Jazz review: Nels Cline and David Breskin’s ‘Dirty Baby’ at LACMA (updated)
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‘Someone said these poems were sad,’ the rich-voiced David Breskin slowly said between recitations at LACMA’s Bing Theater Thursday night. ‘It’s not a Broadway musical,’ he added with a smile.
No one in the crowd would have argued. Presented as the fourth and most genre-defying of Angel City Jazz Festival’s six-day menu of offerings, ‘Dirty Baby’ was billed as a ‘recontextualization’ of Ed Ruscha’s ‘censor strip’ paintings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. With Breskin providing verses in an ancient Arabic form called ghazals, the poems were then translated into music composed by Nels Cline in two distinct large ensembles, all under projections of images by Ruscha that inspired the effort.
If it sounds like a delicate intermingling, it was, but the results were rewarding. Split over two sides like an LP, the evening’s first half opened on Breskin’s ghazals, each paired with a specific Ruscha painting. Using Ruscha’s titles that filled in each painting’s ‘blanks’ as each poem’s title, ‘Side A’ amounted to a time-lapsed history of the West that began with a planet coated in lava and continued through the rise of suburbia. Many made for vivid (if not entirely subtle) pairings, such as an ominously shadowed image of a steeple that Breskin translated into the rise of religion as social control, or the fusillade of slurs shaped into a poem referencing the conquest of Native American culture under Ruscha’s startlingly brilliant image of the flag.
Turning to what Breskin introduced as ‘the good part,’ Cline and his ensemble took the stage under the same progression of images but with music coloring the narrative. While Cline’s appearance at the Ford Sunday was all in-the-moment combustion, here was the guitarist acting as composer, directing instrumental traffic and cycling through sheet music as he alternated between acoustic and electric guitars. Accented by loops and hefty rhythms from drummer Scott Amendola, the ensemble cycled through seven ever-evolving movements, frequently led by Bill Barrett’s mournful harmonica and Cline’s dialogue with guitarist Jeremy Drake. Treating melody and dissonance on equal footing, the group gave life to the first half’s themes of wide-open discovery, growth and destruction. While the night’s opening served as a sort of introduction to ‘Dirty Baby’s’ moving parts, the second half pulled them together. Focusing on the Iraq war, Breskin’s poems became more gruff and pointed, and shifted through points of view that included a battle-hardened soldier, an Abu Ghraib prisoner and the war’s churning propaganda machine.
After each reading, Cline responded with a larger, more orchestral ensemble that also included twin brother Alex on percussion, Jeff Gauthier on violin and Vinny Golia on a variety of woodwinds, which often touched on Eastern tones. The music became more pointed, often burning through passages of seething noise that matched the intensity of the wrathful, ‘I Will Wipe You Off the Face of the Earth’ barely longer than a minute. Ruscha’s visual component had also changed from hazy landscapes to color-blocked paragraphs of censored text, further underscoring the post-Patriot Act atmosphere.
Often the pieces came together as a perfectly elliptical sort of protest music. Rising out of Breskin’s calm, double-edge mantra of ‘We occupied ourselves,’ ‘I Can’t Take It No More’ was translated into a brassy, bent bit of orchestral jazz from Cline. Despite its wry title, ‘Don’t Threaten Me With Your Threats’ was a grim revisiting of the Sept. 11 attacks, underscored by Cline leading his group through a woozy, bluesy New Orleans funeral with Todd Sickafoose providing a rattling cigarbox guitar.
‘Muddy Waters, Mahavishnu, Miles. Not at all about technique between you and I,’ Breskin intoned during ‘You and I Are in Disagreement,’ a piece that closed the night in a fragile, call-and-response duet with Cline. With a similarly diverse range of influences feeding such a passionate and ultimately rewarding effort, ‘Dirty Baby’ could almost be summed up so neatly.
(Updated: An earlier version of this post misidentified the ‘censor strip’ paintings as originating in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Also, the titles of each poem was the same title used for each painting, not original to David Breskin’s poems.)
-- Chris Barton