By Michael Katz
Disney Hall and the LA Phil continued their West Coast Left Coast series Tuesday night with A Night at the Beats, featuring two fine jazz ensembles, two classic West Coast poets and two singers from divergent backgrounds. A slight disclaimer before I go further: I was seated in the so-called “Orchestra View” Section of Disney Concert Hall, a section above and directly behind the stage. I suppose these seats — when a full orchestra is present and you can actually see some of the musicians’ faces — might provide a reasonable alternative to, say, video streaming. But they are wholly inadequate for a small jazz ensemble backing a program of poetry readings. I’m sure those who saw the program actually facing the stage had a different experience.
The first set featured the Charles Lloyd Quartet with poet Michael McClure reading what I assumed was his own poetry, as the program was unannounced. Lloyd opened on an alto flute. He has one of the most lovely tones on both flute and tenor of anyone I know, but unfortunately they sounded muffled and muted. The rhythm section fared much better — a world class trio, with Jason Moran playing beautifully on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. McClure’s poetry was animated and expressive, but again the sound was mangled, and though you could make out some of the words, it had to be appreciated more as performance art.
During intermission it was clear that the technical staff was working on the sound, and the improvement was noticeable when David Meltzer took the stage, more so after someone in the crowd yelled “Louder!” and the volume was increased. Meltzer was backed by a terrific ensemble anchored by Christian McBride on bass, Peter Erskine on drums and the inimitable Alan Broadbent on piano. The second act moved crisply, with preparation between poets and musicians evident and material enunciated for the benefit of the audience.
Alto saxophonist John Handy and tenor Joshua Redman, both with Bay Area backgrounds, filled in the front line and complimented Meltzer’s spirited readings. Handy was featured in Meltzer’s reading of Alan Ginsburg’s America, 1956, one of the evening’s many poems that resonated strongly in today’s political atmosphere. Redman took the lead for the next reading, Meltzer’s No Eyes, an ode to Lester Young in his final days. Redman started with a plaintive “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” segueing into more lovely Young ballads in support of Meltzer’s haunting lines.
Exene Cervenka followed, and I’ll admit to not being aware of her oeuvre in punk rock, but I was surely impressed by her presentation in this venue. She had prepared a series of shorter poems, including The Secret by Denise Levertov, Hay For The Horses by Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s I am Waiting. Against spare but witty accompaniment, especially by Broadbent and McBride, her reading was bright and fully expressed the probing intelligence as she read: “I am waiting for the rebirth of wonder.” She finished with Michael McClure and Janis Joplin’s “O Lord, Won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,” with McBride and Erskine providing a slapping, slamming rhythmic back-up, melting into Miles Davis’ “So What.”
Michael McClure returned, this time to better acoustics, and read a lengthy interlude from Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues.” A special nod to McClure, the only performer who actually recognized us folks behind him and directed some poetry our way. He finished with a Jim Morrison reflection on LA.
Kurt Elling closed out the show with more Kerouac, a poem by Gregory Corso and a wonderful rendition of a work by (and in the voice of) William Burroughs. Elling, whose persona never drifts very far from beat era hipster anyway, was a real treat for most of the audience that hung around for the end.
All in all, an energetic and inspiring evening, which deserves a repeat performance. I’d love to see it next time from the front.