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Improvisation as Salvation

Southern California area fans of avant-garde improvised music received a rare treat on Monday night when New York reed player Rob Brown gave his first area solo performance on alto saxophone and flute, followed by the first public performance by the locally based free jazz trio of Dan Clucas, Henry Grimes and Rich West, the trio marking a further chapter in Mr. Grimes' incredible comeback story. The evening was part of the Line Space Line series curated by Chris Heenan and Jeremy Drake, a series of new and improvised music has been drawing fans of cutting edge improvised music to the intimate Salvation Theatre in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles on Mondays for going on two years.

The musicians played to an attentive audience so large that the standing room extended well into the lobby. Warm on a cool day, the packed theater took on the aspect of a sauna this August evening as Mr. Brown's set began. Brown, who has performed with Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and many other legendary artists began his performance with an extended improvisation on the alto saxophone. The piece started out somewhat gingerly, Brown moving up and down the reeds in somewhat circular lines almost in the manner of fingering exercises. Then, much like one of Mr. Taylor's excursions, Brown began to alternate these passages with short, angular bursts of melody that sounded more obviously like "jazz." Soon Brown was in full flight, stretching one long phrase seamlessly into another, often blowing into the instruments upper registers, the overall effect suggesting artists like Braxton, Sam Rivers and Roscoe Mitchell. At times his phrases had the frenzy of early Ornette Coleman, at other times he produced sounds less easily cataloged; my notes contain a reference to one brief passage sounding like "A Moog synthesizer programmed by HAL."

For his second piece, Brown switched to flute and slowed the pace and the intensity down considerably. As the melody became peppered with Orientalisms hinted at by Brown on the alto, the symphonic nature of the program became apparent and I began to think of the improvisations in terms of movements rather than discreet pieces.

Returning to the alto, Rob Brown again seemed to be casting about before settling on short themes, but these had the herky-jerky, semi-comic feel of a scherzo, reinforcing the symphonic structure. No serious composer would end a serious piece with a scherzo, of course, and so it was that after a few minutes Brown bore down and proceeded much in the manner of the first solo until the piece concluded with an enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd.

Following a relatively long intermission--I think we all needed to get out in the cool night air--the trio of Dan Clucas, Henry Grimes and Rich West took to the stage. The opening few minutes revealed a group dedicated to microtonal sonorities. Clucas used his free hand like a mute in the bell of his trumpet to subdivide his notes while Grimes bowed rapidly across the stings of his bass with his right hand while the right moved up and down its neck with similar determination and drummer West appeared at least as interested in timbre as in meter. As the group found a groove, it became apparent that the veteran Grimes was very much the pulse of the group. Throughout the group’s three pieces the bassist steered between patches of wide-open exploration and others that positively swung.

A few words about Henry Grimes. From the late fifties to the late sixties, Grimes played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Don Cherry. Most closely associated with Albert Ayler and the free jazz of the late sixties, his bass anchors such landmark recordings as Pharaoh Sander’s Tauhid and Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures. Seemingly at the height of his powers, Grimes not only quit performing in 1967 but seemed to fall off the face of the earth itself. Rediscovered last year by an L.A. social worker, Grimes has quickly reestablished himself at the forefront of the local improvised music scene. This was my first experience with seeing Grimes live and while I wouldn’t venture to compare his current playing to what he did in his youth, I will say that the man sounded anything but rusty.

The great performances of Rob Brown and the Clucas, Grimes and West trio added up to another special night at the Salvation Theater in Silver Lake. Line Space Line, which in the past has featured such greats as Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith and also provided opportunities for young players such as Clucas and West came through once again. Hopefully Rob Brown will be a more familiar figure around Southern California and Henry Grimes’ comeback will continue to proceed apace.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Rob Brown & Clucas / Grimes / West
  • Concert Date: 8/4/2003
  • Subtitle: Rob Brown & Henry Grimes blow the house down in Silver Lake
  • Venue: Salvation Theatre
  • City State Country: Los Angles, CA
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