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Vinny Golia: Nine Woodwinds Blowing

Vinny Golia

It’s a balmy spring hump-day night in Los Angeles, and free-range reeds are holding forth in Gallery 4016, a large, live space in the area called Silverlake. In one corner, we have the veteran improviser from Germany, Wolfgang Fuchs, looking vaguely film noirish with his cropped hair and square-jawed visage. In the other, the long white-haired and black-clad Vinny Golia, the longtime left-field hero and avowed multireedist from Los Angeles. Joining in this all-improv evening are the impressive young reed players Chris Heenan and David Rothbaum. All were manning a reed collection ranging from soprano sax to contrabass clarinet. There’s also a heckling cricket in the house (“It’s a quintet,” jokes Fuchs, whose sensitive ear often takes into account the insect’s song this night). Over the course of two hours, the reed players pair off and conspire in quartets, bouncing their spectral tones off the gallery’s open rafters and concrete walls.

A few days after the Gallery 4016 show, Golia can be found an hour north, in the idyllic town of Ojai, working his reeds in the large ensemble gathered for an adventurous choral-meets-conduction piece called “The Alchemical Mass.” Written by trumpeter-composer Jeff Kaiser and performed by his Ockodektet and the straitlaced but game Ojai Camerata, the opus is an innovative church-based piece, with plenty of free blowing involved.

These experimental, enchanted evenings are not an anomaly in the greater Los Angeles area’s fairly active free and contemporary music scene, one that Golia has helped to support and nurture over the years.

When he first arrived in Los Angeles from his native New York in the early ’70s, Golia quickly fell in with the reigning Los Angeles-based avant-minded jazz players of the day, including clarinetist John Carter, cornetist Bobby Bradford and, sometimes, pianist Horace Tapscott. Thirty years later Golia hasn’t lost the faith. On any given week in the Southern California area you’re likely to find Golia performing in one or more contexts-assuming he’s in town. Travels take him abroad more and more.

Golia and the company he keeps take their fringe status seriously and have a will to make things happen, even if prevailing recording and presenting organizations fail to respond. He started Nine Winds in 1977 to document his scene, and the label now has a huge catalog, including nearly 30 titles under Golia’s name.

On the afternoon before the Fuchs performance, Golia sat down in his house in Silverlake, overlooking the central reservoir giving the town its name. His young daughter is napping upstairs as he speaks at length about his adventures so far. When asked if his neighbors mind the strange sounds coming from the Golia household, he details the ‘hood, citing the presence of a producer for Sheryl Crow and Michelle Branch, an architect who plays Coltrane on the stereo and a gallery owner in the artist-friendly vicinity.

After years of working with multiple, simultaneous projects, including his quintet and the ambitious Large Ensemble (now up to 35 players), the affable and unflappable Golia has recently been in a phase of synthesizing disparate musical energies. That situation has only expanded since he began teaching at Cal Arts, the interdisciplinary institution known as a haven for adventurous souls. Both his CDs of last year, Feeding Frenzy and Music for Electronics and Woodwinds, show a decided interest in bridging the jazz and classical camps.

“The things I’m around the most these days are really new classical music,” he admits, “which I’ve always liked. I don’t like playing it, because you can spend months or a year perfecting one piece. I don’t have the kind of time to give to another person’s music. Maybe I’m egotistical in that way. If I’m going to do that, I’d prefer to play my own music. But, after saying that, there are people who are great interpreters of other peoples’ music. That’s what they do. I’m kind of astounded by it, because these performers are pushed to do all this amazing stuff. It gets to where it’s very improvised-sounding, if you play it right. That intrigues me. I’ve been taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and putting it together.”

Taking a broader view of the situation in contemporary musicians who are exploring ideas on many fronts, Golia says, “It seems to be the great era of putting all the pieces together. Everyone is acknowledging, ‘Well, we’ve hit this wall. What we need to do to get through it is to actually take pieces out of the wall, and regurgitate it.’ It’s like an earthworm that moves through the ground. He eats the front part and sends it out the back part, so he’s made a pathway for himself. That’s kind of what we’re doing. I wish I had a better visual,” he laughs.

