Review: Shepp, Akinmusire lead Angel City Jazz Fest at the Ford


There was a moment during Sunday night’s Angel City Jazz Festival at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre that accidentally captured at least part of the festival’s ongoing vision.

Midway through a set of twisting compositions that occasionally recalled the music of Ornette Coleman, veteran bassist Mark Dresser was briefly framed by the music of another brassy ensemble working in the amphitheater’s courtyard that featured young drummer Dan Schnelle and members of the L.A. Jazz Collective. Undaunted, Dresser cocked his head and simply said, “OK,” before continuing with a sextet that included nimble interplay between saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and trombonist Michael Dessen.

The overlap was one of the day’s rare moments of disharmony, but it suited a festival with a theme of “Artists and Legends,” which sought to combine the rising jazz stars of today with the artists who influenced them. No matter what, the next generation will find a way to be heard.


Dresser, a veteran in the jazz avant-garde with a stint backing Anthony Braxton in the ‘80s, credited a special guest -- cornetist and pillar of local jazz education Bobby Bradford -- in sending him along his path. The two came together to engrossing effect on the track “BBJC,” which featured Bradford swerving over Dresser’s rhythmic drive amid jangly scrapings from Denman Maroney on hyperpiano and Ehrlich’s racing melody.

The day began in a more straight-ahead mode in a set by Peter Erskine’s trio, which featured the veteran drummer tapping out a variety of deeply swung rhythms with nephew Damian Erskine on electric bass and local pianist Vardan Ovsepian, who has become something of a fixture at the Blue Whale jazz club in Little Tokyo.

Ovsepian’s accelerating left hand took the lead on the evocative “Dreaming Paris,” and toward the end of the set he helped drive Erskine into one of his most hard-hitting turns of the night.

The evening’s marquee meeting was the brief crossover between trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and fiery saxophonist Archie Shepp, the latter making his first L.A. appearance since the ‘80s.

Akinmusire performed first with his quintet, which burst on the national scene with the trumpeter’s masterful 2011 album, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening.”

The group sounded occasionally tentative on some mid-tempo new songs, which featured Akinmusire’s quicksilver tone again finding a near-telepathic melodic counterweight in saxophonist Walter Smith III.


The group then continued to carve new corners into tracks from Akinmusire’s lauded Blue Note debut, including a slightly quickened “Jaya” and the mournful “Regret (No More),” which placed the trumpeter at the center of the stage with flickering backing from pianist Sam Harris.

With Akinmusire pinching and folding his tone into a conversation’s worth of expression that could float like paper in a breeze or collapse into a choked whisper, the Ford fell as quiet as a church service. Not even a few roars from the Hollywood Bowl’s crowd at the Florence and the Machine show across the freeway could break the spell. Florence’s fans didn’t know how right they were.

As for the 75-year-old Shepp, the saxophonist who helped coin the expressive mini-genre “Fire Music” with Impulse! in the ‘60s still showed his voice intact in a blues-shaded set with a quartet. Shepp sat on a stool for much of his set but seemed otherwise unaffected by the years. A full complement of honks and squeaks curled at the edges of his excursions.

But who could’ve expected that his singing voice would’ve become such a focal point? He took the mike and sang the somewhat ironically chosen standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” as well as a bluesy encore.

The saxophonist proved still every bit as dedicated to exploration on a percolating “Mama Rose” (retitled by Shepp as “Revolution”), which found the saxophonist conjuring the fire of the late ‘60s on soprano and a bracing shift into spoken word poetry. With Shepp spinning images of jellied corpses and putrifying Congolese, sirens fittingly rose to a roar from somewhere beyond the amphitheater’s gate as the song churned forward -- or perhaps Shepp somehow conjured them.

The much-anticipated meeting between Shepp and Akinmusire on the tightly wound “Ujaama” seemed to energize the whole band. After the saxophonist ran through a squall of twists and growls that left one to wonder just how the trumpeter would find room, Akinmusire cycled through a series of compact runs during a solo spiked with bluesy stabs from pianist Tom McClung. As Shepp joined the trumpeter amid random swells of crowd noise from the Bowl, the festival’s mission rounded into clarity as two generations of artistry came together, each pushing the other ahead, regardless of outside forces.



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Twitter: @chrisbarton