Despite Growing Pains, L.A. Jazz Scene Blossoms

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World Galaxy’s releases tend to feature a mix of tradition and innovation, including an iconoclastic Thelonious Monk tribute by Tim Conley’s fusion project Mast, featuring guest appearances by saxophonist Speed and drummer Makaya McCraven; The Heart Of Infinite Change, a collection of standards given a cosmic sheen by vocalist Natasha Agrama, Stanley Clarke’s stepdaughter; and the mix of straightahead arrangements and hip-hop-inflected grooves on the debut album from Ryan Porter, West Coast Get Down trombonist.

Moo is also a well-regarded mastering engineer who got his start in the hip-hop world and brings some of that genre’s bass-heavy sensibilities to World Galaxy. In addition to mastering all of World Galaxy’s releases, he’s the engineer of choice for the West Coast Get Down. His work can be heard on The Epic, bassist Miles Mosley’s Uprising and keyboardist Brandon Coleman’s Resistance.

“I played West Coast Get Down records at Low End Theory,” Moo said. “They’re made to be bumped.”

World Galaxy isn’t the only L.A. label making its mark on contemporary jazz. Founded in 2014 by trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom, Orenda Records has released boundary-pushing albums by pianist Cathlene Pineda, guitarist Alexander Noice and Rosenboom’s jazz-metal quartet Burning Ghosts. More recently, recording-studio-turned-label Big Ego in nearby Long Beach added jazz to its frequently unclassifiable offerings, putting out albums by local bassist Anthony Shadduck and Kansas experimental guitarist David Lord, both sharing some of World Galaxy’s genre-flouting DNA while veering off into their own realms of avant-gardism. And Leaving Records, an electronic-leaning label with roots in the scene Moo cultivated at Low End Theory, recently released one of the year’s best L.A. jazz albums in Wilkes, the debut album from multi-instrumentalist Sam Wilkes.

FOR MOST OF THE AFOREMENTIONED artists, the Bluewhale in Little Tokyo remains the local venue of choice. Owner Joon Lee curates a calendar full of contemporary jazz’s most innovative players, both touring and L.A.-based. Violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, pianist Vardan Ovsepian, sampler/keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe and guitarist Anthony Wilson are among the many locals who play there regularly. Bicoastal saxophonist David Binney is another frequent guest. The club also hosts a monthly open jam session with students of the Monk Institute, which Seeff said serves as a “measuring stick of the players that are in L.A., because people want to come play with the Monk students.”

“There used to be a period where there just weren’t that many people showing up,” Seeff said. “Now, it’s packed every month and the quality of musicianship has gone way up. I meet lots of people that say, ‘I graduated college [and] I decided to move here instead of New York,’” because of the growing number of opportunities for young jazz musicians, as well as the relatively low cost of living (though L.A.’s rents are starting to catch up with New York’s).

This past October, the Monk Institute’s class of 2020 made its Bluewhale debut. Though they only had been playing together for a few days, the seven-piece ensemble already was a tight unit with several distinct voices—most notably Israeli harmonica player Roni Eytan and Pennsylvanian tenor saxophonist Chris Lewis, whose witty, laconic style provided a tart counterpoint to Eytan’s more technically ornate runs.

“Everyone’s playing at such a high level, it’s really easy to make music with them,” said pianist Paul Cornish, another standout, after their performance.

Cornish, a Houston native, is yet another gifted young player who came to L.A. to further his education—prior to being accepted into the Monk Institute, he studied at the Thornton School—and decided to put down roots. Like many of the city’s jazz-trained musicians, he cites the richness and diversity of L.A.’s many music scenes as a major factor in his decision to stay on the West Coast.

“You see someone doing a pop gig once and then you see that same person doing an r&b gig, and then you see that same person playing church on Sunday,” said the 22-year-old, who moonlights in funk-rock band Thumpasaurus.

This kind of genre agnosticism has a long history in Los Angeles, where generations of highly skilled players have made their living as studio musicians on pop recordings and film soundtracks, then played jazz on the weekends. The city’s oldest jazz club, the Baked Potato—owned by keyboardist Don Randi, who made his name in the renowned group of L.A. session players nicknamed the Wrecking Crew—frequently books veteran studio players like Chad Wackerman, Steve Lukather and Dave Marotta, whose resumes straddle the jazz, rock and pop realms. Among younger players, Washington’s saxophone has graced albums by Lamar, electronic producer Flying Lotus and art-rocker St. Vincent, while saxophonist Johnson recently took on a gig as soul singer Leon Bridges’ touring music director.

“I think there can be a really negative connotation to the term ‘studio musician,’” said Butterss. “But I think that’s another thing that people get wrong about L.A.” She cites drummer Jay Bellerose, with whom she regularly plays as part of Parker’s quartet at ETA, as a prime example of a veteran studiohand who’s played with everyone from Madeleine Peyroux to Robert Plant without compromising his distinctive, restrained style: “You can identify him in an instant. That’s why people love him so much.”

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On Sale Now
June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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