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Seasons of L.A. Letters

The live music scene of Los Angeles is every bit as vibrant as -- or perhaps even more than -- the poetry scene. In the midst of dub-step, emo bands and indie garage acts, there is also a vibrant community of young jazz musicians. There are many terms used to describe the music, nu-jazz, downtempo, electro soul; the lines melt and merge. The genres and musicians overlap, the musicians themselves laugh at all the specific terms, they just make music.

If the last few weeks have proven anything, it's that Southern California has its share of seasons. Though the hot and cold swings aren't pronounced like New York or Chicago, a recent extra cold morning frosted my windshield frozen. Days later as I write this, a warm afternoon melts with the music. Within a span of 72 hours a temperature switch of 50-plus degrees reflects the range of weather and our own tempestuous seasons.

This week L.A. Letters salutes the talented musicians that reflect the shifting range of California seasons in their work.

Venues like the Blue Whale and Del Monte Speakeasy are incubators for countless nights of live music. A few years ago I spoke with Geoff Gallegos, the multi-instrumentalist and conductor of DaKah, the 70-piece hip hop orchestra. We spoke of how all the ultra-versatile and talented musicians play in one another's projects. Gallegos himself played several years with the Breakestra before forming DaKah.

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Years ago it was pointed out to me the connection between Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Sublime, Ozomatli, Freestyle Fellowship, Jurrasic 5, and Breakestra, to groups like DaKah. They all started in Southern California backyards. "The L.A. family tree is deep, and consists of so many heavy cats," Geoff Gallegos says. "DaKAH could have only happened in L.A. DaKAH is like a big-ass musician barbecue every time we play. I'm constantly meeting new cats, too. For example, I just recorded with two outstanding young horn players, Lemar and Brandyn. Now that I'm forty, it's trippy to see how I've become that older dude at the studio, telling salty sea stories to the young sailors."

"I'm very thankful to be in the L.A. music scene," Gallegos continues. "Los Angeles has an international reputation of musical excellence. Jazz greats like Mingus, Ornette, Dolphy, Dexter Gordon. Film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Henry Mancini and more. There was a wave of expatriates from Europe, like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Heifetz, that ended up here during the war years. There is also a rich tradition of studio players who can interpret anything you could conceive of notating onto score paper. This is the musical legacy I recognize L.A. to be."

Old school veterans will tell you, the emerging fertile scene of skilled musicians is nothing new, it's always been here. Nonetheless it's great to see so many musicians hosting prolific events and releasing new albums.

The Blue Whale is a venue that's easy to get excited about. Tucked in the corner of a three-story mini-mall at San Pedro and Second Street in Little Tokyo, the Blue Whale is a little jazz bar that feels like the heyday of Bop, or a 21st century Tokyo jazz club. The owners clearly know music and the history of jazz; the room even has Rumi's poem "Listening," printed on the ceiling over the stage.

Little Tokyo in Los Angeles was briefly known as Bronzeville when it became a mecca for jazz from 1942 to 1946. The Blue Whale's cozy ambiance feels timeless like Bronzeville. The immaculate venue is only steps away from Curry House. The Blue Whale has nightly shows and has emerged within a few years as an important West Coast jazz venue.

The Blue Whale Jazz Club | Photo by astrobuddha used under a Creative Commons license

In the heart of Venice on Windward Circle is the Del Monte Speakeasy, the Westside's epicenter for live jazz. As the name suggests, it is located in a former speakeasy bar that's been converted into a sleek Westside watering hole. Carlos Nino organized an Austin Peralta tribute there on January 31, 2013, featuring Gaslamp Killer, Kamasi Washington, Daedelus, Teebs and Strangeloop. The proceeds were donated to Jazz America in Austin's name.

A few weeks ago, the venue hosted the release party for Dexter Story's new album, "Seasons." Released on Kindred Spirit Records, the multi-instrumentalist, percussionist and vocalist's debut album is co-produced by Carlos Nino, who has long been a force in local music. Producer of several notable albums including the Build An Ark series, this 14 song album continues the precedent of progressive music he started over a decade ago with his "Spacewaves" radio show on KPFK and also with Dublab.

