Giving Thanks for All the Cool Kids

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and I’d like to take a moment to give thanks to everyone who has supported our programming so far this year. You’re the cool kids.

We’ve had some amazing performances already and there’s more in store.

Our second post-show party of the year November 12 was among the best we’ve ever had, celebrating the funky Cambodian style of Dengue Fever in their first Royce Hall headlining performance, laying down an eclectic and groovy live score to the classic silent film The Lost World.

In a review of Dengue’s  2008 release Ocean’s of Venus the LA Times called the band’s style” sexy and eclectic, it’s world music for the cool kids.”

And clearly, we were surrounded by cool kids just a few short weekends ago, check out these pics of Dengue band members partying with fans after the show. After a much-deserved standing ovation, the band mingled with fans and chilled to fantastic global sounds from KCRW’s world music guru Tom Schnabel on decks in our lobby.

Dengue Fever's Zac Holtzman with UCLA Live partygoers.

Dengue Fever's Chhom Nimol with UCLA Live partygoers.

There’s more in store. If you haven’t heard of Karsh Kale, it’s time you got into him.

He’s a groundbreaker, a risk taker, a fierce luminary of electronic fusion and one of the founders of the pure force of music nature that is Tabla Beat Science.

And he’ll be here January 29 spinning mad tracks to crazy visuals backed by fellow Indian fusionists and cool kids MIDIVal Pundits.

I’m personally excited that my friend and founder of one of my favorite yoga studios in town, electric violinist Dorian Cheah will be part of the onstage mix too.

Check out his sick skills in this video. (He often performs live music for his wife’s yoga class, but not like this!)

Definitely a cool kid.

This is a not-to-be-missed night. So show up.

And for all you jazz-loving cool kids, next weekend we have the Alice Coltrane Tribute. You won’t see a lineup like this anywhere else in town this year.  Maybe ever.

Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Nels Cline of Wilco and Flying Lotus, Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew and rising multi-genre electronica experimentalist are some of the most exciting artists in modern alternative music. They’re paying homage to this legendary jazz icon exclusively on our stage, with help from other jazz icons McCoy Tyner on Keys, Han Bennink on percussion, Daniel Carter on sax, Michael White on jazz violin and more.

It doesn’t get much cooler than generations and genres colliding in reverence to one of the greatest, most adventurous and most spiritually inclined performers in music history—Alice Coltrane.

So enjoy your holiday weekend, eat your turkey, give thanks for all the great music, artists and fellow cool kids in your life and get yourselves to UCLA Live for some cool music this winter.

Monday on the stage with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim joined us for an intimate spoken word event here Monday night. Well, it was “intimate” in the sense that it featured the legendary composer in a free-flowing conversation with KCRW’s literary luminary and admitted musical-theater lover Michael Silverblatt and not-so-intimate in the sense that there were about 1,600 fans watching it happen.

Sondheim was all charm, some self-deprecation and just the right amount of self-aware egoism. His piercing intellect and sieve-like memory played well against Silverblatt’s fanboy demeanor and played right into the audience’s expectations.

Good-naturedly and with the wisdom of hindsight, Sondheim plunged right into discussion of works widely thought of as flops, such as his first introduction to Broadway working on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  Allegro and his collaboration with Arthur Laurents in Anyone Can Whistle, during which Sondheim said he discovered “the difference between being smart and a smart-ass.”

He talked about the joy and freedom that comes from working on off-Broadway productions versus the harsh audience- and producer-expectations from Broadway itself, sharing starkly honest opinions and recollections from his vast career, which are also peppered throughout the recently released book Finishing the Hat, the first of a two-volume anthology of his lyrics.

When asked about his writing process he said he tries to write “away from the piano,” especially as he gets older, because while writing at the piano is fun, “you’re limited by your own technique,” and often apt to fall into old habits, use the same chords out of sheer muscle memory.

Sondheim turned 80 this spring and during his appearance at UCLA Live, recalled how the New York Times helped commemorate his 70th birthday, with this article discussing a selection of songs Sondheim says he wishes he’d written.

Sondheim and Silverblatt had a chuckle of the inclusion of “Silverware,” on that list. It’s an incongruously themed ditty  from We Take the Town, a musical version of Viva Villa, based on the life of Pancho Villa. With lyrics from dentist-turned-songwriter Matt Dubey and music from Harold Karr, it is sung by a group of bandits.

“It’s one of the greatest songs ever written,” Sondheim replied to Silverblatt’s dubious question about why that song made the list. “It’s completely unique.”

” But, it’s a Mexican Salsa song sung by bandits on a raid” Silverblatt clarified with a chuckle.

“Yes,” Sondheim agreed gleefully. “It’s a happy song about killing.”

It’s more difficult to write a funny song than a dramatic one, Sondheim said later in the evening.

“It’s easy to write a clever song, but to get a laugh in a song, that’s hard.”

When pressed as to whether he’s been successful at that Sondheim said: “I say with no modesty at all, I can write a funny song.”

And he surely can, just like he can charmingly entrance a packed-house audience while  seated on a dark stage with just his ruminating mind and a fellow lover of musicals to bounce thoughts off of.

No accompaniment necessary.

There’s Power in a Union

Billy Bragg walked onstage Friday night in Royce Hall with a couple of guitars and a cup of tea and held us all right in his grasp.

Bragg’s penchant for rabble-rousing rhetoric is well known among his fans, as much as his thoroughly thought-provoking lyrics, hooky riffs, raw, aching and yet-subtly controlled vocals and his clear and absolute sense of his musical self and personal mission. Those of us who’ve known and loved him well for years were not disappointed. He peppered his songs with effortless soapbox interstitials on the political state of his and our country, the dangerous and polarizing effect of our sensational media outlets and their pundits–or “peddlers of hate” as he dubbed them in a new song titled “There Will Be A Reckoning”–alongside tongue-in-cheek criticism of American football and American tea.

