Angel City Jazz Festival
Is the Angel City Jazz Festival the best jazz festival in Los Angeles? It depends on how you measure it. If you are going by quality of acts, quantity of acts, accessibility of venue, price of parking or friendliness of crowd, then yes, it is the best jazz festival in Los Angeles. Last night, to close out three fantastic days of bookings across the L.A. basin, the Angel City Jazz Festival hosted a night of new and old at the pastoral Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood under the banner of “Artists & Legends.”
Sunday night's festivities started with drummer Peter Erskine's New Trio, featuring pianist Vardan Ovsepian and Erskine's nephew, Damian, on bass. The trio dealt in lighter swinging fare with frequent nods towards Ovsepian's crisp piano playing and writing. The trio built their largest swell as the elder Erskine took an extended drum solo that drew hefty applause to close the set.
All the while, the Los Angeles Jazz Collective provided performances by the fountain outside the venue. There were many teenagers in attendance at this event — a mind-boggling amount, frankly, and they seemed to dig the sounds. A lot of them could be found outside taking in locals like Dan Schnelle and Hamilton Price. There is still hope for this scene.
Bassist Mark Dresser followed on the main stage with a quintet that included trombonist Michael Dessen and horn-man Marty Erlich. The most curiously billed part of the set was pianist Denman Maroney who was credited as playing on hyperpiano. What is a hyperpiano? Not quite sure but it involved a regular piano and the coarse strings driven to wiry overtones by something that resembles a straight razor. It was a fine match for Dresser's out bowing. Local luminary Bobby Bradford joined the band on cornet for half the set and reminded us all why he is so important. Dresser and Bradford go back over forty years and their interplay implies a language all their own.
Trumpet wunderkind Ambrose Akinmusire, recently returned to the West Coast, brought his quintet but seemed a distant bandleader. The group spoke as a collective ensemble with Walter Smith III's tenor weaving intimately with Akinmusire like a latter-day Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. Bassist Harish Raghavan stepped into a contemplative bowed solo and was forced to compete with the Florence + the Machine concert crowd at the neighboring Hollywood Bowl. (Why was that crowd so loud, so early in the set?). His hushed tones coupled with the audience's absolute respect resulted in some strange distant roars that would continue throughout the night.
Finally, headliner Archie Shepp came to the stage. Tenor saxophonist Shepp had not played in Los Angeles since 1986 and seemed in no hurry to start. Dressed in a sharp suit and matching fedora, Shepp waited for his drummer to find his footing with help from no less than five stagehands. What was to be expected from a living avant garde legend? Where would the mysterious heir to the Coltrane throne take us on a blissful early Autumn night?
Curiously, he took us straight to the roots, adhering to a set of mostly blues and a tune apiece from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The quartet, driven by drummer Steve McCraven (who seemed in a state of perpetual soloing), stuck to a largely blues-inflected set, with Shepp appearing as a sort of Coleman Hawkins-like character: benevolent, bluesy and unafraid to sing a couple of choruses in a Johnny Hartman-esque baritone.
Throughout the set he quoted such tunes as “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “A Night in Tunisia,” playing gently with his sound until tackling his soprano saxophone towards the end and touching ever-so-slightly upon a shrill and powerful fire below. Towards the end, he dug into a personal poetry that resonated with history as the band churned behind him, before closing his set with straight-forward blues.
Were there any reasonable expectations from this man? Could we have complained if he looked at the sound system, the lights and the crowd and just decided “ah, fuck it!” and walked away? That was the risk in booking him and, clearly, a 26-year absence from our shores implies something. Either way it was a captivating performance that enforced the importance of defying expectation and leaving the crowd with as many questions as answers.
Personal Bias: Last time I was at the Ford Theatre I almost got my ass kicked. And it was an M. Ward show. How sad is that?
The Crowd: As diverse as imaginable. From ten year olds to 80 year olds.
Random Notebook Dump: The shushing has to stop, people. If a picnic is permitted then so should a little chatter. There are plenty of seats up close that will accommodate those with more sensitive ears. Go sit up there. (I was not one of those people shushed last night.)