, blending each of their own unique styles into the music. Great fun!
Vinny Golia Sextet was next. When they came out on stage I thought, “OK, Here’s this grey haired old mentor-type guy with a bunch of his CalArts students.” which turned out to be the right, but in this case what happens is a collaborative, creative, and innovative experience. The older, wiser Vinny was handing down knowledge and talented execution of his amazing compositions to these younger musicians who took the baton and ran with it. I found out later that Vinny’s a prolific composer. He writes many pieces every week. He is constantly coming up with new arrangements and his bandmates are constantly challenged and pushed to innovate alongside him. He really plays the heck out of both alto and bass saxophone. Each piece held us in a trance wondering what would happen next.
Sons of Champignon. Wow! Three guys with the power and enthusiasm of an entire orchestra. Don’t get any stupid ideas about bringing in an actual orchestra because that would ruin it. Tim Berne’s alto saxophone wound and weaved a spider’s web around the electronic maelstrom of Nel Cline’s live guitar experimentation. Jim Black has a unique challenge of melding the two unlikely sounds into one cohesive mix of delight. From smooth airy meditations to loud, rocking’ sound explosions Black concentrated on the saxophone in a flurry of what looked like back-breaking effort, lassoing the guitar and tying it to the saxophone. Cline stood there with one foot in front of the other facing the drums. He’d rock back and forth and at times reel back and balance on one foot only to rock forward again as the music moved him. His guitar was grinding licks into the composition while the drums thundered a double bass extravaganza and Berne wielded his saxophone with intricate passion. Whew! Awesome!
Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet were the only musicians at the event that I had seen before so my expectations were pretty high. I was not disappointed. Smith leads his band like a general who leads from the from the frontline. His commanding presence influences every move. He is a composer, performer, and conducting an improvisational force of nature. It’s like watching Zeus moving the heavens. Pheeroan akLaff delivers beats that remind me of when I was a child imagining what I would have wanted to sound like if I could play the drums; a mad torrent of flourishing movement and sound, controlled chaos. The complex stylings of Vijay Iyer on keyboard belong in a genre all to themselves. The band could have easily relied too heavily on the melodically textures emitted by Vijay’s fingers, but the keyboard simply blended effortlessly with everything. John Lindberg provided a solid upright bass tempo and underlying melody during the slower parts, but when he gets out his bow – look out! His solo was my favorite of the night. Smith waits for things to get going and then at the proper moment springs into action! There is a conscious raising of the musical pace from gentle beginning to a fantastic crescendo. He blasts his trumpet licks out into our eardrums going from open to muted back to open along with the feel of the piece. Smith demonstrates his ability to play a clean song as well as the balls to get down and dirty. He can manipulate his instrument to deliver a soul-charged grind of sound that speaks to each of us in our internal struggles.
The evening was capped by the impeccable stylings of none other than Ravi Coltrane. He too, I had never had the pleasure of seeing live. Boy, were we all in for a treat. Even though it had gotten a bit chilly in the venue, my guest and I could not wait to see Coltrane and Ralph Alessi kick out the jams … and by God they did! As the set unfolded, Alessi’s smooth, crisp playing set the tone. As Steve Hass’ amazing technical ability got the audience moving and jiving to his swinging beats, Coltrane came sliding into the already well padded landing zone furnished with mellow guitar blends and bass tones provided by Larry Koonse and Derek Oles respectively. Even though I was sitting outside in the clear night air at Los Angeles’ Ford Amphitheater I felt teleported into a small intimate jazz club perhaps in Manhattan, NY. And then, it was as if the club was sitting on top of a double decker bus and we were all rolling along through the streets of New York sampling the landmarks and skyline. Slowly, Coltrane brought us easily out of this trance and back to reality. A fitting end to an otherwise entirely memorable evening of incredible jazz performances. No matter who shows up next year, I will make sure not to miss the Angel City Jazz Festival in 2011!