Vinny Golia's improvisational trio was in a small European town one time. "There was actually a chicken fluttering around. We had a gig in this old church. And I said, 'No one's gonna come here. At least it's a cool church.' But by the time we were finished setting up, the place was packed. I especially remember these three old guys in the front - character-actor types, with big hats and mustaches. They had paper bags underneath their chairs. We played the first tune, and at the end of it one guy nodded to the others, and they nodded back, and then they pulled out their dinner - if the music wasn't any good, they were gonna split. There, culture is just part of their life. Here, culture is an event, and no one comes."
By "culture," Golia (accent on the "Go") doesn't mean Godzilla - though he wouldn't exclude that, having dedicated extensive study to Japanese movie monsters and their ventral buzz saws. Rather than the culture that rips you open, he's referring to the stuff that makes you open yourself to it: the spontaneous, complex kind he's been practicing and propagating most of his life, and that has established him as the abbot of L.A. edge jazz. Golia has performed with and influenced more of this city's experimentalists than any other musician. Without him, our mainstream would be a little harder to ford - if you're one of the few who wonder what's on the other side.
"What we do is not popular music," says Golia. "That's fine, but to just eliminate it is not right. Isn't there a food you don't particularly go out of your way to get, but you enjoy it when you eat it?"
Golia was once a visual artist who happened to love music. After sketching a 1970 Charles Mingus performance back East - born in the Bronx, he grew up in Lodi, New Jersey - he found his shoulder weighted with the hand of sax shredder Pharoah Sanders. "Did you show this to Mingus?" inquired Sanders. "No? Oh - afraid, huh?"
Golia did show Mingus the drawings, and further proved he was no chicken by back-burnering his paint brushes a few years later in favor of saxes, clarinets, bassoons and flutes, some dozens of which he owns and plays, largely untutored, with confidence and skill. He also composes for groups of up to 30 musicians. And 1998 is the 21st year of Nine Winds, the record label he founded after moving to Los Angeles to showcase his own music and that of like-minded improvisers such as John Carter, Richard Grossman, Nels Cline and Steuart Liebig.
"It's hard to get attention," says Golia, "though people now know that with Nine Winds there's going to be a certain quality level - we don't just put out anything."
In addition to recording with other artists and touring the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan, Golia has increasingly infiltrated academia. Right now, he teaches a class in improvisation at CalArts, and classes in practical musicianship and the history of music in film at Pasadena's Art Center, and he's been a regents' lecturer - "Me and Ravi Shankar!" - at UC San Diego.
"It's amazing to take a concept that's abstract and try to put it into words and generate some kind of two-way conversation - aside from playing musically. You really have to go back and study what it is that you do."
Golia's models aren't media darlings, but educator-musicians. "Take someone like Bobby Bradford, or [the late] John Carter. These guys go to work every day for 30 years or whatever. They come home and practice, and they try to get gigs, and they play their asses off, and it's like they're buried. But the ones who get the press are the ones who used to be on the street, or used to have a problem, and they're overcoming this problem. Well," he says, "the problem is going to school every day and just trying to overcome mundaneness and then trying to turn on the creative lamp somewhere."
Golia gets his sparks from wherever. He was inspired, for instance, by the Tom Hanks-produced TV series on the American space program.
"The photography, the beauty of seeing the shapes, the gadgetry - space flight was experimentation at its most basic level. Chuck Yeager, when he broke the sound barrier, had fractured his ribs, and he attached a broom handle to his arm so he could hit the latch. That's like art to me. Also, if you take the physics of space travel and apply it to music, there's a place where the two seem to meet - music becomes science and science becomes art."
That kind of abstract thinking is key to the way Golia plays: His sound palette constantly jostles scales and modes for conceptual dominance. If he wants to change timbres, he might move from sopranino sax to bamboo flute; he loves bass clarinet for its infinite tonal detail and multiphonic explosivity. When he's soloing on his own compositions, riding the wave of a longtime drum platoonmate such as Alex Cline or Billy Mintz, the meaty baritone sax could be the best vehicle for his questioning, fluid/jagged style, which swings even as it avoids the conventions of bop and blues. But when he's a co-equal corner of an improvising triangle - with Wadada Leo Smith and Bertram Turetzky, for example - the tones are likely to be longer and more carefully shaped, arranged with a painterly sense of proportion. This is one musician who, despite the high levels of accomplishment he's reached before, continues to improve.
On a typical day when he's not touring or teaching, Golia gets up at around 7:30 and attends to the faxes, orders and bookkeeping of the Nine Winds business, writes music at his computer till 10 a.m., practices into the afternoon, and goes back to writing at night. While his financial status is always precarious, he and his girlfriend share a Silver Lake house and a nice garden, and even had trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard as a neighbor for a while.
"I was warming up on a horn and my girlfriend said, 'The man next door wants to meet you - says he plays trumpet. Some old guy in a bathrobe.'"
In his youth, Hubbard dabbled in the avant-garde himself; it's suggested to Golia that Freddie might have found the rewards rather slim.
"Are there rewards?" says Golia. "I guess I'll keep doin' it, then."
The Vinny Golia Quintet (featuring
Alex Cline, Nels Cline, John Fumo and Mike Elizando) plays a free show at the L.A. County Museum on Friday, August 14, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. The Nine Winds Web site is at http://members.aol.com/ninewinds/, or write P.O. Box 10082, Beverly Hills, CA 90213.
On Nine Winds
"Improvisation starts with other cultures that we take from rather freely," says Golia. "Most of it is based on spiritual music, and really great music always has that element to it. If you take the Byrds' 'Eight Miles High,' there's a kind of questing, an excitement.
Even the best hardcore punk has that. It's like Albert Ayler energy."
Here's a sampling of the CDs released on Nine Winds in the last year or so.
With Vinny Golia
The Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, Portland 1996. Modern classical underpinnings with a ferocious urban attitude; random overtures build to staggering monstrosities. Somebody find a big hall; this 26-piece unit needs to play L.A. more often.
The Rob Blakeslee Quartet, Spirit of the Times. Portland trumpeter Blakeslee, the best edge-jazz composer on the West Coast, focuses his perfect clarity of vision through Golia, bassist Ken Filiano and ectoplasmic drummer Billy Mintz.
Wadada Leo Smith/Vinny Golia/Bertram Turetzky, Prataksis. It's not for nothing that all three teach at Southland universities; their fluid melodic and harmonic improvisations on trumpet, winds and bass define mastery.
Jeff Kaiser, Nothing Is Not Breath. An octet with the nuance of a duo supports Kaiser's compositions: sort of Russian processionals set free.
The Paul Smoker/Vinny Golia Quartet, Halloween, The Sequel. New York free jazz the way it used to be.
Without Vinny Golia
Jess Jones Quartet, Family. Recorded live in New York, the twin tenors of Jess and Tony Jones promote insistent swing and defiant melody. An electrifying debut.
Queen Mab, Barbie's Other Shoe. The fairy-monarch group name and the whimsical title are misleading. Canadians Marilyn Lerner (piano) and Lori Freedman (clarinets) offer emotion, conception, technical command and sheer substance.
David Johnson/Ken Rosser, Dual Force. A clean, full, distinctive extrapolation on African pop and Brazilian sway from this marimba-guitar duo.
The Walter Thompson Orchestra, The Colonel. New York conductor Thompson promotes Sound Painting, a system of 300 gestures to influence players' improvisation on his compositions, which range from spasmodic to woozy.
Jeff Gauthier Quartet, The Present; Steuart Liebig, Quartetto Stig: Pienso Oculto. I plug these L.A. geniuses all the time. Catch them at every opportunity.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.