“I just don’t want to make it seem noodly. Earthworms have a focus. Whatever your focus is, whether it’s attaining some kind of spirituality through the music or some kind of personal goal, like in sports.”

Golia’s bio presents an atypical picture of a jazz musician. Born in the Bronx in 1956, he has made a bold go of an artistic career in Los Angeles, with no connection to the common studio-musician path of many West Coast jazz players. To go back further, he didn’t even pick up the horn until his late 20s, having pursued a life as an artist prior to that. Golia spent his wonder years drawing the animals in the Bronx Zoo, where his father worked. Later, he studied art, and, after meeting Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland in the late ’60s, found himself perched in Manhattan clubs, drawing jazz musicians in action. (Golia’s paintings can be found on Joe Henderson’s Black Is the Color, Chick Corea’s Song of Singing and Dave Holland’s Music for Two Basses.)

“How somebody’s solo came out determined what my picture came out as,” Golia says of his jazz-club drawings. “I was just internalizing the lines that they were playing. That was like on-the-job training for music. When I got a horn, I already knew what it was supposed to sound like.” At some point, he found himself moving away from visual art and “getting more and more into my saxophone. It slowly shifted, and I realized that [the artistic expression is] a lot faster. Just stick the mouthpiece on and go.”

In the early ’70s, he headed west for an art show at the venue called Celebrity Circle, with his horn in tow. Fittingly, music flowed regularly in the gallery. “Everybody volunteered,” Golia explains. “Ernie Watts was playing with Oliver Nelson, and after that gig, he drove 100 miles to play for free. When he got there, the band was already playing, and just walked in and got right into the band. I’ll never forget that. People say, ‘He’s commercial,’ but a guy who drives 100 miles to play for free at some guy’s painting show he doesn’t know, that’s pretty intense.”

Golia had come west with his then-girlfriend, for a spiritual retreat, and she wasn’t keen to return back east. He began thinking about his home base, and was attracted to the L.A. scene involving Carter, Bradford, Tapscott and bassist Roberto Miranda. As Golia recalls, “I figured, ‘OK, I’ll get my stuff together and then go back to New York. When I’m no longer learning anything out here, I’ll just move back there.’ I haven’t stopped learning from all these cats. There are great musicians and nice people here.”

Many of the players Golia met in the ’70s are still his collaborators and kindred spirits today, including trumpeter John Fumo, keyboardist Wayne Peet and the Cline brothers: drummer Alex and guitarist Nels. (Golia remembers meeting them in 1976, at the hip L.A. store Rhino Records.)

Later, other players came into the fold, including the impressive trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, the versatile inside-outside alto saxist Kim Richmond and trombonist John Rapson. While strongly centered in L.A., Golia also started working with free-minded players from around the world, including New Yorkers Tim Berne and Paul Smoker and Oregonian Rob Blakeslee. He has also recorded with trombone visionary George Lewis, just down the road in San Diego.

For musical influences, he cites Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill, to name a couple of category-defying player-composers.

“They’re like stones that you walk on when you find the path: ‘If I step on these stones, I’ll be OK.'”

Golia’s music leans heavily toward improvisation but includes post-Mingus-like riffs, reedy sonic detours, new music concepts and blues once or twice removed.

“I’m an Italian,” Golia states, thinking about cultural roots. “I can talk about things in my own history and how I grew up. I can talk about the largest racial incident with killings in America was with Italians, in New Orleans. But the political things aren’t what stirs me up. The things that stir me up are things of beauty. I grew up around a lot of animals, seeing their colors and hearing their sounds. At the same time, I heard a lot of influential Italian music growing up. What comes out of the Italian heritage is this attention to tone and this big-assed sound, and certainly an attention to melodicism.”

