Out There

A guide to the explosive new avant-jazz scene

The Bay Area's full-throttle improvised music community took a hit in the summer of '95 when a firetruck crashed through the front windows of Radio Valencia Cafe. The freak accident sidelined the city's avant-garde jazz scene's cornerstone Sunday music night for a full eight months. At the time, Valencia was one of a mere three venues in the area (the others being the Hotel Utah and Berkeley's Beanbender's) regularly showcasing the wild side of jazz and post-idiomatic exploration. But a small and loyal community of fans and musicians banded together to ensure the music's continued vitality. From warehouses to coffee shops, musicians tapped alternative outlets for a wide range of live performances. As if heeding mentor-bassist Lisle Ellis' observation -- "As artists, adversity is what we deal with, and the music is what we live for" -- veteran improvisers such as Ellis, the members of Rova Saxophone Quartet, Ben Goldberg, Francis Wong, Oluyemi Thomas, Miya Masaoka, and John Schott forged ahead with a seemingly endless string of inventive projects.

The most significant large-scale achievement to emerge from this spate of activity was the Creative Orchestra, founded by avant-garde saxophonists Glenn Spearman and Marco Eneidi. This 22-member group joined seasoned pros with a then-emerging generation of eager young cats often fresh out of music school or recently converted from the punk or prog-rock realms. Spearman's and Eneidi's combined experience and dedication, which spans almost 45 years and has involved collaborations with titanic innovators from Cecil Taylor to William Parker, provided considerable guidance and encouragement for the twentysomething rookies such as saxophonist Alex Weiss and pianist Matthew Goodheart, the most promising of the current stream of Bay Area up-and-comers.

Goodheart, Weiss, and other relative greenhorns have teamed up once again with more seasoned improvisers, including bassist George Cremaschi and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief (who has recently self-produced a trio of exceptional discs; see sidebar), in Eneidi's latest big band effort, the American Jungle Orchestra. This revamped 14-piece group offers immeasurable growth opportunities for student-players to get a hands-on glimpse of the elusive ins and outs of this intensely challenging music. But that's the way it's always been with jazz; the knowledge is passed on both in private lessons and, more crucially, on the bandstand. Eneidi's American Jungle Orchestra has been particularly effective as a catalyst for youthful development by incorporating major out-of-town guest soloists into a series of Saturday night concerts at Venue 9 over the past few weeks. The run concludes this weekend with an appearance by the incomparable Wadada Leo Smith, the currently L.A.-based trumpeter and poet known for his work since the '60s with Chicago's pioneering AACM.

Over the past year or so, a number of promising players have been sharpening their chops as accompanists for more established leaders and oftentimes as inventive composer-leaders in their own right. Some names you may recognize include violinists Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt; multireedists Scott Rosenberg, Brian Kane, and Matt Ingalls; bassists Morgan Guberman and Damon Smith; drummers Andrew Borger and Brad Hargreaves; and cellist Zen Cohen. These slackless Gen-X aberrants charge the scene with a notable electricity. Their global awareness combines the imaginativeness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago with a proto-punk rock conviction.

This past July at the renovated Radio Valencia, budding explorers such as Rosenberg and Ingalls paired off for antic and inspired duets and trios with mischievous master players like multirhythmic Splatter Trio drummer Gino Robair and mighty keyboardist and Mills College instructor Chris Brown. The completely unrehearsed "songs," which ranged from Sun Ra-esque space noodles to mad percussive games to trance drones, delighted the packed house. Multigenerational performances such as these present a spectrum of talents and distinctive personalities striving for a synchronous group sound.

Twenty-four-year-old Wesleyan graduate Rosenberg has emerged as one of the leaders of the latest influx of Bay Area improvisers. He's successfully integrated his classroom studies with Anthony Braxton into a personal vision which seems to grow larger and more focused with each new project. On his just-released debut, are, he leads Ingalls, Guberman, and Robair in a fascinating mix of the sort of enthusiasm and adventuresome spirit that bodes well for the future.

For Rosenberg, the great challenge in playing this type of music is reaching a new audience. But even more difficult, he says, is "finding the time to put things together," the actual work, like the cutting and pasting of parts for the 40-piece big band compositions he's debuting this weekend at the Cyclone warehouse space.

Perhaps the most visible (and certainly most vocal) newcomer on the scene is Damon Smith. Last January during Radio Valencia's hiatus, the nearly 24-year-old former freestyle bicyclist began showcasing small improv groups at Oakland's Coffeehead. His in-yer-face approach to promotion turned the venue into a fairly happening Monday night meeting place. The Coffeehead folded in June, but on July 3 Smith re-established his activities at S.F.'s Venue 9. Arguably the region's most acoustically sound performance space, this spot has enormous potential. His booking policy here has been basically the same as at the Coffeehead: impressive, diverse, mixed-level, largely "free jazz" lineups that feature Smith about half the time.

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