Okay, I had no excuse. North Hollywood’s Oakwood School had been making an increasing impact on Los Angeles jazz for years, and I didn’t figure that out until well after my daughter had enrolled there.
Steven Isoardi, author/editor of three books on local jazz, teaches history at Oakwood. Isoardi’s wife, Jeannette Lindsay, has made the definitive film documentary on the Leimert Park jazz scene. Bassist Nick Rosen, an Oakwood graduate, was instrumental as a teen in prodding ‘60s avant bassist Henry Grimes back onto the stages of the world; Rosen now performs with legends from Arthur Blythe to Azar Lawrence. Rosen was among the first fruits of the Oakwood Jazz Program instituted by Ivan Johnson, bassist of the L.A. avant mainstay Empty Cage Quartet (which plays the Jazz Bakery May 25 with Oakwood’s Numes Quintet opening). And Johnson’s program greases the wheels toward higher music education for several students each year.
Obviously it was time I checked out an Oakwood jazz recital, in this case the last of the year. I won’t name all the musicians, because that would be a long list. But they were all competent, and several were exceptional.
The 10-member Junior Ensemble opened with Sonny Rollins’ hustling “Oleo.” Among jazz’s many difficulties, foremost is the rhythm. But bassist Jasper McMahon pulled a good steady walk; you could tell he’d been shedding hard by the white tape around his pluckin’ fingers. Oliver Dewey-Gartner locked in with a nice clean touch on piano; Sean Winnick’s tenor solo showed imagination.
Next up was the Numes Quintet, led by Johnson. This was modern music; the driving bass and drums of Johnson and drummer Jake Nielsen contrasted with meandering sustains from Daniel Goldblum’s sweet, dark bassoon, Georgia Lill’s gliding cello and Spencer Ludwig’s breathy trumpet. Maybe it was the coloristic approach, but I flashed briefly on Gil Evans’ “Time of the Barracudas.” Jody Landau stepped up to lead his own “Sensuous Monkeys,” accenting the composition’s melancholy drift with high, wordless vocal ululations and Orphic swaying; the horns occasionally interrupted their slow improvisations with scored harmony parts. Intellectually satisfying, and it grooved.
Landau (on vibraphone now), Lill and Ludwig stuck around for the Senior Ensemble’s rack o’ standards. Sam Kauffman-Skloff and Stefan Weich wove an unusually subtle and varied rug on drums and bass; Landau flicked across the plates with scary ease; skinny Ludwig switched to flugelhorn and struck a swaybacked Miles pose for his solos, attempting quite a few unconventional note choices and getting away with most of them. Gabe Goldberg’s pigeon-neck physicality and jabbing piano style made for visual and auditory hooks as the group rolled through “Doxy,” “Lullaby of Birdland” (good execution of the challenging medium-slow tempo), Joe Henderson’s harmonically sophisticated “Black Narcissus” and a dynamically shaded “Stella by Starlight.” Lill, bowing with calm concentration, ended appropriately with a direct, elegant rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Many of these young musicians already possess contained confidence, realized creativity and, most important, their own distinctive artistic personalities. Most of us will have to wait till our next lives for that stuff.