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Finding jazz at a cool price

Looking for an inexpensive and often adventurous night of music? These Los Angeles and Orange County venues fill the bill.

August 22, 2009|Chris Barton

It's a quiet Sunday evening and the sun is falling gently over Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock. A few stragglers are typing on laptops at a corner cafe, and a steady stream of customers is visiting a nearby video store. Inside the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, however, saxophonist Jason Robinson is calling down the heavens.

Offering up throaty, impassioned improvisations that recall Roscoe Mitchell and John Coltrane, San Diego resident Robinson is working a small but devoted crowd hunched forward in metal folding chairs. With its stately white archways and heavy chandeliers, the Center for the Arts is a popular wedding spot for locals, but tonight it's home to the Open Gate Theatre's Sunday evening concert series, which is dedicated to the outer limits of jazz and improvisation.

The series is nearing its 10th year at the center, but the show's booker and host, Alex Cline, sounds apologetic in introducing the performers. "August is our slowest month; everyone's vacationing or something for some reason," Cline said with a wry grin. "But what better way to spend your time than with this lovely, uncompromising music?"

Even with the temporary departure of the Jazz Bakery from the local scene -- the club closed earlier this year and is continuing to search for a new home -- L.A. still has a handful of traditional jazz clubs, such as Catalina Bar & Grill, Vibrato and Charlie O's. But once cover charges and dinner are factored together, lower-cost alternatives that cater to jazz's younger or more unpredictable side, with players whose musical direction might be more roundabout than "straight ahead," can be elusive.

Downtown's Cafe Metropol and local jazz label Cryptogramophone's monthly First Friday series at the Museum of Neon Art are established destinations for inexpensive and often adventurous music nights. Earlier this year, Studio City's Vitello's also started offering jazz, and its elegant upstairs space has earned a good reputation among musicians and fans.

"There's no ice-blending machines, there's no cash register, there's no phone," said drummer Peter Erskine, who's played Vitello's a number of times. "It sounded more like Donte's did than any other room I've been in since."

Visions of the late North Hollywood club aside, Vitello's and its Red Carpet Jazz Series reach out to fixtures on the local scene such as Erskine, Darek Oles and Bob Sheppard. But the space also has opened its doors to less familiar faces.

On a recent Saturday, young saxophonist Mark Zaleski kept a small cluster of tables bobbing with his driving take on jazz, which includes touches of groove-heavy post-rock. Zaleski, a regular on the Boston and New York circuits with a variety of ensembles, booked his own tour from the other side of the country.

"At one point last year I pulled all of my West Coast resources together and asked them all about where they played locally and figured out where they had good experiences," Zaleski said in an e-mail. "Having access to the Internet can help me figure out where other musicians like us perform, and I can evaluate whether we would be a good fit for the club."

Deciding where a musician might fit with a venue or its vision of jazz is a common challenge, and one that frequently inspires artists to go their own way.

On the third Thursday of each month, composer and filmmaker Hans Fjellested hosts ResBox at the Steve Allen Theater, a freewheeling evening catering to the most experimental elements of jazz, electronic and new music. But Fjellested bristles at such labels.

"I don't know if audiences are so interested in seeing people 'experiment' on stage," he said. "I think they're more interested in seeing the results of some research, the results of experimenting."

While past performances by locals such as G.E. Stinson and Jeff Gauthier demonstrate ResBox's commitment to acts some clubs would consider the outer edge of jazz, the evening overall resists convenient categorization. Last month's lineup included Znayu, a theatrical collective offering a surreal mix of dance, comedy and jazz-meets-klezmer brass, all backed by clips of -- who else? -- Steve Allen.

Attendance is an unfortunate concern for many "alternative" jazz venues. Driven by the frustration of commuting to L.A. for live music, Orange County saxophonist Ken Kawamura started his own self-sufficient incubator, the OC Creative Music Collective, and began staging monthly shows in the rent-free basement of a Santa Ana Episcopal church.

Kawamura is at times discouraged by the small crowds for his monthly concerts, which draw performers from San Diego, Long Beach and even Europe. In order to more effectively compete in an area that in his experience seems more attuned to smooth jazz or the more straightforward fare at the Fullerton club Steamers, he and the OCCMC eventually stopped charging admission.

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