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Jazz opera review: 'George Herms: The Artist’s Life' at REDCAT

February 4, 2011 | 12:30 pm

An impish 75, George Herms is a Los Angeles assemblage artist who was associated with the Beats and who, my colleague Christopher Knight noted in a review of a 2005 Herms retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, has discovered the “precise location for making spiritually inclined art out of worldly trash.” 

Herms may also be the ultimate outsider artist, even though he is insider enough that when the Whitney Museum of Art had a show on Beat culture in 1996, several of his works were included and he was invited on the Charlie Rose show along with Allen Ginsberg. He was, of necessity, part of the big Los Angeles show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2006. The Getty Research Institute has been busily cataloging hundreds of boxes of his work from a 50-year career. His name has been mentioned in the Los Angeles Times 184 times in the last 25 years.

Still, he has no Wikipedia entry. And while the prices for the work of many of his fashionable colleagues, such as Wallace Berman, have been on a rising curve for quite some time, Herms has been so overlooked that he was reportedly living out of his car a few years ago.

But Herms is now an opera, and how many living artists can say that about themselves? “George Herms: The Artist’s Life,” conceived of by Herms and performed by him with the help of two terrific jazz bands and a vocalist, had the first of three performances at REDCAT Thursday. It is not to be missed.

Opera is an open word, and this is being described as a free-jazz opera, jazz having been the music the Beats chose for their soundtrack. There were two superb jazz ensembles, the heady eight-member Bobby Bradford Mo’tet and the vital Theo Saunders Group, a sextet -- one band for each side of the stage.

This is also an assemblage opera, a stream-of-consciousness opera, a performance-art opera, an art opera, an anti-opera, an amateur opera and, although Herms didn’t appear to want to admit it, a pro opera. And Herms had to have been gratified that it was also a well-attended opera; he hasn’t completely fallen off the map.

In fact, Thursday's crowd, which included a number of what appeared to be aging Beats, was part of the fun. The marijuana smoke on the Disney parking lot third level was thick enough that many ticketholders were probably high by the time they entered. The box office had to disabuse some that a free-jazz opera is not a free jazz-opera; you had to pay.

A combination Prospero and Mr. Natural (yes, Mr. Natural does have a Wikipedia page), Herms kept high spirits high for 90 minutes. The libretto was said to have been taken from Herms diaries, although he seemed to be mostly ad-libbing. He had a table and overhead projector, so we could watch him draw and paste things together, although he found plenty of other ways to fill the stage with art as well.

He began by calling for the lights to come down and cuing the musicians. They all began wailing at once. It seemed this was going to be a chaos opera as well, but it wasn’t. Herms had a structure. He described the five acts as: where we are, any, oops and evil. He got sidetracked on evil and never mentioned the fifth.

The action included wheeling from behind the screen a steel spiral staircase that was suspended and hit with drumsticks but didn’t make much sound. A large buoy was wheeled out; it too was suspended. Herms and vocalist Diana Briscoe whacked it with wooden boards, and it made a great sound. At the end, an old man was suspended and he made the best sound of all, but to say more would be to spoil a surprise.

The Mo’tet of cornetist Bradford (a contemporary and friend of Herms) suited Herms' more out-there side, exploring harmonies, complex textures and treating small melodic motifs as stepping stones to fantastical improvisations. Pianist Saunders' group handled straighter material, particularly that of Thelonious Monk (a sainted figure to the Beats), but with great imagination was well.

Opera is the art form not of telling a story (theater is for that) but the expression of what it feels like to have lived a story. Herms' opera is that but with a twist. It is his life the way he is now. It is a one-of-a-kind history being made and lived at the same time –- art history, jazz history, opera history, Herms history.

-- Mark Swed

"George Herms: The Artist's Life," REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown L.A. 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $20 and $25. (213) 237-2800 or  Running time: approximately 1 hour, 30 minutes (Herms is unpredictable).

Photo: George Herms in his "The Artist's Life," at REDCAT Thursday night. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times.