The Angel City Jazz Festival is a force for salvation in Los Angeles, having provided a needed showcase for adventurous and avant-garde jazz in this city since 2008. Rocco Somazzi founded the organization, which instantly became a refreshing alternative to the splashy Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival (formerly the Playboy Jazz Festival).
As Somazzi told me on Friday at 2220 Arts + Archives during one of the 2023 festival’s concerts, Angel City was designed to give a forum to innovative jazz that “needs to be heard.” The “need to be heard” imperative has wisely included both local and international musicians.
That agenda was well covered by Friday’s doubleheader, headlined by veteran Brooklynite violist Mat Maneri’s quartet and opening with a world premiere by the gifted alto saxophonist and composer Ennis Harris. Harris’s piece, Images & Silhouettes, was commissioned through the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Jeff Clayton Memorial New Note Award. LAJS has been involved with the Angel City Jazz Fest for years and is responsible for many commissions there.
Harris explained that the title of his 35-minute suite refers to the blending of identifiable objects or ideas and their elusive, shadowy counterparts. A different sort of duality could be found in the makeup of his 17-piece ensemble, which blended the string instruments of a chamber group with the horns and rhythm section of a big band.
A mostly young ensemble boldly delivered on Harris’s tricky and contrapuntal composition, which was sophisticated but with a prevailing lyricism suggesting the strong influence of the late Wayne Shorter’s chamber writing and echoes of Gil Evans. Individual solos were integrated into the structure of the score and were competently performed, but the real winning improviser here was Harris’s own supple voice as a saxophonist. His solo came early on, sharing the spotlight with trombonist Jon Hatamiya and erring on the side of brevity. Clearly, Harris’s attention was focused on the impressive new music he was conducting.
Maneri, playing his viola through a Fender Twin amplifier and coaxing his signature raw-yet-reflective sound from his instrument, demonstrated his own special style as a composer and performer. Drawing on music from his two recent releases on Sunnyside Records, Ash and Dust, Maneri’s robust and free-leaning quartet — familiar ally and superb pianist Lucian Ban, the young acoustic bass phenom Brandon Lopez, and seasoned drummer Randy Peterson — summoned a particular and unique musical character.
Jazz is at the core of the group’s style, but free improvisation, impressionistic methods, wisps of folk touches, and borrowed melodies almost create a new aesthetic. “Dust to Dust” opened the set with a pensive atmosphere, leading into a categorically freer piece, the players closely listening and seeking to pull elevated expression from abstraction.
Classical music figures into the equation as well. Maneri and Ban have been involved in Transylvanian folk music and have also championed the work of Romanian composer George Enescu. (The pair’s recent recording project, Oedipe Redux, refashions Enescu’s bold but underexposed opera with jazz flavors.)
At 2220, Maneri called on a piece from Ash — “Brahms,” which channels and reworks a Brahms sonata the violist fuzzily remembers from his youth — and performed it with a tentative touch, as if through a memory-fogged filter. The approach gave the music a dreamy character, exuding a charm all its own. Ban’s composition “Glimmer” was a highlight, featuring a haunting, melancholic melody and loose-limbed drum painting from Peterson.
“Cold World Lullaby,” incorporating fragmented strands of various tunes afloat in Maneri’s memory, closed the set, with the violist “unplugging” and wandering slowly through the crowd, vaguely anointing them with spare, floating string tones.