Free-improvising saxophonist Steve Lacy once said, “In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds — while in improvisation, you have 15 seconds.”
Developing and nurturing a scene for improvised music in L.A., however, takes a little more time.
Over the past four years, Andrew Choate and semi-silent partner Peter Kolovos — with their Unwrinkled Ear and Black Editions series of live free-improv actions throughout Los Angeles — have turned around a relatively moribund free-improvised and avant-jazz scene in the city. A once-thriving world of weirdness and expression, it ran in parallel to scenes in cities like New York, Chicago, Tokyo and San Francisco when it came to regular presentations of that particularly difficult aspect of music where jazz and the avant-garde intersect. Los Angeles has always had a tradition of free-improv greatness — the Cortical Foundation actions of the late ’90s by the impeccable Gary Todd; linespaceline, the Echo Park venue helmed by Jeremy Drake, Chris Heenan and David Rothbaum; Brandon LaBelle’s longtime bookings at Beyond Baroque; and Nels Cline’s notorious New Music Mondays.
Coalescing that scene has always required focused, devoted and diligent people working for the greater good of the art. Naturally, people come and go — migration being the underlying theme of America — and even though the past work and influence remains, the field remains fallow for various periods of time.
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Choate and Kolovos (South Carolina artist/bollard aficionado and Los Angeles guitarist for the band Open City, respectively) banded together five years ago to nurture — and inadvertently resurrect — the free-improv scene in Los Angeles. Their breakout concert production came in 2014 with a performance involving percussionist Han Bennink and violinist Mary Oliver at a screening of Misha Enzovoort (Misha and So On), the 2013 documentary on Dutch jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg, who founded the other ICP, the Instant Composers Pool. They split the heavy lifting — Kolovos with Japanese and academic avant-garde live actions offered up courtesy of his Black Editions production imprint, and Choate with his Unwrinkled Ear presentation concern handling practically everything else.
They work in a way that seems both effortless and endless to bring musicians both internationally acclaimed and locally celebrated to area performance stages. In the process, they’ve successfully undertaken more experimental and avant-garde performances than their larger, more established and deep-pocketed counterparts. It’s a sea change that represents a healthier and more diverse showcase for the avant-garde than Los Angeles has enjoyed in recent memory.
What are some of the challenges he’s faced in putting on shows? “The venues have been the biggest one for the longest time,” Choate says, adding, “Some shows need a nice PA; some shows, I need a quality piano. This latest festival took me the longest time because I couldn’t bring a venue of appropriate size for me to bring out people like Evan Parker and Sten Sandell. The venue is by far the hardest thing.”