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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Musical Chemistry

Xan Lang forgoes chordal instruments to weave its own kind of jazz.


Like comforting clockwork, the Monterey Jazz Festival unveiled its 41st annual event last weekend, with what has become the usual balance of big-name acts and lesser-knowns. The stylistic menu included mainstream jazz, funk-fueled sounds, blues and even smatterings of cutting-edge jazz. In the main arena, the schedule included names such as Pat Metheny--in a free-flowing trio setting--the Zawinul Syndicate, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Brubeck, Bobby Hutcherson and Elvin Jones.

But some of the most ear-opening music came from the sidelines, on the five stages sprinkled around the Monterey Fairgrounds. One of those sideline pleasures, and a festival highlight, came from the oddly monikered group Lan Xang, playing on the outdoor Garden Stage on Sunday evening. Contrary to the name, there's nothing especially Asian about the band, apart from the occasional use of an exotic woodwind.

This is a unique and evocative quartet, which has something new to say at a time when a lot of new jazz leans on the art of the skillful retread. The players are all making names for themselves out of New York, but their roots are in California, which makes their current swing through the West Coast a sort of homecoming.

The versatile tenor sax player Donny McCaslin and drummer Kenny Wolleson are from Santa Cruz, bassist Scott Colley is from Los Angeles, and we can count alto sax man Dave Binney as one of our own, raised in Ventura. Binney and friends will stop by the old hometown to play at 66 California on Saturday night, and then at SohO in Santa Barbara on Sunday night.

This band of young, forward-thinking musicians joins the ranks of jazz players asking the musical question: Who needs a chordal instrument? Of course, chords make themselves known in many ways, and there are harmonic intersections and intervals in the music that give a sense of harmonic structure.

But the setting also allows the players to range more freely without the chordal role to confine the music. The sound is reminiscent of the old Jack DeJohnette Special Edition grouping featuring sax players David Murray and Arthur Blythe, a fine point of comparative departure.

Most important, these horn players know what to do with the freedom, issuing hot, probing solos that take into account various reference points in jazz history, from bebop to avant-garde concepts, with detectable elements of souland influences from the world-music stage. As heard on their debut CD (released on Binney's own Mythology label) and live, it all hangs together beautifully, an aesthetic born of seamless synthesis.

In Monterey, they kicked off with Binney's tune "Day of Fear, Night of Truth" and moved to the post-bop gymnastics of McCaslin's "Rob Petrie." Here, Binney's solo typified his improvisational voice in action, working simple motifs into a fury and then issuing fiery gusts of sound.

Colley's ballad "Long Lake" is lyrical without being sentimental, and McCaslin's new one, "Hidden Gardens," is a fine Lan Xang vehicle, full of odd meters and opportunities for reflection and wailing. Those two poles define the range of this band's compelling musical chemistry. Catch 'em while they're in the 'hood ($14; children 12 and under, $12; 581-9940).

New West Openings: The New West Symphony doesn't officially open its orchestral season until next month, but this Sunday marks the kickoff of a new feature this year, a three-concert chamber music series at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center.

It promises to be a good use for a hall in need of more musical activity, especially of the chamber variety. The first concert carries a French musical accent, with works of Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc.


Lan Xang, Saturday at 9 p.m., 66 California St. in Ventura, 648-2266; and on Sunday at SOhO, 1221 State St. in Santa Barbara.

New West Symphony Chamber Music Series, "From Paris With Love," on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave. $18.

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