It's a quiet Sunday evening and the sun is falling gently over Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock. A few stragglers are typing on laptops at a corner cafe, and a steady stream of customers is visiting a nearby video store. Inside the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, however, saxophonist Jason Robinson is calling down the heavens.
Offering up throaty, impassioned improvisations that recall Roscoe Mitchell and John Coltrane, San Diego resident Robinson is working a small but devoted crowd hunched forward in metal folding chairs. With its stately white archways and heavy chandeliers, the Center for the Arts is a popular wedding spot for locals, but tonight it's home to the Open Gate Theatre's Sunday evening concert series, which is dedicated to the outer limits of jazz and improvisation.
The series is nearing its 10th year at the center, but the show's booker and host, Alex Cline, sounds apologetic in introducing the performers. "August is our slowest month; everyone's vacationing or something for some reason," Cline said with a wry grin. "But what better way to spend your time than with this lovely, uncompromising music?"
Even with the temporary departure of the Jazz Bakery from the local scene -- the club closed earlier this year and is continuing to search for a new home -- L.A. still has a handful of traditional jazz clubs, such as Catalina Bar & Grill, Vibrato and Charlie O's. But once cover charges and dinner are factored together, lower-cost alternatives that cater to jazz's younger or more unpredictable side, with players whose musical direction might be more roundabout than "straight ahead," can be elusive.
Downtown's Cafe Metropol and local jazz label Cryptogramophone's monthly First Friday series at the Museum of Neon Art are established destinations for inexpensive and often adventurous music nights. Earlier this year, Studio City's Vitello's also started offering jazz, and its elegant upstairs space has earned a good reputation among musicians and fans.
"There's no ice-blending machines, there's no cash register, there's no phone," said drummer Peter Erskine, who's played Vitello's a number of times. "It sounded more like Donte's did than any other room I've been in since."
Visions of the late North Hollywood club aside, Vitello's and its Red Carpet Jazz Series reach out to fixtures on the local scene such as Erskine, Darek Oles and Bob Sheppard. But the space also has opened its doors to less familiar faces.
On a recent Saturday, young saxophonist Mark Zaleski kept a small cluster of tables bobbing with his driving take on jazz, which includes touches of groove-heavy post-rock. Zaleski, a regular on the Boston and New York circuits with a variety of ensembles, booked his own tour from the other side of the country.
"At one point last year I pulled all of my West Coast resources together and asked them all about where they played locally and figured out where they had good experiences," Zaleski said in an e-mail. "Having access to the Internet can help me figure out where other musicians like us perform, and I can evaluate whether we would be a good fit for the club."
Deciding where a musician might fit with a venue or its vision of jazz is a common challenge, and one that frequently inspires artists to go their own way.
On the third Thursday of each month, composer and filmmaker Hans Fjellested hosts ResBox at the Steve Allen Theater, a freewheeling evening catering to the most experimental elements of jazz, electronic and new music. But Fjellested bristles at such labels.
"I don't know if audiences are so interested in seeing people 'experiment' on stage," he said. "I think they're more interested in seeing the results of some research, the results of experimenting."
While past performances by locals such as G.E. Stinson and Jeff Gauthier demonstrate ResBox's commitment to acts some clubs would consider the outer edge of jazz, the evening overall resists convenient categorization. Last month's lineup included Znayu, a theatrical collective offering a surreal mix of dance, comedy and jazz-meets-klezmer brass, all backed by clips of -- who else? -- Steve Allen.
Attendance is an unfortunate concern for many "alternative" jazz venues. Driven by the frustration of commuting to L.A. for live music, Orange County saxophonist Ken Kawamura started his own self-sufficient incubator, the OC Creative Music Collective, and began staging monthly shows in the rent-free basement of a Santa Ana Episcopal church.
Kawamura is at times discouraged by the small crowds for his monthly concerts, which draw performers from San Diego, Long Beach and even Europe. In order to more effectively compete in an area that in his experience seems more attuned to smooth jazz or the more straightforward fare at the Fullerton club Steamers, he and the OCCMC eventually stopped charging admission.
"The whole thing operates on a loss, which is fine," Kawamura admits. "We're just promoting something, and we're promoting something that's not financially viable, really. In Orange County, at least."
Still, Kawamura is not about to give up. One of his inspirations is Eagle Rock's Open Gate Theatre series, where he performed with his Crepuscule Trio after Robinson's saxophone set.
Will Salmon, who teams with Cline as the series' artistic director, credits Open Gate's longevity to its relationship with its venue. Given the realities of the music marketplace in 2009, Salmon thinks staging such an unpredictable and boundary-pushing show in a club seems out of the question.
"We want to keep it under as little control as possible, and what little [control] there is is ours, instead of someone outside saying it has to be this or it has to be that," he said. "I haven't really come across music venues where that seemed a possibility."
Of course, the lion's share of jazz venues still focus on the music's rich historic core, and it remains to be seen if today's fans are ready to fully support the genre's outer edges. Robinson, for one, hopes that they are.
"The days of 52nd Street are over," Robinson later said with a laugh, in reference to jazz's historic -- and long gone -- hub of Manhattan clubs. "We need people coming out to places like this."
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Where to find the music
Southern California is rich with places to find jazz and improvised music at a cost that won't break the bank.
Here's a sampling of selected venues.
A Cafe Metropol
923 E. 3rd St., L.A.
8-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; $10-$15
Exposed brick space in the downtown L.A. artists' district lends to a classic urban cafe vibe. Features touring and local artists.
B CryptoNight @ Museum of Neon Art
136 W. 4th St., L.A.
8 p.m. first Friday of every month; $10
Electricity is in the air on a number of levels, with nights curated by Jeff Gauthier and David Witham of the boundary-pushing Culver City jazz label Cryptogramophone Records.
C OC Creative Music Collective
Episcopal Church of the Messiah, 614 N. Bush St., Santa Ana
Dates vary (next: 6:30 p.m. Sunday); free (donations accepted)
Intimate space below a more than 100-year-old church, with musicians from here and abroad. Occasionally offers performances in the chapel.
D Open Gate Theatre Sunday Evening Concert Series
Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, 2225 Colorado Blvd., L.A.
7 p.m. first Sunday of every month (September excluded for Angel City Jazz Festival); $10; $5 for students, seniors and performers
Folding chairs frame eclectic and improv-friendly musicians in a mission- inspired space surrounded by archways and chandeliers.
Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
8 p.m. third Thursday of every month; $10
Intimate theater space resists categorizations, with multimedia projections and an anything-can-happen feel.
F Upstairs at Vitello's
4349 Tujunga Ave.,
8 p.m.; $10 cover and two-drink minimum
Classic, clubby vibe with elegant clusters of tables and booths around a small stage above an Italian restaurant.
-- Chris Barton