Sometimes words work

So we watched an inspired, passionate Phil Ranelin set at the Watts Towers Jazz Festival on Sunday; it swept the crowd despite the amateur antics of the sound guy. Wonderful stuff. Pablo Calogero does amazing things on the soprano sax without ever venturing into the overwrought preciousness that afflicts that horn. What a wonderful player. Phil’s trombone playing is like expressionist watercolors, gorgeous and imaginative and just a tad out, and the alto player whose name escapes me was superb as well, just a hint of dry, a fine soloist. Don Littleton was on drums, good as always and smiling as the bassist nailed it over and over…I’m afraid I wasn’t being a journalist–been avoiding it–and got neither his name nor the pianist’s. The soundman somehow lost all power to the PA halfway through the set so the horn players had to really belt there for a stretch, it worked. Eventually the mics came back on (though the soundman didn’t seem to tell the musicians…who had to figure out which were live and which dead all by themselves….)  Then we headed way the hell out to Altadena for a BBQ and ran into Winston Byrd in the local Ralphs. He was shopping, not blowing high notes on the trumpet–that would have woken up the customers–but jazz, apparently, is everywhere. Or jazz musicians are everywhere.

As are words. Kamau Daooud was the emcee, if he read any of his own superb stuff (“each morning i read the newspaper/ and weep into a pot of coffee/ i muffle my whispered screaming/ with the music of the masters/ i find religion there/ rocking in ecstasy/ to the heartbeats of loved ones”) I missed it. (Look for The Language of Saxophones. I treasure my signed copy.) But I did have my mind blown by a poet at Watts, which doesn’t happen often.Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez read a couple pieces–great stuff, it’s no wonder he got that primo gig (and he had them memorized, which amazed me). But it was his son Ramiro who really zapped my cerebral cortex. Maybe because a relative brought on stage is usually a comparative let down, I could not believe how good this Ramiro was. Pop’s stuff is widely available–he has a site, luisjrodriguez.com, that I really recommend–but the son is unknown. I’d love to hear more of him. There was this propulsive narrative that put you right there in the scene he was describing (and not a pretty scene, either) and kept you moving and on edge, and the imagery was so vivid, and the emotion so real, the fear and fearlessness, the hate and anger, and a disassociated ability to describe it all from a resigned point of view, as if he was in it and observing it simultaneously, it was stunning. Father’s intense pride in his son’s verse was obvious and no wonder. Both had similar, horrific life paths (see dad’s website for details) seemingly reversed completely by poetry. I never thought that actually happened. Terrific stuff and a great follow up to Phil Ranelin’s brilliant performance. Even the audience listened with equal intensity. Sometimes words work, I guess.

(And pardon the clumsy review, I’ve never tried to describe a poem before. Not easy, especially when I can’t even see it before me but just remember my startled, awestruck impressions.)

Anyway the BBQ was a nice family affair when we got there. Perfect in the heat. The moon, looming large, turned blood orange and disappeared. We watched. Altadena was hushed, even the birds silent, only the idiot tree frogs kept up their songs. Eventually the families had to take the kids home and tuck them into bed, and the responsible people–now responsible, though once thoroughly ill behaved–went home soon after, tucking themselves into bed. The morrow was a school day. All that remained were a handful of freaks and cultural reprobates at one table, laughing into the wee hours, unrepentant.

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