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The World's Most Dangerous Musicians

Clines, Rudolph & Golia by Debra DiPaolo

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.

Listen to: L.A. Jazz Real Audio Format non Credo Alex Cline Ensemble Nels Cline Trio Brad Dutz/John Holmes Igor Stavinsky Adam Rudolph Steuart Liebig William Parker Golia/Leo Smith/Turetzky Vinny Golia James Newton John Cage Alex Cline Ensemble Baron Mingus Richard Grossman Nels Cline/Thurston Moore Glen Gould

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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.

BLOWIN’

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.

BEATIN’

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 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.

ELECTRIFYIN’

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.

OBBLIGATO

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.

The Question

One might be ambitious enough to try making sense of this post-jazz jungle, to try discovering common genes. What do Chicago, Texas and Los Angeles have in common? Why do so many of these musicians (Schoenberg, Golia, Kaoru, Roper, A. Cline) have backgrounds as visual artists? Instead, we asked some of the players to respond to just one dumb question. Naturally, they were patient. That’s another thing they seem to share.

Q: What motivated you to choose your current musical path?

Wadada Leo Smith: I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, where music was a partaker in all aspects of African-American life. I recognized that the blues masters could cause the deepest change in feeling. Around age 6 or 7, I was introduced to music by my stepfather, Alex Wallace, a blues guitarist and vocalist, who was my first mentor in the Delta blues tradition. He opened the door of inner vision — the improvisational presence of thinking, knowing and making music from the heart. On looking back over 50 years, I recall how important it was when I learned of the master composer and performer David of the Bible tradition, and the surviving strength of David’s mystical songs, which still have great meaning today. What attracts me most to the path of music is its nonverbal nature, its power to move across racial and cultural zones to touch the human being deep in the heart, revealing new light.

Alex Cline: It seems less that I chose my current direction (composer-bandleader) than it chose me. I must follow the ray of inspiration, and by doing so also acknowledge those who have come before whose creations have helped guide and bless my life. My hope is that the music will also, more importantly, reflect an approach informed by my desire to be like a transparent vessel rather than to "express myself." Perhaps the resulting sounds could even arouse in the listener the sense of longing that moves me in so much of my favorite music — a longing that leads to reverence.

Jeff Gauthier: I’ve never felt as if choice was involved. Every twist in the road has kept me on the right path. When I discovered that my favorite music (Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett) somehow featured improvisation, every musical endeavor became an exercise in acquiring the skills to become a fluent improviser and composer. Perhaps the most important factor is the company I am blessed to keep — many of the most influential musicians and teachers in my life have also been my closest friends.

G.E. Stinson: The realization that what I am interested in is being present and creative. And listening to pianist-improviser Richard Grossman, who embodied these concepts.

Steuart Liebig: I don’t necessarily have a direction. What I have are interests — and these interests get turned into raw material for the music that I write, perform and improvise. Jazz (’50s–’90s), blues, rock, country, R&B, punk rock, classical — all become grist for the compositional mill. There are formative experiences: a somewhat musical family that afforded me the opportunity to hear things that many of my peers did not; the extreme luck to fall in with good players and comrades who could supply context and support; the opportunity to tour with both Les McCann and Julius Hemphill; the disillusion of dealing with a "major" record company, which led me to turn my back on "commercial" music and delve further into music that was truer to my vision.

Brad Dutz: The quest to hear something different, odd, surprising, confusing. As long as I don’t have airplay or a record deal, I know I must be doing something right.

Nels Cline: Oddly, having started in music some 30 years ago as a know-nothing, rock-obsessed improviser kid, and later having become slightly smarter and more jazz- and new-music-aware, I find my path pretty much the same as it was way back when: Emotion, intellectual interest, simple tension-and-release, form and spontaneity are still what I involve myself with.

Vinny Golia: I needed an artistic path that would give me constant challenges. This music does that — you always start fresh. I also needed a way to transfer previous knowledge into another form: painting into composing, drawing into improvising. The interaction with other musicians was very important, as were the spiritual qualities inherent in this music.

Kaoru: What I see and hear in everyday life.

William Roper: Here’s a true story. In high school, a group of musicians that I ran with competed for a scholarship to pay for lessons. One guy played a piece of "new" music. It was very wild. This guy was a monster player and had brass balls. The judges had suspicions. They asked to see the music. He showed them a paper with a lot of pencil squiggles on it. He told them that it had been written especially for him. Here’s the point. They couldn’t tell, by listening, if it was legit or not. I found out from him later that he had scratched those marks, then got up there and played what he felt like playing.

Consider that I play the tuba. It is an extreme instrument. Contemporary classical music can be extremely difficult. To play and to listen to. After doing it for years, one faces the truth that the audience is not very large and is not likely to get larger. One also learns the importance of "sound" as opposed to "music." "Music" as in line and harmony. Your world becomes larger than this "music." This expanded palette is really one of the most important elements of the music of the avant-garde. It is also the element to which the audience is most resistant.

What do classical brass players generally want to do? Play in an orchestra. How many full-time professional orchestras are there in the U.S.? Not many. How many tubaists do they employ? One per. What does a tuba player do when he/she gets an orchestra position? Keep it till they die. Four or five years may go by between even having a chance to compete to do what you think you want to do. So what does a tuba player do in the meantime? Either stops playing or gets into other music. I did the latter.