Slumgum at Royal/T last year with Rory Cowal, left, on piano, Dave Tranchina,… (Adeline Newmann )
Build an image in your head of a longtime volunteer at DIY bike garage the Bicycle Kitchen on Heliotrope, and chances are some amalgam of tattoos, torn jeans and punk rock emerges. What probably doesn’t appear so readily is the stereotype-busting Rory Cowal, the bespectacled treasurer of the nonprofilt bicycle advocacy group who is also keyboardist for rising jazz quartet Slumgum.
Performing two shows this weekend in celebration of the group’s latest album, “The Sky His Own” on Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds label, Slumgum earned considerable notice around the jazz scene in L.A. and beyond for its sophomore album, “Quardboard Flavored Fiber,” a free-flowing mix of swinging and at times experimental-minded jazz braced by flourishes of classical and world music. But Cowal isn’t entirely taken with the “experimental” label.
“I would reword that to being open-minded,” he said. “That means that we’re willing to explore, we’re just interested in a world of possibilities in the music, but that can mean so many different things. It could mean quiet and beautiful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean intense.”
With the other three members of the band still in their 20s, the group called on a collaborator in trumpeter Hugh Ragin to join the group on their latest album. A veteran jazz musician who has performed with David Murray and the Sun Ra Arkestra, Ragin’s melodic arcs smoothed out some of Slumgum’s more acute-angled edges on its previous album, including cascading opener “Zoyoki Gnoki” and the slow-burning “Inherent Vibrations,” which courses through a wealth of textures between Cowal’s rumbling piano and a glistening solo from Ragin in just over 15 minutes.
A primarily acoustic recording that contrasts with Cowal's flashes of Fender Rhodes on the previous album, “The Sky His Own” sounds like a step forward as much as somewhat of a departure for the band, but it wasn’t something the group set out to make.
“[The record] is really different from the last one, and that’s something I seek out in musical situations,” Cowal said. “I think the rest of the band, including Hugh Ragin, [enjoy] not knowing exactly what we’re getting into, and setting up a situation where there is chance, because that’s really exciting.”
Originally from Maryland, Cowal came together with Slumgum's other three members when they were studying at the fertile jazz program at CalArts. Though the life cycle of a young jazz artist frequently results in an almost-magnetic pull to New York City, the 30-year-old Cowal loves the momentum the band has built in L.A. and sees a future here, citing the musical incubators around the city, including Little Tokyo’s Blue Whale (where the group peforms Saturday) and Royal/T in Culver City, which up until last year was booked by Angel City Arts’ Rocco Somazzi.
“L.A. is a great place . . . the city’s infinitely complex, and it’s really what you make of it, so you kind of create your perception of what L.A. is,” he said, going on to describe his effort to navigate the city by bicycle as much as possible. “You have to create a city in LA that is liveable, and that’s completely doable here culturally in many ways.”
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Slumgum with Hugh Ragin, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Fri. 6 p.m. www.lacma.org. Free. Also at the Blue Whale, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Ste 301. Sat. 9 p.m. $10. www.bluewhalemusic.com.