The record's sonic register orbits a trajectory connecting Earth Wind & Fire, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Leimert Park, Topanga Canyon, Venice Beach and avant-garde happenings; Deep soul, a dash of electronica, three-part harmonies, epic sweeping horn and string arrangements; collaborators like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Dwight Trible, Alan Lightner, Waberi Jordan, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Itai Shapira, Gaby Hernandez and Jimetta Rose Smith. The cumulative effort makes an excellent snapshot of 2013 in Los Angeles music.

Some have used the term "spiritual jazz" to describe the album -- there's an undefinable pocket of groove emanating from this record that is both a throwback and future forward. "God Sun" is a transcendent track that harkens back to Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas with its enchanting orchestral chorus and Dwight Trible vocals. The balance between pure soul and the right mix of electro soul stays in check.

The psychedelic soul of Lonnie Liston Smith, Minnie Ripperton and the Rotary Connection also come to mind. The underlying spirit of the album is revealed in song titles like "Underway (Love Is...)," "Love Force Trio, Pt. 1," and "Spring." The production is well crafted and the tenor shifts like the seasons. Story's debut is a seminal effort.

One of Story's primary musical collaborators is trumpeter/arranger Todd Simon. Simon is a quintessential example of an L.A. musician: he has played in the Breakestra, DaKah, Connie Price & the Keystones, and Antibalas, among many others over the years. The Ethio Cali Ensemble is a new collaboration between Simon, Story, Mark de Clive-Lowe, and other greats mentioned above. After their successful Blue Whale show, they are recording in the studio and looking forward to more. The spirit of the family soul band guides these musicians; their ethos takes inspiration from their heroes. Many more records and shows are in the works.

Bacchanal Sound System at the Del Monte Speakeasy | Photo by la-underground used under a Creative Commons license

The same family soul band spirit can be heard in "Power Fuerza" by the Ghetto Brothers. The 41-year old album was just re-issued by Truth & Soul Records. Recorded in one afternoon in 1972, this album had been released on a limited run four decades ago, and extremely hard to find until now. The album is so rare that most of the surviving members don't even own a copy. Consisting of three brothers from the Melendez family who originally were Bronx gang members, the Brothers' daily gatherings evolved into musical jam sessions, and they soon developed their own sound of Latin rock that melded Beatles pop with the doo-wop harmonies of Tito Puente and Santana.

A warm afternoon drive with the Ghetto Brothers album reveals their kinship with War or Santana. Sharing the same carefree feeling as War's "All Day Music," the eight songs on Power Fuerza are made for cruising. The same warm afternoon spirit in Malo's "Suavecito" can be heard in "Got This Happy Feeling." The album's excellent liner notes, composed by Jeff "Chairman" Mao, connect the dots with the Beatles and the Bronx in the early 1970s, noting how the Ghetto Brothers live events were immediate precursors to the birth of hip hop. Mao writes, "Catching the revolutionary spirit in the air, the Ghetto Brothers eradicated junkies and pushers from the neighborhood, cleaned parks and garbage-strewn lots and participated in clothing drives and breakfast programs." Though the album was a local hit around New York, it never caught on nationwide. This new re-issue could change that.

Several music magazines have featured Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding as bright lights of new jazz. Austin Peralta was also mentioned in the same conversation. The bottom line is that night after night, Los Angeles musicians like Geoff Gallegos, Dexter Story, Todd Simon, Carlos Nino, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Kamasi Washington and countless others are making history and carrying on the tradition of their heroes and groundbreaking artists like the Ghetto Brothers at venues like the Blue Whale and Del Monte Speakeasy. With so much going on, I wish I had enough time to catch all their shows. In future columns more words will be given to other deserving artists.

The field of brilliant musicians eclipses genres like jazz, hip hop or electronica, the musical climate is ever-changing like barometric pressure. Here's to the many stellar musicians composing the soundtrack of L.A. Letters.


Top: DaKah Hip Hop Orchestra at Grand Performances. Photo by victoriabernal used under a Creative Commons license.


About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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