Bragg has a political agenda, to be sure. It may not match your own, but even so, you have to respect the way he stays true to his own ideology–talking, writing and singing about it with great logic and more than a little wit, wisdom and warmth, all of which is truly inspiring to witness in person. Really, you would have to be a complete cynic to not have felt just a little inspired by ‘the bard of Barking’ Friday night.

And the man himself used much of his set to warn us all against the dangers of cynicism and exhort us not to give up hope in a time of political turmoil.

It’s human to doubt, and good to have healthy skepticism, but “our greatest enemy is cynicism,” he admonished us. “I battle my own cynicism every day, but I get to come out here in the dark and talk to you and you all cheer for me and it helps.”

Bragg admitted he’s always been a “glass-half-full guy,” and it’s easy to scoff at people like that.

But, he said…if you want to make things better in this world, “half-full is a damn good place to start.”

There’s Power in a Union, he reminded us at the end of his set. This battle-cry song has always struck a nostalgic and emotional chord with me, having grown up a Teamster’s daughter. And, it struck a chord with more than just me Friday night, judging by the immediate and immense standing ovation it was met with.

But I’ve always also felt the dual message in that song and I felt it again Friday night. There’s power in a union, but not just in the organized-labor-protective-group definition of the word. There’s also power in a union of people, in a meeting of the minds, in a union of purpose.

The night yielded one such union, when Billy joined the indefatigable Mavis Staples on stage to perform the gospel staple The Weight. Their union on that stage held a simple purpose, to generate a massive amount of joy and share it with everyone in the room.

Mavis and her band kept that pure joy flowing for the rest of the evening and by the end of her set, every seat in the hall was empty because we were all standing, hands thrust in the air, joining in the repeated phrase “I’ll take you there,” witnessing the great power of great music to join us all in a singular purpose.

Even if that purpose was simply enjoying a musical legend performing and manifesting pure hope and joy, well, that’s a damn good place to start.

Mavis and Billy definitely took us somewhere Friday night. It’s nowhere I’ve ever been before, and perhaps I’ll never get there again. But it was a heck of a visit, that’s for sure.

Were you with me? Share your favorite moment from the night.

Free (jazz) your mind…and see what follows

Ornette Coleman was here.

Such a simple sentence to write. But really my feeling while writing that sentence is more like the feeling you get when you see a name etched into a tree bark, a random piece of concrete or an ancient stone in a faraway  country…an evocative feeling, tickling at your brain, making you stop and take notice of that name, that etching, even if it’s not a name you recognize, not a person you know.

Someone was there. Someone was here. Wherever “here” or “there” or “someone” might be….

Well last night, that someone was Ornette Coleman.  And that somewhere was here. And, perhaps unsurprisingly to music lovers who know him well—to put it simply, watching and hearing his performance made me think. About a lot of things. I confess, prior to this UCLA Live season and all the promotion around last night’s event, I was not well-versed in Coleman’s style or repertoire, or really free jazz in general. How sad for all the music-loving years behind me, how fortunate for those ahead of me and how gloriously present that moment in time was last night.

For me, watching Ornette Coleman and his amazing fellow musicians, Tony Falanga on standup bass, his son Denardo on the drums, Al Macdowell on electric bass—was incredibly mentally freeing.

Perhaps that presentness is the intent of the genre itself. I found the unfettered instrumental voices so inspiring and surprisingly non-frenetic even in such a playground of improvisational experimentation, perhaps that’s due to the remarkable presence of the man leading the charge.

It made me think: “Wow this is exactly what’s happening right now.” The highlight for me was a lengthy riff on Bach’s flowing Cello Suite during which it was like each instrument on stage was speaking words from the same poem, but in entirely different languages and in an entirely different stanza order.

And, when Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea hopped onstage for the final few songs, he added not only another ridiculous bass line to try and wrap our heads around, but his own infectious energy, green hair bouncing in time to the cacophony.

Flea’s admiration for Ornette Coleman is well and widely known and after the show backstage, he let a little  endearing nervousness slip. “Were you guys out there in the audience? Did it sound OK? Man, I wish I’d gotten to practice with those guys first.” (Flea showed up well before the performance, but after sound check, clearly in a rush, but also clearly thrilled to get on stage with a man who’s a personal icon of his.)

Yeah Flea, it sounded OK.

It sounded way more than OK. It sounded like freedom of thought, of hope and of purpose.

I was already convinced after reading this interview with Ornette Coleman, that the man’s mind just doesn’t vibrate on the same level as most humans, mine included. But during and after the show, his skill set my mind reeling, thinking about music, about human nature, about art and love and hope and left me grasping for a way to describe that feeling.

“I seek to play pure emotion,” Coleman’s quote in the program notes reads. Mission accomplished.

Another quote popped in my head as I was thinking about the show just now…I think it will serve to encapsulate how this show made me feel. It’s something  that resonated with me when I first read it and has stuck in my head since, a comment made by Entertainment Weekly blogger Jeff  “Doc” Jensen in his recap of the final episode of “Lost.” (random connection, I know! What happened to my brain?!)

‎”The best we can do is live our lives with enlightened improvisation — to be so self-aware and fearless that we can live fully in the present and redeem our every moment and every human connection.”

Thanks to Ornette Coleman for reminding me of the beauty, emotion and magic in enlightened improvisation.

And thanks to any and all of you who shared in that with us last night.