Los Angeles is often described as an atomized metropolis where it’s nearly impossible to build a sense of community. The sprawling geography (and soul-sucking traffic!) certainly present daunting challenges, but new albums by two very different L.A. musicians highlight some of the enduring creative networks thriving in the Southland.
Percussionist/composer Alex Cline has been a quiet force on the L.A. scene for nearly four decades, and his sumptuous new double album Oceans of Vows (Cryptogramophone) flows from relationships that have defined his life (starting with his twin brother, guitarist Nels Cline). Long interested in setting the poetry of Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and verses from the Avatamsaka Sutra to music, he created two expansive suites of five pieces each for the Flower Garland Orchestra, a 14-piece ensemble conducted by new music pianist Vicki Ray.
The music takes some patience. The forms are long and often develop slowly, with improvised stretches emerging seamless from the thrumming orchestrations. I love the way Cline uses twinned instrumentation. Every player has a counterpart. There’s Nels Cline and GE Stinson’s guitars, the electric violins of Jeff Gauthier and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and the keyboards of Wayne Peet and Yuka Honda, though Chi Li’s traditional Chinese instruments (two-string erhu, lower-pitched zhonghu, and zither-like zheng) stand out strikingly in the mix. The crystalline vocalist, Areni Agbabian, delivers the lyrics at an incantatory tempo and adds wordless vocal textures.
Meditative, roiling and shimmering, the music draws you in, and often arrives at a breathtaking plateau. Enlightenment may not arrive with Atwood-Ferguson’s final solo on the nearly 23-minute closing piece, “The Ten Great Aspirations of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva,” but I felt like I’d completed a rewarding journey.
Atwood-Ferguson doesn’t play on pianist/composer Cameron Graves’ debut album “Planetary Prince” (Mack Avenue), but as a Kendrick Lamar collaborator he’s one point of connection between Graves’ West Coast Get Down and Cline’s crew. Like Cline, Graves has surrounded himself with artists he’s been making music with his whole life, and it shows.
Where Cline’s music seems to represent an inward journey, Graves is all about mixing it up in the world, and his music is inspired by a mysterious spiritual tome that appeared in Chicago in the 1920s called “The Urantia Book” (an esoteric text that also inspired Stockhausen and Hendrix).
He’s part of a new wave of jazz musicians who intersected with L.A.'s hip-hop scene, particularly Kendrick Lamar. Like Kamasi Washington, he’s a founding member of the West Coast Get Down collective, and his piano work is all over The Epic.
Planetary Prince also features Washington’s burly tenor sax, trombonist Ryan Porter, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, and his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. But if you’re expecting “The Epic, Part 2,” you’ll be disappointed. Like Washington, Graves is bursting with ambition and has no shortage of ideas.
Listening to a piece like the torrential “El Diablo,” I kept thinking he’s learned a lot from the jazz rock fusion of the 1970s in a good way, as if he took the guitar out of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and added a horn section instead.
With his percussive touch, Graves locks in again and again with Thundercat and Bruner, a remarkable bass and drums tandem. His compositions drill down into grooves and then suddenly spring open, like the stunning "Satania” and the herky funk of "End of Corporatism.” Clocking in at a generous 80 minutes, Planetary Prince is a more fully realized statement than The Epic, which tended to sprawl and repeat itself. As impressive as it is, I get the sense that Planetary Prince is just one small chapter in the unfolding book of Cameron Graves.