Bobby Bradford
Bobby Bradford
Rich Halley

How the Music of Free Improvisation Returned to Los Angeles

Free-improvising saxophonist Steve Lacy once said, “In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds — while in improvisation, you have 15 seconds.”

Developing and nurturing a scene for improvised music in L.A., however, takes a little more time.

Over the past four years, Andrew Choate and semi-silent partner Peter Kolovos — with their Unwrinkled Ear and Black Editions series of live free-improv actions throughout Los Angeles — have turned around a relatively moribund free-improvised and avant-jazz scene in the city. A once-thriving world of weirdness and expression, it ran in parallel to scenes in cities like New York, Chicago, Tokyo and San Francisco when it came to regular presentations of that particularly difficult aspect of music where jazz and the avant-garde intersect. Los Angeles has always had a tradition of free-improv greatness — the Cortical Foundation actions of the late ’90s by the impeccable Gary Todd; linespaceline, the Echo Park venue helmed by Jeremy Drake, Chris Heenan and David Rothbaum; Brandon LaBelle's longtime bookings at Beyond Baroque; and Nels Cline’s notorious New Music Mondays.  

Coalescing that scene has always required focused, devoted and diligent people working for the greater good of the art. Naturally, people come and go — migration being the underlying theme of America — and even though the past work and influence remains, the field remains fallow for various periods of time.

Choate and Kolovos (South Carolina artist/bollard aficionado and Los Angeles guitarist for the band Open City, respectively) banded together five years ago to nurture — and inadvertently resurrect — the free-improv scene in Los Angeles. Their breakout concert production came in 2014 with a performance involving percussionist Han Bennink and violinist Mary Oliver at a screening of Misha Enzovoort (Misha and So On), the 2013 documentary on Dutch jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg, who founded the other ICP, the Instant Composers Pool. They split the heavy lifting — Kolovos with Japanese and academic avant-garde live actions offered up courtesy of his Black Editions production imprint, and Choate with his Unwrinkled Ear presentation concern handling practically everything else.

They work in a way that seems both effortless and endless to bring musicians both internationally acclaimed and locally celebrated to area performance stages. In the process, they've successfully undertaken more experimental and avant-garde performances than their larger, more established and deep-pocketed counterparts. It's a sea change that represents a healthier and more diverse showcase for the avant-garde than Los Angeles has enjoyed in recent memory.

What are some of the challenges he's faced in putting on shows? "The venues have been the biggest one for the longest time," Choate says, adding, "Some shows need a nice PA; some shows, I need a quality piano. This latest festival took me the longest time because I couldn't bring a venue of appropriate size for me to bring out people like Evan Parker and Sten Sandell. The venue is by far the hardest thing."

Kjell Nordeson
Kjell Nordeson
Peter Gannushkin

And yet Choate has successfully used spaces as diverse as chic-yet-somehow-stately loft Montserrat for Norwegian composer Maja Ratkje and Berlin pianist Magda Mayas; the Echo for legacy improv juggernaut Peter Brötzmann Quartet; and the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica for the upcoming two-day avant extravaganza the Unwrinkled Ear Festival of Improvised Music. The festival — happening this weekend at the decidedly forward-thinking hour of 2 p.m.— brings together titans of out music such as Roscoe Mitchell, the woodwinds maestro who co-founded both the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; longtime Los Angeles trumpeter Bobby Bradford; Swedish percussionist Kjell Nordeson; English extended technique saxophonist Evan Parker; and Swedish pianist and sound poet Sten Sandell. These players are world-renowned but if you haven't seen them much around Los Angeles, it's understandable.

Quite frankly, if the Unwrinkled Ear contingent weren't bringing them here and giving them the kind of presentation that befits their rare and colossal talents, no one else would.

With this continuing wealth of challenging music flowing like champagne, audiences must be absolutely overwhelmed with sweat in their appreciation.

"It's hard to gauge sometimes," Choate admits, explaining, "I go to noise shows, and I go to avant-garde classical shows and post-rock shows — and man, I'll tell you, there's not an overlap. You can't get people even studied in the jazz department at CalArts to embrace someone like Evan Parker. Sometimes you can't get people to open up to musicians that their teachers haven't mentioned."

It's that sense of apartness — that lack of intellectual curiosity — that Choate tries to combat with every performance they produce.

"I'm knocking my head against the wall all the time. It's like pulling teeth to get people interested in a musician that excels in extended techniques, with ridiculous virtuosity and imagination — because it's improvised and not written down."

Is there a kind of music that's a little too difficult?

"I don't think so at all. I think this music is extremely accessible — and especially when you hear it live. After the first improv show I ever saw live — which, as it turns out, was (Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder) Roscoe Mitchell in 1994 — I started going to shows three, four, five times a week."

Ultimately, Choate sees their efforts booking artists and festivals such as these as springboards for the artists to go out and perform more places around the world than they ordinarily would because they've been supported and presented with such care and professionalism.

"I want those musicians to be able to spread their music as widely as possible - because I do think that even though it is extreme and wild and profound, I do think that there's a very fundamental accessibility about the rawness of free improvisation that comes across when you see it live."

The Unwrinkled Ear Festival of Improvised Music, with various combinations of Bobby Bradford, Roscoe Mitchell, Kjell Nordeson, Evan Parker, Sten Sandell, takes place Saturday, April 7, and Sunday, April 8, at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica.

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