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SOUNDS : The Making of a Jazz Hero : Vinny Golia carved out his own career with improvisation, independent thinking and the creation of his own label.

March 30, 1995|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Josef Woodard covers art and music regularly for Ventura County Life

Although he may still be but a blip on the general-purpose jazz media screen, Vinny Golia is a certain kind of jazz hero. Over the past 15 years, Golia's name has become synonymous with the making and supporting of the avant-garde in Los Angeles, a town that tends to like its culture slick and straight.

In the face of adversity and marginality, Golia has proceeded to become an avid multi-instrumental reed player, composer, bandleader, collaborator, scene-maker and--not least of all--a record company chief executive. Golia's Nine Winds label was launched in 1977 and now boasts a catalogue of more than 70 titles. Many are projects under Golia's own name, including recently released "Commemoration," an ambitious two-CD package by the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble.

Now, Golia is coming to a city hall near you. Making his Ventura County debut as a leader, Golia's Quintet will play Saturday in the atrium of Ventura City Hall, a reverberant and pleasantly peculiar venue for music of this adventurous sort. Opening the show will be Mahacuisinart, Ventura's own gang of improvisation-fueled envelope-pushers, featuring bassist Jim Connolly, drummer Bob Sterling, and leader Jeff Kaiser--who reports that the group will feature all-new material.

The April Fool's Night performance will not be Golia's first appearance in town as a player: Last fall, he was a featured member of Bonnie Barnett's group that performed there. Barnett's own debut CD, "Delay in Gravity," is, not surprisingly, on the Nine Winds label.

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As with many jazz musicians who have embraced free improvisation since the '60s, Golia plays music that could be viewed as a search for the magical, elusive balance between structure and liberation thereof. Listening to his strikingly good Quintet album, "Against the Grain," for instance, we hear unhinged improvisational passages, without harmonic or rhythmic signposts, mixed in with strictly notated melodies and tight arrangemental road maps. The beauty is in the mixture.

Golia, who has played in countless ensembles in countless settings, has a special fondness for his current quintet. It began as a trio, with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Billy Mintz, grew to a quartet with trumpeter Rob Blakeslee, and finally a quintet with the inclusion of the sonically sensitive Nels Cline, whose electric guitar brush strokes give the group a mark of distinction over conventional jazz quintets.

"I like a trio--which is great for improvising--if you're going to play less composed music," Golia explained on the phone from Portland, where he was on tour with drummer Gregg Bendian. "But with a quintet, you can play a really wide range of music. It can be very compositional and very loose at the same time. To me, that's always been the answer."

And, despite the variety of the projects on his plate, Golia has grown evermore attuned to the importance of focusing on the qualities of each on its own merits. "I segment my composition for each group. When I first started writing, I didn't so much. Then I learned that for each group to have its own voice, the music has to be written for the people within the group."

In the parallel jazz world inhabited by Golia and his wide roster of collaborators, certain free-spirited musicians empathize better than others and tend to establish bonds. For about five years now, Golia has played in various settings with Mintz, one of the more inventive and personal stylists on the West Coast.

"He's an amazing guy," Golia says. "He marches to his own beat, a really original player. You can play anything with him. He has a really liquid sense of swing, very propulsive."

An enterprising sort not prone to taking "maybe" for an answer, Golia mustered up do-it-yourself moxie to launch Nine Winds in the late '70s. It was a time when independent labels, independent thinking and independent activity were making headway, from punk to jazz and beyond.

"When I started the label, (clarinetist) John Carter and (flutist) James Newton were thinking about doing things independently," Golia says. "I thought, 'Well, I'll just skip the middle man and put something out myself. If I shopped my tape, who's going to listen to me? I'm totally unknown.' That's what I did. After about the fourth record, I decided that there are all these other people who have projects like me. I couldn't just keep putting out my own stuff."

All these years later, the label has asserted an international presence as a forum for what Golia describes as "creative music from the West Coast. I decided that the people on the East Coast were more available to the European and Japanese record companies. Nobody ever stops on the West Coast unless they want to hire fusion bands. I decided that, this way, we would try to gain some visibility for our stuff."

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