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All That Jazz

UCLA Live's New Season Has Quality Look

July 05, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can say this about David Sefton: He's adaptable. After taking some strong hits--including some from this column--regarding the programming he devised for his first season as UCLA performing arts director, he has been quick to correct some of his earlier missteps by presenting a vastly improved UCLA Live schedule for the 2002-'03 season.

The jazz and world-music choices are distinct levels up from last year's on-again, off-again selections. And, to give credit where credit is due, Sefton was correct when he noted at last week's news conference that "we only had a few months to put that schedule together, and in the arts-presenting world, tours are often in place a year ahead of time."

The problem with the 2001-'02 season, in fact, had less to do with quality than with quantity and emphasis. Arriving from a high-visibility London arts background that was strongly engaged with pop culture, Sefton's initial approach to jazz and world-music scheduling led many to wonder whether UCLA's historically strong association with these genres would be left behind or experience dramatic shifts in accent.

It didn't help to alter that view when he opened the season by joining the Mingus Jazz Orchestra and artist-in-residence Elvis Costello in a shotgun marriage of disparate entities. Nor did the paucity of world-music artists and the seeming lack of promotional interest in their appearances seem to bode well for their future at UCLA.

But we can be thankful for adaptability. The 2002-'03 schedule restores both world music and jazz to prominent positions. And the choices--with one caveat--are generally first-rate, sometimes more than that.

The "more than that" category belongs to the Dave Holland Big Band (Oct. 3), perhaps the least high-visibility act on the schedule, but one with a great potential for creative payoff. There is also a largely successful effort to cover a wide range of stylistic areas in the lineup, ranging from Herbie Hancock (March 26) and Pat Metheny (Nov. 16) to Bireli Lagrene (March 13) and a group of musicians (Bebo Valdes, Eliane Elias, etc.) from the Latin-jazz documentary "Calle 54" (Oct. 10). Capping off the jazz schedule, there's an appearance--look out for emotional fireworks--by eccentric jazz diva Nina Simone (March 7).

"We think that's a big step forward from last year's program," says Sefton, "and a real indication of how we view the importance of jazz."

In the world-music arena, similarly good choices prevail in a dramatic expansion of bookings, topped by appearances by Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso (Oct. 29 and 30), the magical voice of Malian Salif Keita (Nov. 2), Senegalese master Youssou N'Dour (May 1), and cellist Yo-Yo Ma with the Silk Road Project (Nov. 1).

Other entries in the eclectic list of performers include Israeli folk singer Chava Alberstein (Oct. 1), legendary Cuban singer Pablo Milanes (Nov. 21), the Kodo drummers (Feb. 4-6), the Afro-Cuban All Stars (Nov. 14), Palestinian artist Simon Shaheen and Quantara (March 9), sitarists Vilayat Khan and Shujaat Husain Khan (May 8), the Orquestra Ibrahim Ferrer (April 1 and 2), the European klezmer band Kol Simcha (March 16) and a calypso evening featuring the Mighty Sparrow, Calypso Rose and David Rudder (Oct. 12).

That's a strikingly impressive group of global artists. But let's go back to that slight caveat mentioned above.

It's this: What is missing in the programming for both genres is the sort of envelope-stretching, thematically expansive efforts that are in other areas of the UCLA Live calendar, especially dance and theater. Misguided though the combining of Costello and the Mingus orchestra may have been last year, it at least represented an attempt to bring some out-of-the-box thinking to the presentation of jazz.

More would be welcome. Sefton, with his European perspective, is surely aware of the existence of such innovative ensembles as Italy's Instabile Orchestra, France's Orchestra National de Jazz, Holland's Willem Breuker Kollektief and Austria's Vienna Art Orchestra (to name only a few), as well as the many fascinating performers who record for German's ECM label. If UCLA (aided, one would hope, by the appropriate national consulates) can't bring these compelling groups to American audiences, who can?

In this country, one doesn't have to look any further than the artists who appear at Rocco's cutting-edge jazz room in Hollywood or who are recorded locally by companies such as Cryptogramophone to find some fascinatingly inventive music. And if Sefton--who seems eager to bring younger listeners to UCLA programs--wants to expand that desire to jazz, all he has to do is check out the audiences who turn out for any appearances by, say, guitarist Charlie Hunter or the ensemble Medeski, Martin & Wood.

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