SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : Grace Notes on '91 : For anyone paying attention, the county produced a tall stack of cultural enticements last year in classical, jazz and new music.


It's a good time to look back at 1991 and consider a couple of questions. Are we in Ventura County really cultural hicks, hopelessly eclipsed by the megalopolis to the south and the self-aggrandizing tourist town to the north? Or are we instead going about the business of going about our cultural business?

For anyone paying attention, Ventura County produced a tall stack of cultural enticements in 1991, in the realms of classical, jazz and new music. From where this reporter sits, this is a far cry from a cow town.

The award for grass-roots moxie goes to new music main man Jeff Kaiser, trumpeter-composer-concert impresario-gadabout who refuses to accept SoCal sloth or slickness as ways of being.

Kaiser's musical projects ranged from a duet concert with bassist Jim Connolly at the Performance Studio in downtown Ventura's Livery Arts Center to his ambitious "Requiem" (with text by Ventura poet George Keenen) at the Oddfellows Lodge. Then there was that show before Christmas by his band, Maha Cuisinart, at the Strong Steel Building, again in downtown Ventura. He gets around.

Kaiser's free New Music series at the Performance Studio was an especially juicy midyear treat. Kaiser, multi-instrumentalist Connolly, conceptual wiseacre Robert Bourneman and "guitar torture" specialist Ted Killian staved off summer ennui.

Globally and locally, this was the year of Mozart, or more specifically and potentially perversely, the year commemorating Mozart's death 200 years ago. The thought was not lost on Ventura County music programmers, from the Ventura County Symphony's generous deposits of Mozart in its concert programs to the Ojai Festival's clever focus on Mozart rarities.

What other composer's music could withstand such global overkill and still survive with its wit and grace intact?

For all intents and purposes, the Ojai Festival is Ventura County's biggest and best-known gift to the world music community. After rallying courageously from a budgetary nadir in 1990, the festival took on artistic director Christopher Hunt, who ruled with a firm grip and, with the help of a few big donations, pulled the organization out of debt.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies returned, switching composer-conductor roles with the underrated American composer John Harbison--underrated, perhaps, because he has no unswerving, easily categorized stylistic signature to call his own.

This was also the year that saw the premiere, unfortunately, of Davies' "Ojai Festival Overture," a silly puff piece that doesn't represent in the slightest what makes the big little festival so grand. For evidence of that grandeur, we can look forward to next summer's affair, when Pierre Boulez takes the conductor's baton.

Last year also marked Frank Salazar's penultimate year as principal conductor of the Ventura County Symphony, which he founded 30 years ago. A programmer with a taste for music spanning the centuries, Salazar insisted on inserting contemporary music into standard repertoire.

In November, the symphony broke with tradition by inviting a guest conductor. Schoenberg scholar and champion Leonard Stein brought to the Oxnard Civic Auditorium a nicely balanced program--Mozart, a world premiere by the young Leon Milo and Schoenberg's rarely played Violin Concerto--which sent some patrons scurrying for the exits or nervously gnawing on their programs. The rest of us were thrilled.

Now 10 years old, the fully ripened Ventura County Master Chorale continues to make ambitiousness a platform. Last spring, the group performed Honneger's "King David," and in October, it tackled Menotti's "The Unicorn" in a co-production with the Plexus Dance Company.

Speaking of 10-year anniversaries, the 10th annual City Hall Concert Series, presented by the Ventura Arts Council, brought classical music to the marbled quarters of the City Hall foyer. Featured were pianist Sofia Cosma and the Albinger Trio, a piano-flute recital by Susan and Bryan Pezzone (which also incorporated digital doodads) and Carlos Gonzalez, the elegant Oxnard-bred classical guitarist.

While the Ventura Concert Theatre kept itself stocked with goodies in the rock and occasionally the pop-jazz end of things, locals found alternatives out near Ojai. The Wheeler Hot Springs musical menu featured jazz mostly based in blues: Charles Brown, Laurindo Almeida, Oscar Brown Jr. and Manhattan Transfer were among the showcase acts.

For Ventura County's most celebrated musical residents, it was as mixed as a year can get.

Ojai gal Rickie Lee Jones came bursting out with "Pop Pop," her most genteel and lilting project yet. The album is a fairly radical experiment, in which she turned down to a whisper and dished up Sinatra signature tunes, jazz standards, plus--for the baby boomers--Jimi Hendrix's "Up From the Skies" and perhaps the most chillingly intimate version of Jefferson Airplane's "Coming Back to Me" ever recorded.

For jazz icon Miles Davis (yes, we can call him a Ventura County resident, since he sometimes lived on our side of the county line in the Malibu area), 1991 was his last chorus. Davis engaged in a flurry of activity in the last months of his life--including a musical/acting role in the Australian film "Dingo" (nothing to write home about) and reunion concerts in Europe over the summer.

Elsewhere, it was a good year for Ventura County's jazz export business.

Case in point: Theo Saunders, a brilliant pianist who moved recently from Ojai to Oxnard, but whose primary work is in Santa Barbara. In recent months, Saunders has been honing a fine, cohesive and forward-leaning piano trio with bassist Chris Symer (from Santa Barbara) and drummer Michael Stephans (from Los Angeles). The trio, which plays at the Sea Cove and at SoHo in Santa Barbara, is one of the best reasons to get out at night and aim north.

Ventura-raised saxophonist Dave Binney, who moved to New York 10 years ago, made his way into your local music store with his first album as a leader, "Point Game," on the French Owl label.

Meanwhile, saxophonist Bryan McCann's group, The Jazzheads, still holds down its longstanding Tuesday night gig at the Hungry Hunter in Thousand Oaks. Serving up fusion fare while slipping in standards, the band gives the lie to the idea that you can't get away with playing jazz in this county.

Ventura County's classical forces have solidified and continue to grow, and its homespun new music scene is evolving happily.

All we need now is a bona fide jazz club to complete the civilizing of the local music landscape.

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