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Travelogue Through a Week of Local Music

"New York is Now" was one of Ornette Coleman's biggest albums on Blue Note Records back in 1968. Forty five years later, Los Angeles is now. Week after week, L.A. Letters celebrates the poets, artists and musicians spread across California making magic happen at a moment's notice. This week L.A. Letters highlights two evenings of live music and a band of high school musicians.

On Sunday March 24 I saw NineNet at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. In a previous column I have already extolled the virtues of the Blue Whale's design and acoustics, let alone the Rumi poem "Listening," on the ceiling. It is emerging as one of the best intimate rooms in the city to hear live music. When I saw that NineNet was playing there and I was free that evening, I had to go.

NineNet is a 9-piece jazz ensemble that formed originally in 2004 for an elaborate wedding at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Band leader of NineNet Geoff Gallegos, also known for being the Founder of DaKah Hip Hop Orchestra, says, "some of the family has New Orleans roots, so I wanted to provide a music that sounded like a brass band busted into a symphony hall and started playing Stravinsky."

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It's safe to say he succeeded. The Blue Whale was the perfect place to showcase their polyphonic sound. They played two one-hour sets that included a mix of original compositions, film scores, selected jazz standards and reinterpretations of songs by classical composers like Bernard Herrmann, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie and Richard Wagner. Their treatment of old familiar tunes from "Mary Poppins," "Taxi Driver," "Mo Better Blues," and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" remade these classics into something timeless, yet new. There are hardly words to describe the high level of musical execution folding into each other; suffice it to say, the music kept swinging. Gallegos says, "the instrumentation, three woods, three brass, and three rhythm provide a good opportunity for multiple layers of counterpoint and dense harmony."

Gallegos studied music at the Berklee College of Music, and six of the pieces the band play are from songs he wrote in school back in 1991. Gallegos loves his fellow musicians and is known for bringing out the best in other players. He shares, "Tracy Wannomae is our alto sax player, and mentor to many of us here in this circle. We first met at a jam session in 1996, where we ended up chasing each other all over the music. His approach to music is 'Conduit.' The notes are one thing, but the energy behind the notes seem to carry more meaning for Tracy. When I play alto, I try to play like Tracy Wannomae. I'm a Tracy Wannabee."

This may be true, but Gallegos is a supreme musician in his own right, and so is the entire group. NineNet's live set is an onslaught of immaculate instrumentation. When I went home late Sunday evening after their show I carried some of their energy into Monday morning.

I did a bus tour Monday for a group of 50 high school music students from a suburb of Chicago. They were a receptive bunch and they listened close when we drove through the Sunset Strip, past the Whisky and Roxy. When we went to the Capitol Records Building on Vine, many of the students snapped shots of John Lennon's star and asked questions about where other musician stars were. At the end of our three hour tour, one of the students handed me a CD of his own music. The band's name is Zaramela, and the album is titled, "Work."

I was so relaxed on my drive home a few minutes later that I decided to pop their CD in. The six-song EP turned out to be surprisingly well produced, especially considering they were only high school seniors. Their liner notes only had minimal info, but I could see they were a multicultural group of seven players. The lead singer has a soulful voice akin to JK, the lead singer of Jamiroquai. Their short album melted rock, pop, hip hop, funk, jazz and soul with guitars, bass, drums and horns. I remember that their teacher had told me they were an award-winning high school band, so it would make sense that seven of them may have a smaller band of their own.

I didn't have too much time to chat with these kids, but they responded to my poems and discussed L.A. bands with me when we drove on the Sunset Strip. Their effusive love of music is obvious in their album and I was impressed with their earnestness. After all, they titled their record, "Work." If they continue pursuing music, I can see them following in the footsteps of committed musicians like NineNet. It was great to see such young musicians working so hard, they were one of the most memorable groups I given a tour to in quite some time. Their optimism was contagious and meeting them the day after I heard NineNet seemed to follow logically.

Mayan Theatre | Photo by ben.borgman used under a Creative Commons license


A few days later on March 28 I saw a heavy lineup of artists perform at the Mayan Theater. Much larger than the Blue Whale, the Mayan is iconic in its own right, with its Mayan-themed design done by none other than the celebrated early 20th Century architect, Stiles O. Clements. The auditorium's chandelier is based on the Aztec calendar stone and pre-Columbian patterns and figures adorn the façade and lobby. Tonight it was standing room only with a bill that blended a live band, a few emcees, and a few DJ sets. The label Art Don't Sleep organized the event.

DJ Mark Luv started the evening off with classic hip hop. DJ Houseshoes played Slum Village, some vintage J Dilla and a barrage of break beats: "Detroit makes the world go round." Hometown hero, Venice's own Evidence from Dilated Peoples, made a surprise performance rocking his "Slow Flow" single to an excited crowd. Roc Marciano, the rising underground emcee from New York did a short set. Marciano's name is on the lips of hip hop journalists, and he's known as a lyrical purist compared to his more popular contemporaries. In the middle of Marciano's set I ran into the old homey Pablo Like Picasso, a long-time fan of Marciano. Pablo explained that Marciano's rising popularity is a retaliation to the fakeness and glamour in many rappers. Marciano's name suggests he's a prize fighter about his music and business; his live set attested to his reputation.

Trek Life energetically introduced Gaslamp Killer, who promptly took the room on a sonic journey. Surreal funk gave way to Bollywood, before psychedelic folk melted into waves of bass. Gaslamp Killer weaves a set of music with an iPad as his cross fader and light saber. He gave a nod to Austin Peralta, with one of Peralta's powerful piano solos working its way into the mix. Gaslamp specializes in the unexpected and the energy continues to escalate.

Following Gaslamp Killer was the headliner for the night, Ghostface Killa and Adrian Younge's Venice Dawn. Ghostface Killa worked well with Younge and his band. Ghostface is of course world renowned for the Wu Tang Clan, but Adrian Younge is a rising musical star that has recorded several albums in the last year, including "Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics" and "Something About April." Younge's musicianship and production skills are in great demand -- check his project Black Dynamite. Ghostface, who at times was joined by fellow Clan member RZA, rocked a mix of classics and new work, Younge showcased his guitar work, and the crowd loved it all.

I no longer go out to several shows a week, or even monthly. But last week I had some time and found inspiration in the middle of the city. Seeing two shows in one week reminded me why I once loved going out so much. NineNet at the Blue Whale was something to behold; then, meeting a group of high school seniors the following day that share the same musical ethos. The Mayan was a smorgasbord of talented musicians for hours on end. The level of musicianship demonstrated by multi-instrumentalists like Adrian Younge and freewheeling producers like Gaslamp Killer testifies to the spirit of innovation around Los Angeles. Here's to each of these musical trailblazers of L.A. Letters.


NineNet includes the following musicians:

Geoff Gallegos: Baritone Sax/Bandleader
Matt DeMerritt: Tenor Sax
Tracy Wannomae: Alto Sax
Brandyn Phillips: Trumpet
Josh Aguilar: Trumpet
Lemar Guillary: Trombone
Emile Poree: Guitar
JP Maramba: Bass
Mike Lindsay: Drums

Visit their Facebook and Soundcloud for more information and sounds.


Top: NineNet at Blue Whale Jazz Club. Photo from NineNet's Facebook.

About the Author

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