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Jazz Returns to the Wee Hours

The new Rocco, in a former refrigerator store on Santa Monica Boulevard, offers die-hard audiences jam sessions late into the night.

April 18, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jazz clubs, no matter where you find them--a former bakery in Culver City, a New York knitting factory or the cellar-dwelling Village Vanguard--have one consistency: late-night sets and--sometimes--early-morning jam sessions.

Those hours aren't exactly prime time for Los Angeles' entertainment scene, save a few after-hours dance clubs. Jazz fans yearning--or just willing--to experience the music in that original, late-night tradition now have the new Rocco--the second installment of the venue that established Rocco Somazzi as a jazz club owner before he turned 30.

The original Rocco, an elegant jazz performance room and supper club, ran into the high cost of doing business at the top of Beverly Glen. Despite the room's popularity with listeners and musicians, it was shut down in December 1999.

When Somazzi decided to open the new Rocco on a schedule that ran from 10 p.m. into the post-midnight hours--an after-hours jazz room, by most definitions--there were few willing to bet on its success. His odds got longer when he debuted the room nine months ago without the safety net of a liquor license, in a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard just west of Vine Street that can be generously described as a dramatic change from the original Rocco.

"I wasn't sure what I was going to do after I closed the original club," Somazzi says. "And I actually found this space through a writer named Rick Pagano who was looking for a space to produce a play. After he found this room--which had been a refrigerator store--he came to me to talk about creating a theater cafe, and we started developing the concept together. But we only did a small amount of theater in the beginning, and then became primarily a music room."

As it turned out, Rocco's after-hours performance schedule became a necessity; the building complex includes two other theater stages well within acoustic reach. There's still no liquor license, but soon you'll be able to order sandwiches and salads in addition to coffee, soda and pastries.

The late-night schedule has given Rocco a unique cache among local jazz venues. The room is reminiscent of a 1960s Greenwich Village coffeehouse, with its mixture of comfortable couches, tables and chairs, and a rotating selection of paintings. The decor and hours capture just the right feel for the sort of far-ranging, eclectic programming provided by music director Matt Piper.

On a recent Friday evening, for example, Seattle's Jessica Lurie Sextet--featuring a rare front line of two female saxophonists--brought a provocative sampling of the intrepid jazz varieties surfacing outside New York and L.A. A sampling of recent intriguing bookings includes keyboardist Andy Milne's superlative ensemble from New York, James Carney's exploratory trio, Bulgarian singer Tzvetanka Varimezov, and a rare full day of electronic and ambient music.

Call it a spicy enhancement of your typical jazz club menu.

"The focus has definitely shifted from the original Rocco's," Piper says. "What we're trying to do is emphasize music that I believe is really in the moment--music by performers who are jazz informed or classically informed but who are all aware of what's going on around them in other music, including pop, rock, world music and beyond."

The audience for this kind of diverse booking is probably as wide-ranging as the programs. Any given night at Rocco--even for the most musically far-out programming--listeners range from teenagers to senior citizens. But the vibe, regardless of age, seems to be the same--folks in search of a laid-back atmosphere where they can experience compelling and adventurous music.

"What we're trying to do," says Piper, "is build a sense of community and make the room an artistic hub. Ideally, we're attracting people who are willing to relax, close their eyes and open their ears and their minds. There's not usually a lot of talking during our performances because people just seem to dig zoning out for an hour and taking in what we have to offer."

Rocco, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 804-4146. Tonight, pianist James Carney's trio; Friday, shakuhachi player Philip Gelb's quartet; Saturday, violinist Jeff Gauthier's Goatette. $10 cover.

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