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.