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Angel City Jazz Festival will make the leap to the Ford Amphitheatre this weekend

September 3, 2009 | 12:58 pm

Douglas300 In a climate where jazz clubs are closing, reports on jazz's demise are multiplying and a recession has taken a bite out of live music spending, the second annual Angel City Jazz Festival is taking the counter-intuitive approach: It's growing.

Conceived by longtime promoter (and former club owner) Rocco Somazzi, Angel City debuted last year as an all-day smorgasbord of local and out-of-town players from across the jazz spectrum, including Alan Pasqua, Elliott Sharp and Nels Cline. But this weekend's festival has expanded to two days at the historic John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.

From a location perspective, this elevates Angel City to comparable ground with L.A.'s other summer such celebration, the Playboy Jazz Festival. But with a bold tag line of "Rethinking Jazz," the younger upstart carves out an identity of its own by casting a broader yet more narrowly focused net than its friendly rival on the opposite side of the 101.

For instance, what tradition-minded jazz-head wouldn't be excited by the West Coast premiere of clarinetist Bennie Maupin's Dolphyana, a group dedicated to previously unrecorded compositions by the late Eric Dolphy? Or the trio of Scott Amendola, Devin Hoff and Ben Goldberg reworking the songs of Thelonious Monk through clarinet, drum and bass in Plays Monk?

And on the more outside-leaning end of the spectrum, the Nels Cline Singers team with Tortoise's Jeff Parker for a performance that will meld elements of post-rock, jazz and space-bound exploration in a way that should get indie-leaning guitar geeks furiously stroking their chins. And then there's the classical-informed ensembles led by Billy Childs and Wayne Horvitz, or further exploration of jazz's history with the New Orleans tradition of Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy and Jesse Sharps' revisiting of Leimert Park's jazz scene with the Gathering.  All in all, Angel City covers a lot of ground for $35 a day, which isn't far from what an evening of jazz goes for at many clubs.

The full festival schedule and lineup is available after the jump along with an e-mail Q&A with Jeff Gauthier and Somazzi on how Angel City came together at its new location and more.

Moving Angel City to the Ford seems like a big step up from Barnsdall. What inspired you to move it to a different venue?

Rocco Somazzi: The move was triggered by Laura Zucker (executive director of the L.A. County Art Commission). She came to check out the festival at Barnsdall last year and was impressed enough to feel that we'd do well in a bigger venue like the Ford. Initially, I wasn't sure about the suitability of the Ford because the vibe there is much more structured. I really liked the open, park-like environment of the Barnsdall, and many people commented on how magical it felt to be up there listening to great music while laying around in the grass. However, the prestige and visibility of the Ford and the professionalism of the people working there convinced me that it would be a good move.


I get this impression that the festival’s taking a step toward prominence with the move. Is that the way you look at it?

Jeff Gauthier: I see it mostly as filling a void. With the demise of various jazz clubs and concert series in town, it's becoming more and more difficult for local as well as touring musicians to find places to play in L.A.  This might be the low point in my 30 years of working in L.A., as far as the quantity and diversity of jazz venues goes, especially for those of us who are interested in presenting music that's slightly out of the mainstream...  For that reason alone, it might find a bit more prominence.

What was your inspiration in putting together the festival? Do you consider it an ‘alternative’ to many jazz festivals out there these days?

R.S.: I have a lot of great memories from various festivals I used to go to when growing up. My favorite festivals were the Locarno Film Festival and the Estival Jazz in Lugano. I think what made those festivals unique was that they could really focus on the arts because they received significant funding from the government. Often, the programming would reflect that by featuring lesser-known, more edgy or more adventurous material... I'm trying to re-create that (without the government funding). 

Most current festivals, jazz or otherwise, are often overly commercialized, and the programming reflects a business model where the headliners are picked based on how well they draw and the rest is just entertaining filler. We only feature people who are making important contributions to the genre and we haven't been compelled yet to book anybody just based on how famous or well known they are. I think that sets us apart from many other jazz festivals. Still, we're by no means the only one out there. The Earshot Festival in Seattle and the Portland Jazz Festival are just two examples of other festivals with a strong artistic vision.

