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Jazz review: Angel City Jazz Festival at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre (updated)

October 4, 2010 |  4:00 pm
Coltrane-alessi600
As the third installment of the Angel City Jazz Festival drew to a close at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Sunday night, there was something oddly appropriate about the choice to tap Ravi Coltrane to finish off an evening dedicated to "Rethinking Jazz."

The son of John and Alice, two titans not only of jazz but also the pursuit of its most boundary-pushing impulses, Coltrane -- with a quintet featuring the quicksilver-smooth Ralph Alessi on trumpet -- featured flashes of delicate beauty and pure, in-the-moment expression. But after an evening that featured multiple challenging and rewarding trips to the outer limits, the quintet also gently brought the audience back to Earth.

Opening the show as the still summery sun drifted behind the Ford, the five-piece ensemble Kneebody showed why it has been a favorite of a young and adventurous crowd since bursting onto the scene 10 years ago. Although the group’s members now split time between coasts, Kneebody proved more capable than ever of delivering raucous instrumentals that split the difference between jazz and twisted post-rock.

With trumpeter Shane Endsley and saxophonist Ben Wendel anchoring the group’s melodic drive, the group kept one hand on a semi-traditional jazz quintet structure. But on songs such as the rambunctious “Trite” and the set-closer “Nerd Mountain,” the shape-shifting mazes of rhythm built by drummer Nate Wood gave the group room to venture into territory that touched on drum-and-bass and starry-eyed funk.

Now in his 60s, reed player Vinny Golia has been around the L.A. scene long enough that he helped give young Nels and Alex Cline their start in the '80s. Working in a sextet whose members appeared to be at least half his age, Golia kept a three-horn front line just ahead of a thundering rhythm section and the fuzzily metallic acrobatics of guitarist Alex Noice. The giddily unstable mix at times resembled something akin to Lounge Lizards jamming with one of the Smell’s heavy-footed rock headliners.

Berne300 Yet if there was one group on the bill that was most likely to venture so far out that it could burn up on reentry, it was the Sons of Champignon. An explosive three-headed monster featuring New York City alto saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Jim Black and ever-exploring Nels Cline on guitar, the trio embarked on a wild and often exhilarating trip. Standing stick-straight with an air of otherworldly calm, the silver-haired Berne was frequently surrounded by a funnel cloud of Cline's sonic exploration, which whipsawed through a variety of treatments that included a small children’s toy that allowed the guitarist to “sing” through his pickups with a ghostly howl.

But the trio never seemed out of balance. With Cline at times playing his bank of effects like a keyboard, Berne alternated between bursts of avant-garde fire music and something more textural, sometimes plugging the mouth of his saxophone with an empty water bottle to pinch his tone into something resembling a distant siren. Matched step for step by the wild-eyed Jim Black’s array of tricks and manic bursts of expression, the Sons of Champignon had the Ford buzzing after its set closed, even as most were struck speechless.

Following in the trio’s wake, Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet with keyboardist Vijay Iyer kept the candle burning for long-form improvisation. Although the group initially struggled to coalesce completely around bassist John Lindberg’s darkly funky backdrop, Smith grounded the group with long, arcing notes that swept over the crowd with a spirit that recalled Miles Davis.

As falling temperatures had many in the crowd reaching for blankets and sweaters, Coltrane and Alessi's performance featured a warmth of its own. Bearing a physical resemblance to his father that was sometimes jarring, Coltrane and his band brought the night to an elegant and frequently arresting close. His left foot fluttering as he bent into his horn to burrow deeper into melodic solos, Coltrane’s destination might not have been as far out as the acts that came before, but his deft interplay with Alessi and a tastefully in-the-pocket Steve Hass on drums was so skillful it provided the evening with an easy landing.

Although the festival's goal of celebrating “original music” (as opposed to standards) was spoken from the stage so often it sounded like a mission statement, the night was deeply rooted in jazz tradition even if never beholden to it. And, like the music it honors, the six-day event is still a long way from finished.

-- Chris Barton

[An earlier version of this post misidentified the saxophonist of Kneebody as Nate Wood. The saxophonist is Ben Wendel.]

Photo: Top, Ravi Coltrane and Ralph Alessi onstage at Angel City Jazz Festival; lower, saxophonist Tim Berne with Sons of Champignon. Credit: Atiyyah Khan, courtesy Angel City Jazz Festival.

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