Thursday, May 26, 2011

Choreographer Meg Wolfe

A DARING and musically radical dance piece is coming to REDCAT next week. I imagine there is so much avant-garde work coming regularly through this little performance spaced nudged into the corner of Walt Disney Concert Hall that many of us tend to take it for granted. But this piece -- trembler.SHIFTER --   sounds truly rad, as the kids say.

I had the chance to correspond with the piece's choreographer -- LA's own Meg Wolfe, a former denizen of the Lower Manhattan scene, who collaborates here with composer Aaron Drake -- about the work that's influenced her own. (I am writing the LA Times' Influences column most week.)

Her inspirations, she offered, ranged from rock poetess Patti Smith to the BP oil drilling disaster. See the full piece HERE.

And for space, the published story omitted the most surprising and perhaps distinctively LA of her influences. She chose the film Miracle Mile, which she calls "a crazy movie from 1988."

Wolfe writes: "I watched this early on when I was starting the project and feeling particularly apocalyptic, on the suggestion of costume designer Marcus Kuiland-Nazario. The color scheme! Mare Winningham's hair! L.A. missed connection sappy love story, nightmare end of the world pile-up on Wilshire Blvd., and death by La Brea Tar Pit... it could be all too real."

And we'll see you, from June 2 to 5, at REDCAT.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Neil Young Poll

Over here at The Misread City we've been spending a lot of time lately mulling on what makes West Coast music distinctive. We were hoping to launch a poll of best West Coast rock album (Forever Changes? Pet Sounds? Sweetheart of the Rodeo? Wild Gift?) but realized that for some artists there's no obvious best album.

Neil Young may be the most extreme case of this. The Canadian associated with Topanga Canyon, who has long since moved to the northern part of the state, has put out so many good records it's easy to get lost in his body of work. (There are also plenty of clunkers in the '80s.)

So this week we honor St. Neil with a poll of his finest albums. I struggled over which ones to include -- for various reasons it's hard to do these polls with more than four or five options. I added Everybody Knows this is Nowhere after some unrest. That's not only the first Crazy Horse record but the first Neil album I ever heard -- blasting from record store speakers -- that showed me a side of him I did not know from the stuff overplayed on AOR radio.

There are so many good Neil records -- though the unmistakably great ones seem to be clustered heavily, if not completely, in the early '70s -- that I've had to restrict this category to studio records. So if you're asking where Rust Never Sleeps -- a real breakthrough that sounds, to my ears, less fresh than it did years ago -- that and others are disqualified be they are at least in part live albums.

With a poll like this there are always a few that must be left off to keep voting concentrated, and I do regret that there was no room for the blistering Ragged Glory and others.

In any case --- you can vote for as many of these as you like. So whether you like your Neil mellow, electric, folky, grungy... just vote!


Friday, May 20, 2011

West Coast jazz on the Internet

FOR a jazz fan, Internet radio can be like going to one of those really bad mall food courts: Despite the superficial variety, much of what's served is awfully gooey. There are several "smooth" jazz stations for every one that plays real music. (This reflects, surely, the state of today's marketplace.) Commercial jazz radio us is not much better.

But from an airy modernist house in Palm Springs, a former IT manager from Boston runs a great little station, dedicated to the heyday of West Coast jazz, called Forever Cool. (You can also get it through iTunes.)

HERE is my piece on Keith Roberts and his station, which I highly recommend. More on it later.

Jo Nesbo and Nordic Noir

FOR years now we've been hearing about a charismatic Norwegian crime writer whose novels were plotted with verve and driven by a weirdly compelling alcoholic detective. With the success of  Stieg Larsson's Girl trilogy, the time may be ripe for Jo Nesbo, whose sometimes horrifying new novel, The Snowman, kicks ass.

I spoke to Nesbo from his home in Oslo recently for a profile in this Sunday's Los Angeles Times. We had a lot to talk about. Besides the writer Jim Thompson -- whose The Killer Inside Me inspired him to become a crime novelist -- Nesbo and this blog share an interest in American alt-country: He told me about a club in '80s Oslo that brought American cowpunk bands, and at least once, R.E.M., to town. (His novel namechecks Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Willie Nelson.) He's also into graphic novelist Frank Miller.

