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Take the Plunge: A New Orleans-L.A. jazz summit set for South Pasadena

David Rogan

For those who love the old guard of jazz, New Orleans will always be the source. But few , it seems, make the connection that once upon a time the old guard -- Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet and the lot -- was the avant-garde.

One who does get that connection is New Orleans trombonist Mark McGrain. Particularly with the group Plunge -- in its current edition a trio of him, ace bassist James Singleton and sax man Tom Fitzgerald -- he matches the spirit of joyfully adventurous, playful group improvisation that fueled the jazz of such early practitioners as Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra and Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers with the spirited quest for unconventional and uncompromising vision that’s marked several wings of jazz since the bebop revolution. Plunge’s latest album, Tin Fish Tango, and its two predecessors Dancing on Thin Ice and Falling With Grace manage to be equally engaging and challenging. It’s the same connection to jazz’s roots and enduring spirit you get from Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Arthur Blythe.

Not surprisingly, he and long-time Los Angeles’ jazz maverick Vinny Golia have recognized each other as kindred spirits. Multi-woodwinds performer Golia has been at the forefront of progressive jazz-and-beyond since the ‘70s, with his own groups (including the 50-piece Vinny Golia Large Ensemble and alongside Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and the Los Angelens Philharmonic, among many others, not to mention serving on the faculty at Cal Arts and promoting creative music via his Nine Winds record label. 

And now the spirits will meet, as McGrain and Golia will front a quartet featuring two other L.A. stalwarts, bassist Steuart Liebig and percussionist Alan Cook, in a performance at South Pasadena’s Battery Books & Music on Thursday, March 15 at 8 p.m. They’ve long admired each other from afar, but have never met.

“We’ve all been trying to get together for a while now,” says McGrain. “Pretty excited to finally be making it happen.”  

Exactly what will happen, well…

“One never knows how the collective spirit will fly,” he says. “It’s a rare opportunity for an audience to experience -- master improvisors coming together publicly for the first time! It’s going to be recorded.”