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Freeway Jazz 

For you. Is that cool?

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo
For enterprise. For companionship. For protection against predators. Musicians with common viewpoints form subtribes, and L.A. contains its share. A significant one in this time of jazz transition includes pianist James Carney, members of the Los Angeles Jazz Quartet, and younger artists such as bassist Todd Sickafoose and guitarist Justin Morell. What links them? They play in each other's groups; they perform at the same locations; a thread of CalArts associations runs throughout. And they sound like what they are: your neighbors.

This is more of an achievement than it might seem. The big, messy thing called jazz, perceived as a citadel of freedom, nevertheless clamps steely manacles on its practitioners. From swing to bop to hard bop to avant-garde to fusion to neotraditional, movement after movement has hammerlocked the scene, resisting change and leaving musicians with three choices: play the current music, stick with a previously established genre on the revival circuit, or be ignored. Doesn't leave unlimited room for jazzpersons to -- you know -- express themselves.

The unfortunate result of this condition is that most of us don't get expressed, either. While plenty of idiosyncratic music is wriggling into limited view all over the world at any given time, jazz with greater mass potential, which speaks to the broader moods and feelings of particular regions (such as our own), often falls outside the everyman focus of nationwide media. But think positive -- Carney and company may get lucky. As Los Angeles has shown before, more than any other city, it is the nation (the world?).

***

A 12-year L.A. resident who makes his living partly by scoring IMAX films, pianist Carney has made no attempt to disguise his slant, sprinkling his two albums with such titles as "Disneyesque," "Miracle Mile" and "Quinn Martin." Anyway, you'd spot his L.A. ties without the hints. Concept tunes such as "Swamp Rookie" and "Daryl and the God Squad" are pure action/camera, and his light-fingered, arpeggiated approach to a ballad solo sprays Pico sunshine every which way. But he's no dozing beach boy. Despite a certain technical gloss, his structures are rhythmically complex and multitiered. You can hear his persistent inquiry, a gentle tugging against the restraints of convention.

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On the stage of the Jazz Bakery two months ago, Carney plants himself on the piano bench like Mahoney at the bar, his fingers transcending their stubbiness to master the quietly tortured emotionality of "22" and the blurry rush he builds from the Balinese scale of "Surabaya." Burly drummer Dan Morris (who's toured with Smashing Pumpkins!) and skinny crew-cut bassist Todd Sickafoose nail a jaunty, ironic funk groove on "Photo Op." Saxist Scott Mayo dips his chin-length dreadlocks into the clean improvisations and scored lines he adds to most of the material; bluesy wails cap his phrases. Rewarding maximum attentiveness, the music fits in this concert presentation, sort of an art film in sound. The folks in the chairs are right there with it -- they should be, it's for them.

A tad more easily than Carney, the Los Angeles Jazz Quartet might function as background music. Listen for a minute, though, and you'll tune out whatshisname's monologue from the next stool. At the angularly comfortable bar of the restaurant Rocco in the Bel Air canyons a couple of weeks after the Carney show, the four are celebrating the release of their third CD, Family Song, and the joint is stuffed. If Carney is daytime L.A., the LAJQ are the sunset version, with mysterious guitarist Larry Koonse stroking out violet hues, attentive drummer Kevin Tullius brushing a hush over skins and cymbals, underworldly saxist Chuck Manning darting out long, even lines, and Darek Oleszkiewicz (bassist on both Carney albums) providing the rubbery motivation.

While the music goes down with Triple Sec smoothness, its effortless chordal and rhythmic transitions are far from bland; if you start to drift away from its sway, you'll be pulled back on course by sudden increases in density or unexpected cloudy outbursts. You can't help but share these guys' destination, whether it's the lonely cemetery of "Dirge" or the melancholy Brazil of "A Tear From New York," and they do you the honor of providing fine upholstery for the ride. Part of the rapport comes from LAJQ's obliquely referenced lineage -- whiffs of Wes Montgomery and 1960 Coltrane. But mainly, it's plain that they just breathe the same smoggy air as you on the same freeways, and feel the same yen for a good Thai meal after a bad movie.

When you're on that freeway, watch out for Carney bandmate Sickafoose: He's got the momentum to bend some fenders. A tape of a Bakery performance demonstrates he can be an innovative orchestrator of abstractionist colorations; at Rocco the Saturday after the LAJQ gig, he diverts the bent-elbow crowd with a small ensemble featuring saxist Mayo, the brothers Mark and Alan Ferber on drums and trombone, and Justin Morell plucking a shaded and dynamic guitar. The music is just a half step short of maturity, memorable more for its effects than for its wholeness. But those effects can be head-turners: the staggered lines of the light, Latin-swinging "Full Circle," the unusual sustained harmonies behind "Big Oak." The melodies are strong, the rhythms sophisticated. And Sickafoose is a hard-driving, technically indomitable bassist; at 24, he's already hard to ignore.

As I fill my head with this rainbow of sounds, I try to discern what makes it all sound like L.A. There are the superficial interconnections of personnel. There's jazz borderbreaker Charlie Haden's influence at CalArts, a school Carney, Oleszkiewicz and Sickafoose attended and at which Koonse teaches guitar. There's Los Angeles itself, a city whose diversity and deceptive calm imprint themselves on anyone sufficiently exposed and open.

The openness: Maybe that's the x-factor that lets these players undermine the jazz tradition's protective uniform of cool. They show scant interest in emotional armor or outward conformity -- an attitude that allows both personality and deeper bonds to show through. And they're relaxed and melodic, almost in the '50s West Coast, Chet Baker sense, but without the pose or the dope. Is cool being redefined here? I have to ask.

Manning and Oleszkiewicz vibrate at the inquiry, fearing I'll lumber them with some horrific "new cool" label. "Cool has connotations that aren't necessarily positive: detached, lacking passion," says Manning, who's from the state of Washington. "What's valid about L.A. is that its separateness gives you the ability to be yourself, to feel you don't have to play the current licks."

Oleszkiewicz, who was raised in Poland, likes that word open to describe his music. Cool has no resonance for him. Carney and Sickafoose are willing to take a whack at their own definitions.

"Allowing the muse to follow an emotionally and intellectually unobstructed path is very cool, and very difficult to do consistently," says Carney. "Any person of integrity who excels at what he or she does could be a great source of inspiration. That's what makes someone cool." His list of such individuals ranges from quarterback Randall Cunningham to J.S. Bach, Samuel L. Jackson, Alfred Hitchcock, Katie Couric and his wife.

Sickafoose nods to Ornette Coleman, Joni Mitchell, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wayne Shorter and Igor Stravinsky. "Confidence shows cool," he says. "It's always been cool to think fast and be creative and perceptive and daring. But cool is also about not taking yourself so seriously. I guess cool is a kind of confident humility."

Not bad. Not bad at all.

 

The L.A. Jazz Quartet plays Rocco on Saturday, January 30. James Carney plays there Friday, March 5.

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