Will Nesbo repeat the stateside success of Larsson, or even Henning Mankell? His publisher, Knopf, is certainly hoping so. When I asked Nesbo if he felt much in common with other Scandinavian noir writers, he told me, "Not really. I mean, they're writers. But not because they write crime of because they're Scandinavian. I do admire Karin Fossum -- she writes great prose, it's beautiful to read her. I think we're all very different writers. When I started writing crime fiction, I hadn't read any of the Swedish crime writers."

A lot of money rides on the question of whether American readers agree.

Nesbo is in LA next Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Actor Roger Guenveur Smith

TODAY I have a story in the LA Times on the actor Roger Guenveur Smith, who has acted in a number of Spike Lee movies and chronicled American -- and especially California -- history through his solo theater pieces.

One of them, Juan and John -- about a fight between Dodger John Roseboro and Giant Juan Marichal -- comes to the Kirk Douglas Theatre this week.

I'm traveling this week, so have to be brief... But HERE is my piece. Smith's work is smart and energetic and well worth checking out.

Monday, May 16, 2011

From Nick Drake to Spanish Guitar

READERS of The Misread City know of this blog's fondness for the California-inspired English band The Clientele, who mix elements of British folk-rock with the West Coast pop of Love and  The Mamas & The Papas. Since their wonderfully atmospheric and tuneful LP, Bonfires on the Heath, lead singer/guitarist Alasdair MacLean has been wondering about the next right step for his band, and he's now releasing the result of one of his side trips.

The new band is Amor de Dias -- led by Al and the Spanish artist Lupe Núñez-Fernández of the group Pipas, and their debut, Street of the Love of Days, comes out tomorrow. (Here is a video from it.) 
They've got a similarly pastoral feel, though cut in some cases with downtempo electronica and Spanish guitar. The tour -- with Damon and Naomi -- comes to the West Coast from May 31 (Seattle) to June 5 (San Diego), with a June 4 date at LA's Satellite. (What we used to call Spaceland.)

MacLean is one of the indie world's best songwriters and a very fine, Tom Verlaine-influenced guitarist; we look forward to whatever he comes up with. 

Will Amor spell the end of the Clientele, or will it give Al another direction for his dreamlike musings? Here's an interview exclusive with The Misread City.

What made you want to step outside the framework of The Clientele, a band that's recently released one of its best records and has gradually accumulated a decent audience in the States, with this new combo Amor de Dias?

Audience sizes and good reviews don't mean anything if you've run out
of inspiration. With the Clientele I felt that I had no new ideas.
That was the sign to take a break really. Amor de Dias was going on at
the same time and it was less pressure, more about fun; we didn't have
a record contract initially, so if the recording had gone badly we
could have quietly buried it and walked away. I think you can hear us
having fun on the record.

The Clientele seems to be coming out of Nick Drake and Marquee Moon, with maybe some French symbolism thrown in... What are the compass points for Amor de Dias?

Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa definitely; that side of bossa nova.
Spanish guitars. Some spooky folk music like Trees. New, more
percussive and complicated rhythms. Vocal harmonies. Painters of the
English countryside like Paul Nash and Samuel Palmer. Surrealist poet
Robert Desnos. An odd mixture I guess!

The album's title, The Street of the Love of Days has a funny and accidental origin. Can you remind us where the title comes from?

Yeah, me walking down a Madrid street called Calle de Amor de Dios. I
think I'm being really clever cos I can translate it: oh my, this
street is called "Street of the Love of Days". How poetic and
beautiful! Only I got "Dios" and "Dias" mixed up. it's actually called
"Street of the Love of God". All my Spanish friends shook their heads
at me, but the name stuck anyway.

Some or your earliest training was in classical and Spanish guitar, I think?

Yes I got to grade 6 in classical guitar as a kid. It affected my
technique as a guitarist a lot. I still think Spanish guitars are the
most beautiful musical instruments.