Perhaps because he did enter the music game later in life, Golia has maintained an aesthetic that departs from studied norms in jazz. That rebel stripe includes his ideas about musical structure and also the basic idea that reed players are supposed to fixate on a chosen tool or two. Golia is an obsessive, more-is-more multi-instrumentalist who stops to count his menagerie of instruments, including saxes, clarinets, piccolos, flutes, a duduk, bassoon and more-ticking off about 30, so far. At the moment, he’s thrilled about his ultra-low-end Tubax, and, on the opposite end of the range spectrum, a new instrument, an octave higher than a soprano, called a soprillo, built by German Benedikt Eppelsheim.

It all circles back to an essential creative restlessness that has defined Golia’s artistic life. “I don’t like doing one thing. Even when I painted, the first thing I would do is move into a place and measure all the wall space and hang empty canvases in the spaces. This room would be great,” he looks around the space we’re in. “I’d have a big one over there and a small one there. I would paint on them simultaneously and just go.

“When it came to music, I guess I work that way, too. I say, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll do some of this. I’ll do some of that. This is fun.’ Some people like that, and other people like to do one thing. But with most of the people who I know who just do one thing, that’s how they view everything. It’s very much like when you go to Monster Island in Godzilla movies. All the monsters are in one place. Everybody’s on one island and that’s your space you can walk around in.

“I don’t like to think that way. I like to walk around the whole planet and see, oh, here’s somebody playing Indian music. Maybe I can sit in. I can do something, but I wouldn’t say I’m an Indian musician. I’ll play with folk musicians, and not sound like I’m playing bop lines or something, or change the music to adapt to me. I’d rather change myself to adapt to go into different places.”

Like Golia’s playing, his Nine Winds ( is blowing strong. Upcoming projects include Golia’s Music for Like Instruments CD (the E-flat saxophones version; he’ll record a flute version at the end of this year), a set of music featuring Tubax and an album by Walter Perkins. A DVD of the Large Ensemble’s 20th anniversary concert, which includes interviews and other extras, is planned, and there’s even the possibility of a box set. Then there’s Golia’s duo CD with Nels Cline, a live double CD of the reedist’s Quintet (recorded in Belgium), a quartet CD featuring him with Bobby Bradford, Ken Filiano and Alex Cline, a CD of compositions for contrabass sax, a duo with pianist Rick Helzer and a duo CD of live and studio recordings with bassist Mark Dresser. That’s more than some artists release in a lifetime.

As he’s seeing me out, Golia recounts an anecdote that seems to sum up his music. Once his father came out and heard him play at the now-defunct jazz club called Hop Singh’s. “After the show, I talked to him and asked him how he liked it,” Golia says. “His idea of jazz was more Dixieland, and he says, ‘I don’t see how this stuff is so wild. It sounds like Dixieland. You’ve got a lot of soloists at the same time.”


Expectedly, Golia’s instrument list is extensive, and growing.

Reed instruments: A-flat, B-flat, A, C, G Turkish, alto, bass, two contra-alto (metal curved and wood straight), contrabass clarinets, soprillo (on order), dopranino, two sopranos (one straight, one curved), saxello, strich, tenor, two baritones, bass and contrabass saxophones.

“My contra bass is a Tubax made by Eppelsheim, who has invented two new saxophone designs for the 21st century, the soprillo and the Tubax. I am waiting for my soprillo, one octave above B-flat soprano, to arrive this summer. Mr. Eppelsheim can also be put in the genius class as he has pushed the limits for the design of the saxophone. He has reinvented the contrabass and bass saxophones and invented a new saxophone. My saxello is made by Ramponi & Cazzani.”

Flutes: C, D-flat, G piccolos, C, D-flat, alto, bass and contrabass flutes. “Altus made the bass flute, and Eva Kingma made the contrabass flute. I think Eva’s a genius with the advancements she’s made for the flutes, especially for the lower flutes.

Miscellany: “I also use the taragoto, English horn, bassoon, and various ethnic aerophones such as the shakuhachi, dzi,

ney, sheng, balu, zurla, zurna, kavel, etc.”

Originally Published