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Alligator's Mondays New and Improvised : Experimental artists are featured in Santa Monica club's New Music Monday series.

August 28, 1994|Greg Burk | Greg Burk is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer and critic. and

You might not like it. Not even the musicians who play it always like it; that's a law of experimental music, "new" music, avant-garde , whatever you want to call it. Risking a kick from the classicist boot, you might even call it jazz. Why not? The word has been flexible enough to include ragtime, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, hard bop, modal, free jazz, jazz fusion. If they're all jazz, they have only one thing in common: improvisation.

Improvisation is what Nels Cline, guitarist of the Nels Cline Trio, has in mind when he books the New Music Mondays he's been hosting at Santa Monica's Alligator Lounge for more than a year now.

And newness. Cline says what he puts on the Monday-night stage is about "a kind of skewed multiculturalism, the effects of people hearing a lot of stuff--how it changed them, and how they didn't take the tried-and-true path and ended up with their own kind of music." It's a scene of individuals. At root, their music is what jazz always has been: change and challenge. It won't accept models, and it won't stand still.

For instance:

On the left side of the low stage, G. E. Stinson lets his fingers scratch out an almost funky guitar riff about three-quarters of the way to a standard realization before strangling it and beating it into a dissonant chord. He likes the effect, so he does it again. He's come up with a rhythm out of this, and on the other side of the stage, bassist Steuart Liebig has picked up on it and starts inserting precise slides, pops and echo-effect digital washes into the spaces.

In back, Joe Berardi performs the opposite of standard drummer chores: instead of reinforcing the newly established beat, he plays off it with lopsided rolls, tinkles and crashes.

In the middle, seated on a high stool, Japanese vocalist Kaoru moans a word, cuts in a phrase. Her microphone is plugged into an effects machine; she twiddles its controls to sample and repeat her vocals for rhythmic input, or to cathedralize them for godvoice authority. Or, since the sounds of the rest of the band are also leaking into her microphone, she can amplify her associates, turn them back on themselves, or mash them into a new paste.

The mass gets denser. The in tervals between beats gets smaller and smaller, until everything blends into a roar. Stinson's guitar starts feeding back; Liebig's bass follows suit. Berardi is pounding and thrashing now. It sounds as if the roof has been ripped off of hell.

This New Music Monday performance is by Unique Cheerful Events, a name Stinson settled upon after getting tired of changing the band's name for every gig. Typical? Here, there's no such thing. Next up could be a neoclassical improvisational chamber trio of violin, flute and bass clarinet, or a steel-grip '90s version of a free-jazz quintet.

Format, doormat. What matters is the level of commitment, invention and skill, and the Monday Alligator crowd knows about those. Look: people are listening. Teeth fluorescent under the purple influence of black light (plugged in so you can appreciate the primitive black-light paintings that glare from the blood-red walls), the audience, except for that occasional leather fetishist, skinhead or orange-mop, doesn't looks strange enough for the music.

Squinting at the stage, patrons tilt pint glasses of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on tap), dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, faded plaid shirts or T's, hair unfussed. Boho maybe, but more like post-hippie. Age range of 25 to 45. People who read books and listen to music.

Hunched on a bar stool, regular customer Andy Rotter says he used to be a business litigator, and came in contact with musical avanticians when his firm did some pro bono work for the Independent Composers Assn. in the early '80s. "People come here, and they can take some chances," he says. "Some things bomb, but that's one of the purposes of the series."

Not to bomb, but to take a chance of bombing. No matter what, though, says another visitor, San Gabriel resident Shiroshi Goto, "It makes you think differently."

The scene's so-what intelli gence rules out faddism, and indeed the history of experimental music is too unglamorous, intellectual and obscure to make it a decent gimmick or dilettante fixation.

Twentieth-century European composers like Schoenberg, Bartok and Berg, bored with classical harmony, rhythm and melody, got the bomb rolling in the early 1900s. But they weren't improvisation-minded. It took later theorists like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen to reshuffle concepts of what composition was, and the influence of '60s explorers confused things more.

Beginning in the '50s, Gunther Schuller and others merged classical and jazz elements into a "third stream." Pianist Cecil Taylor made a unified message from thousands of flying bits of condensed information. In the mid-'60s, saxists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler pushed sonic/rhythmic abstraction as far as it could go. Anthony Braxton created a complex, static world of theoretical alienation and refused to swing.

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