Your tour -- much of which is with perfect match Damon and Naomi, who geezers like me remember from Galaxie 500 -- takes you to some unconventional spaces, and you've played spots like old Victorian bandstands with your other group. How does playing an atypical venue change the experience for you, and for the audience?

With the Clientele it was a Victorian bandstand on a January day, the
wind strafing our poor frozen fingers. But I love that kind of thing.
Variety is the spice of life and all that. And we have friends to
suffer with us this time!

What's next for both sides of the Al MacLean Experience -- the Clientele and Amor de Dias?

With Amor de Dias we've been working on some longer, more experimental
pieces. Kind of improvised John Fahey-esque guitar things. And Lupe
has a great love for obscure disco records which will probably come to
the fore in some way. Oddly enough I can see us becoming a little more
lo-fi. But that might just be a passing fancy.

The Clientele is a difficult one. I think the most positive strategy
will be to try and save up songs here and there as the years go on,
count them up one by one until we have a really great body of work to
come back with. Something which almost writes itself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New History of Jazz

WEST Coast culture vultures know the name Ted Gioia for his fabulous West Coast Jazz, which looked at the scenes in LA and San Francisco starting with Dexter Gordon on Central Avenue and moving through the cool school and Dave Brubeck. Not only is the book a great read, it provoked a reconsideration of what was then a criminally overlooked time and place.

Gioia -- who has since written a very lucid book on the Delta blues and started blogs on science fiction and the detective novel -- comes out later this month with the second edition of Oxford University Press's History of Jazz. It lacks some of the rowdy, contrarian energy of James Lincoln Collier's The Story of Jazz, but it's a masterful and fair-minded work of compression and brings the art form right up to the present day.

The Misread City spoke to Gioia -- who grew up on the edge of Los Angeles and spent most of his life in California before somehow being fooled into moving to Texas -- about his latest project.

What were the existing jazz histories like when you launched on the your original History of Jazz for Oxford in the ‘90s? What did you think you could add?

When I took on the task of writing the first edition of The History of Jazz, the most recent general jazz history book in Oxford University Press’s catalog was Marshall Stearns's The Story of Jazz—which had been published before I was born.   That book had been fine it is day, but a lot had happened in the jazz world since it first appeared. 
And even Stearns’s book, for all its virtues, was quirky.  He started his survey by looking at African music, and a third of the way into his book he is still stuck in Africa, trying to find a way to link up with American jazz.  He seemed intent on explaining jazz in terms of other styles rather than on its own merits.  It was in deliberate response to his approach that I began my book with a description of African music played in the New World—literally within the city limits of New Orleans back in the early 19th century.  No leap was necessary because I started out at ground zero, at the birthplace for jazz, and drew the connections from that nexus point.

Needless to say, I had paid close attention to the other jazz surveys—by James Lincoln Collier, Mark Gridley, Joachim Berendt and the like.   But I also carefully studied the works of critics and scholars, such as Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Whitney Balliett, Gunther Schuller and others.  I learned from all these sources, but also had my own perspectives to add.  In fact, as I progressed in my writing, I was surprising myself by how fully formed many of my ideas were—almost as if I had been preparing subconsciously to write this book for many years.  I suspect that my work as a musician played a key role in shaping my thoughts on various aspects of the jazz idiom—perhaps even more than the research I undertook as a jazz historian.

How do you put together a moderate-length history of something  as sprawling and -- after the death of Charlie Parker, at least -- multi-headed as jazz?

I had already written a book on West Coast jazz at the time, and had learned some skills in how to pull together a coherent story when writing a genre survey.  The biggest difficulty in writing this kind of book is in maintaining the narrative flow.  You need to bring together all the individual stories and biographies and contributions into a coherent story.  It can’t just be a compendium, but needs a broader sweep.  You must control the subject, or it will control you.   My ideal is to write non-fiction that moves ahead as deftly as a novel—perhaps an unrealizable goal, but always my desired end point.  I’m probably different from other music writers in that regard. 
In any event, I suspect that it was my success with West Coast Jazz that gave my editor at Oxford, Sheldon Meyer, the confidence to assign me a general jazz history.  I was originally planning to write a biography of Stan Getz, when Sheldon asked me to write a jazz history survey instead.  He realized that the Stearns book needed a replacement, and thought I could deliver it.  I was amazed that he turned to me, especially given my comparative youth and the many other fine jazz writers on the Oxford roster at the time.   This was the first—and only—time I my life that I wrote a book on assignment.   But it didn’t feel like an assignment.  As I mentioned, it seemed like I had been prepping for just this project.

