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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Sliding Scale

Trombonist tries to balance structured with spontaneous.

October 29, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Musicians in Los Angeles, unlike elsewhere, tend to face some creative conflicts in an industry town where innovation isn't nearly as prized as professional polish and trend-baiting.

That conflict can be doubly true with a player with decidedly experimental, noncommercial instincts such as Michael Vlatkovich, one of the more gifted and inventive trombonists calling Southern California home.

Vlatkovich, who has been a part of L.A.'s fringe jazz scene for years and has released albums on his own Thank You Records label, has been making his way up to Ventura in the past year, as part of Jeff Kaiser's Double Quartet.

On Friday night, he'll do a free show at the Daily Grind with his own trio--with Andrew Swanson on bass and Chris Garcia on drums. They'll also have a brand-new CD on hand: "No Z, Two Es."

Originally from St. Louis, Vlatkovich moved to L.A. in 1972. Soon after arriving, he started a fairly successful group called Julius Ivory, concertizing at the John Anson Ford Theater and elsewhere. The foundation was jazz, with detours into other areas.

"The music was programmatic," Vlatkovich said. "It went a lot of different places."

Still, he found himself being intrigued more and more by music of a less structured nature, at a time--late '70s and early '80s--when loft jazz in New York signified a new interest in improvised jazz.

He had the right tool for the job: Such trombonists as Ray Anderson, George Lewis and Albert Mangelsdorf played important roles in the freeing of jazz in the '70s.

He has found other musical allies in town, as part of the circle of left-end jazz L.A. musicians that includes reed player Vinnie Golia. And, like Golia, Vlatkovich took the initiative to start his own record label in the early '80s.

Recalling the impetus to start the label, Vlatkovich noted that "all of the stuff I'd done in the past, which I thought was much more commercial, nobody was interested in putting out, so I figured, 'Why even try to do something that I personally felt was commercial? Why not just do exactly what I want and do it myself?' "

Three albums--"Michael Pierre Vlatkovich," "The One That Never Stayed," and "9113"--came out in the '80s.

"The first record was quite successful in terms of the press and notoriety. It didn't sell terribly well, but it was really quite good. The second record wasn't received as well. It's a lot denser and the third one is really very minimal."

For the moment, the label is "on hiatus."

Over the years, Vlatkovich has worked in various facets of the music business, including the fine art of music copying and arranging--tasks that are often relegated to computer programs now.

For the past few years, Vlatkovich had enjoyed his "day job" as a member of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which began as something of a novelty in 1994, but suddenly found itself in the heart of the new swing movement.

Vlatkovich was recently dismissed from the organization, but not before enjoying some of the spoils of success. He traveled the world, playing jazz festivals and in concert settings. A platinum record is forthcoming, and residuals.

"In the beginning, only the people who were familiar with the Stray Cats knew who you were talking about. Most people thought it was Brian Seltzer," he laughed. "But the whole demographic has changed. It used to be exclusively rockabilly people. Now it's different. It has taken a long time. I don't know how much longer it will be as successful as it is right now, and whether that [swing] trend will fade or not."

Setzer's hit "Jump, Jive and Wail" has been wriggling in and out of the Top 10 since it was released, but it almost didn't happen.

"Tom Whaley, the president of Interscope, essentially forced Brian to do that song," Vlatkovich recalled. "We had finished the CD and Tom told him to do that tune. Brian turned him down twice and finally did it," he laughed.

"It was very smart, because it was already on the GAP commercial, so people were already hearing it. In fact, younger people think Brian was the one who originally did it, although, of course, it was Louis Prima."

So you can hear Vlatkovich on the new smash Setzer album, tucked snugly into the horn section, or you can check out the "real" thing, in the tight, evocative corners of his trio.

For years, Vlatkovich has grappled with the issue of balancing music that is read and music generated spontaneously, on the spot.

Years back, he decided that he "wanted to leave the music more, so I started writing less music, which caused the players to play more. That has evolved over the years. I've wanted to write more music again, so I have the opposite problem now, getting people to play the music on the page very well. I've come around in a circle."

As new ideas bubbled up, he had trouble finding sympathetic players in his adopted hometown.

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