Did you learn a lot from the festival's first edition at Barnsdall that you applied to this one? Did you get a lot of feedback?

R.S.: The festival at the Barnsdall was a big learning experience for me. The main lesson I took home is that I can't do everything by myself. Things get complicated very quickly and before you know it you can't wrap your head around what's happening anymore. Last year, when I realized that I was losing control of the situation, I made a last minute attempt to get help and luckily I managed to get Gary Fukushima and the L.A. Jazz Collective to pitch in and they really saved the day. Despite all the organizational problems and lack of infrastructure, we got a lot of overwhelmingly positive feedback. A number of people told me it was the best music festival they'd ever been to, and I was surprised that some people even commented on how well organized it was.

How did it come about that you ended up working with Jeff Gauthier on the festival? What was his role?

R.S.: Although I've known Jeff for over 10 years, we never worked together on a project before. We both had our own things going and we crossed paths many times, but there never was a good opportunity for us to join forces. The festival provided that opportunity, and I feel very lucky that Jeff jumped in with both feet and became a full partner and co-producer. He has been involved in every aspect of this festival and I feel he has done a better job than I could ever do. I don't think the festival would have happened at all this year without him.

J.G.: I see my role as helping Rocco realize his vision. The festival is his baby, and I don't know anyone else with the vision to have conceived of such a festival, let alone the audacity to try to make it a reality. I have a certain set of skills derived from being a musician, producer and owner of a record label that happen to complement Rocco's vision, so I feel that we have a good collaboration. I can jump in and take charge of things that I feel comfortable doing, and not step on Rocco's toes. Still, it must be said that the two of us are trying to do the job of a staff of about 10 people, so I'm hoping that before Rocco realizes his wildest dreams of taking the festival international with branches in Japan and Switzerland, we'll take the time to find a little more support.

The festival’s lineup seems really targeted toward reflecting the community’s jazz tradition. Was that a big priority?

R.S.: This year's lineup represents a good cross section of the present state of West Coast jazz. Some bands have been around longer than others and come from a more historical and community-based background while others are fresh, innovative and focused in the present. There is no other music festival in L.A. with such a large variety of music. No two bands sound anything alike and yet they all are part of what's happening now in West Coast jazz.

J.G.: We tried to approach programming from several different angles. When we discovered that Bennie Maupin & Dolphyana might be interested, it opened up a lot of programming possibilities. Having Bennie, an L.A. icon, present the West Coast premieres of recently discovered music by Eric Dolphy, a jazz legend who cut his teeth on Central Avenue, provided an historical context of continuation. Programming musicians like Jesse Sharps and Dwight Trible, former colleagues and disciples of the great L.A. bandleader Horace Tapscott, revealed other historical perspectives, and also shines a light on the hugely influential Leimert Park music community.  Nels Cline and Alex Cline studied with John Carter and Bobby Bradford and represent a continuation of that tradition. Other L.A. musicians like Billy Childs, Larry Goldings, Larry Karush and Motoko Honda illuminate other lineages and facets of the L.A. jazz scene.  

But, no matter how inclusive and representative we try to be, it's impossible to fully represent as huge and diverse a community of musicians as we have in L.A. This is a problem that will always be carried forward to the following year as we try to be as representative as possible.

--Chris Barton



4 p.m. Plays Monk

5:15 p.m. Satoko Fujii Quartet

6:30 p.m. Jesse Sharp's "The Gathering" with Dwight Trible


8 p.m. Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble

9:15 p.m. Larry Karush, solo piano

9:50 to 11 p.m. Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy


4 p.m. Alex Cline's Band of the Moment

5:15 p.m. the Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet

6:30 p.m. the Nels Cline Singers with Jeff Parker


8 p.m. the Larry Goldings Organ Trio

9:15 p.m. Motoko Honda, piano, with Oguri, butoh dance

9:50  to 11 p.m. Bennie Maupin and Dolphyana

More information available at angelcityjazzfestival.com.

Photo of Dave Douglas by Jimmy Katz; photo of Bennie Maupin by Barbara DuMetz