Making It Big


By now, Vinny Golia looms fairly large in the ranks of Los Angeles’ jazz scene, even from his perch outside the mainstream. The unstoppable multi-reed instrumentalist has been working diligently for the past 20 years.

He has been involved in countless projects, has run his own label, Nine Winds Records, has toured internationally, and is generally considered a hub of--for lack of a better term--"avant-garde” jazz activity in the area. And, during the past 18 years, he has also periodically cranked up the most ambitious of his projects, the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble.

Golia, who has played in Ventura several times in recent years in smaller groups, will bring the group to Ventura High School on Saturday, in what promises to be one of the musical events of the year.

Just don’t expect jazz in the big band tradition or hearty doses of swing. More than 30 musicians will fill the stage with sounds heavy on improvisation and concepts co-opted from contemporary classical music. In detecting influences, the names Anthony Braxton, Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky tend to come up, from both the jazz and classical worlds.

Mixing things up, genre-wise, was an ideal that initially fed the project.


“Originally,” Golia said, “there were these different camps of players in Los Angeles, and my idea was to create the Large Ensemble for everybody to play with each other. There were these classical people who were into improvising and these jazz guys who were into classical music.

“My idea was, ‘We’ll do a concert, I’ll write some music, and we’ll bring everybody together.’ So, in 1982, I tried it, and the results were pretty good. I have kept it through the years. It’s a little bit of a strain, but it’s very rewarding. The level of commitment is quite extreme. It’s a humbling experience to be involved with all these players.”

The group has evolved and changed through the years, as musicians moved away--or passed away--and it has gradually grown in number, from a 14-piece outfit to its current 31-person-strong incarnation. This is the band represented on a new CD, “The Other Bridge, Oakland 1999,” recorded last year at Yoshi’s, an Oakland jazz club. The Ventura date, along with a concert Monday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are, in effect, CD release parties for this, the eighth recording by the Large Ensemble.

“I can honestly say that the way the band is now, with [keyboardist] Wayne [Peet] playing a little bit more organ and synthesizer and the bassoons and the double reeds, it’s more like the original thought of what I wanted it to be,” Golia said. “It took a long time to get it all together. First off, I had to learn how to write for a group like this, and then finding the players is difficult. They have to be able to straddle different musical camps. . . . And, of course, the monetary thing is kind of scant.”

The musicians involved accept the effort as a labor of love and find other ways to make ends meet. Many work as teachers, studio musicians or in other parts of the music business. Golia himself recently played a session, a film score for a coming movie on Jackson Pollock, directed by and starring Ed Harris. During the past few years, Golia has also been teaching more and more at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

There have been other adventurous, offbeat big band projects in the jazz scene, or off to the side, such as those led by Braxton and Sam Rivers, and--outside the United States--the New Orchestra Workshop in Vancouver (with which Golia has often performed) and the London Composer’s Orchestra.

“I have to say that big band, as jazz music, I don’t much like,” Golia said, “except for a few examples, like Gil Evans. To me, that music is made with real orchestral colors. Everything is bright and shimmery. When I listen to a band like Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, . . . everything is sectionalized, horns-brass-horns-brass. I’m going for a chamber music sense, like ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’ of [Anton] Webern or the music of [Edgard] Varese. . . . “That’s one of the reasons I never called it a big band,” he said. “I was much more into the idea of having an improvising chamber orchestra.”

Partly, Golia said, the Large Ensemble concerts, because of their sheer scale and ambition, have spectacle attached. “People think, ‘This guy really can’t be this crazy, can he? He’s not thinking he can pull this off, is he? I’m just going to see if he can even do it. Thirty-one people? I’ve got to see this.’ That is a factor sometimes involved in it. It becomes more like an event.

“But I’ve got the people to do it, so I’m not frightened. If I couldn’t put my money where my mouth was, I’d really think twice about it and go back to a simpler thing. But since these guys are really smoking on this stuff, I feel very comfortable. . . . If it wasn’t a lot of fun, I really wouldn’t do it.”


The Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, 8 p.m. Saturday, Ventura High School auditorium, 2155 E. Main St. Tickets are $10 for adults; $5 for students. Information: 641-5116.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at