I tried to apply what I had learned in writing West Coast Jazz in the context of the new project.  In particular, I paid great attention to the quality and pacing of the writing.  I've always felt that the prose style and panache of my books are as important as the informational content.  So I worked hard on the writing.   And I listened to lots and lots of music—but that part of work is always a pleasure.  Writing, in contrast, can be hard work. 

So, in an odd way, the key issues for me in addressing this complex subject had little to do with music.  They related to controlling the pacing of the story and writing strong sentences and paragraphs. 

How is this second edition different from the 1997 edition?

I knew I needed to update the book to deal with all the new developments in the music.  A lot has happened in jazz during the last 15 years—indeed, a lot has happened to the whole music industry!  But I also used this opportunity to revise the entire text.  I went sentence by sentence through the original edition, and made countless changes.  Sometimes these were based on new information that had come to light or on my own personal research.  In other instances, I just wanted to improve the writing.  Or I had new ideas I wanted to share with the readers.   The end result is much different and—I hope—much better book than the 1997 edition.

Did any period or artist become more intriguing to you the second time around?

Some artists didn't get sufficient attention in the earlier edition of my book.  There is more in the new edition on women in jazz.  More on drummers, such as Chick Webb and Elvin Jones.   More on some musicians whose influence has expanded posthumously, such as Andrew Hill.  The section on the blues is much improved—due to the research I undertook for my recent Delta Blues book.  But the casual reader may not notice many of these shifts.  Sometimes the simple change of a word or phrase indicates the culmination of a long process of reevaluation on my part.

When you take the long view – from the ring dances in slave-era New Orleans, to, say, Miles from India in 2008 – what is the role of the West Coast in the music’s evolution?

Generally the West Coast is written about as a small sidebar in the history of jazz.  But you can make the case that the West Coast played a much bigger role than most jazz fans realize.  The very word "jazz" apparently comes from California, and the music itself arrived on the West Coast very soon after it appeared in New Orleans.  Many significant events in the evolution and commercialization of jazz took place out West, for example the birth of the Swing Era.  Many of the best bebop recordings were made in California—those Charlie Parker Dial sides may be the most important jazz recordings of the mid-1940s.  I also tend to believe that hard bop—seen by most critics as the quintessential East Coast style—was deeply shaped by the residency of Max Roach and Clifford Brown in the LA area.   They brought elements of West Coast jazz into their music that eventually were imitated by the Blue Note artists.  Add to this the many great artists associated with West Coast jazz, and you can make a convincing case for the centrality of jazz from this part of the country.  Or at least as something more than a footnote to jazz history. 

It must have been especially tricky to compress the present and future of jazz into a 20-page chapter, here called “Jazz in the New Millennium.”

Well, I do cheat a little.  I slip in quite a bit of new millennium jazz into the other chapters —when the subject fit into the narrative flow-- so I didn't need to cover all of it in that one section.   By the time I deal with the current century, I have already addressed free jazz, postmodern jazz, the ECM sound, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, modern big bands, etc.—and you can't do that and stop the story at 1999.  So that final chapter looks more at some over-arching themes, with much of the foundation for it set earlier in the book.  That said, the author of a book of this sort needs to constantly squeeze and compress.  This is especially challenging when dealing with the last decade, and I needed to make judgment calls about many artists still in the early stages of their careers, such as Darcy James Argue or Miguel Zenon or Jason Moran.  Time will tell how well I have assessed the current scene.

How bright does that future seem?

The music is in great shape.  Every week I hear outstanding new jazz recordings.  The audience is a different story.  The biggest challenge the jazz world faces right now is to develop the next generation of jazz fans.   There are more fine jazz musicians than ever before—contrary to what you may have heard—but fewer listeners.