Jazz performer and new music composer Joe Garrison may be San Diego’s most enigmatic musician.
  • Jazz performer and new music composer Joe Garrison may be San Diego’s most enigmatic musician.
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Joe Garrison is a musical survivalist. The 64-year-old jazz and new music composer has shaped his artistic life to favor more beginnings than ends. Like his hero, Igor Stravinsky, he’s learned that to reinvent himself by adapting to new musical ideas elicits in him the highest pleasure. He does so despite having been lured by the sirens of L.A. and New York. Staying put — all local artists know — can be detrimental to the ego. “If someone hears you’re from San Diego,” he says, “what they’re really telling you is, ‘Oh, you’re from San Diego.’” Ah, the embarrassment of being from here and stuck here forever.

Garrison’s not stuck — and he’s not going anywhere. Because the composer-arranger-conductor-occasional piano sideman is enormously happy, writing fat-chord jazz grooves with platefuls of improvised solos for a 19-piece orchestra, the Night People, also known as Society of Friends, and composing multi-part suites for crackerjack UCSD players.

During the past three years, he’s been more prolific than ever. A CD of jazz tunes, Veranda; an orchestral suite, The Book of Gratitude; and an ambitious new work premiered this September at UCSD’s Experimental Theater. Garrison’s “stuff” — he calls his through-composed forms “books,” his jazz originals “charts” — is quickly written, exactingly notated, worrisomely rehearsed, nimbly performed (alas, not enough times to garner wide appreciation), and unregrettably filed. On he goes, exhilarated by his still-fermenting musical gifts.

Getting this far in our corner of America by nursing his loves, jazz and new music, means his survival has lots of paradoxes.

There’s no commercial appeal to what Garrison writes. Still, his jazz band sells out most gigs whether in staid auditoria (Seaside Center for Spiritual Living) or jazz clubs (98 Bottles). The Night People orchestra has been appearing monthly; YouTube has several torrid videos of Garrison’s funk-thick grooves and his musicians’ incandescent soloing.

There’s no lucre in composing unless one writes pop tunes or for film. Garrison has scored two movies whose titles he won’t tell me — one a Mexican martial arts movie, the other a splatter film, music to stalk and mutilate females to. (“Do yourself and me a favor and don’t look them up.”) Professionally, he says, “There’s a million guys at UCLA film school who will starve to death for a chance” to score a movie. “Not me.” Instead, he developed a career as a piano tuner, giving him the freedom, and a modest living, to avoid wholesaling his musical soul.

Finally, there’s an inevitable isolation to his music, island-like in an archipelago of new-music composers. Yet, despite the solitude, Garrison attracts adventuresome performers, many from UCSD, that affable cabal of music research, electronic instruments, and the avant-garde.

Garrison is immediately likable. His persona combines the impishness of a small panda with the gravity of a Zen master. Plus, he’s a procurer — when he finds a musician he favors, he’ll ask for a date: Can we play together? Can I write something for you? One reason Night People ballooned to 19 members, he says, is that he couldn’t refuse the many superb jazz players in our midst.

Of late, he’s writing a “book” for himself and four cohorts, tapping their performerly exuberance. “You caught me at a good time,” he says during a couple hours of kitchen-table talk reflecting on his art’s life in his City Heights home. After soulful soliloquies on the Tao of composing and his passion for Monteverdi (“Have you ever heard ‘The Dance of the Ungrateful Ones’?”), it’s time for him and me to car-sprint to a rehearsal for his latest piece, “My New Home.”

Space 4 Art

325 15th Street, East Village

Vapory sounds

In East Village on 15th Street is San Diego Space 4 Art, a cluster of live/work apartments for artists. Thirty-four artists nest in this half-block environ, including clarinetist Ariana Warren and electronics composer Chris Warren, who are (a married) part of Garrison’s five-member ensemble rehearsing this night. The others are Garrison, electric piano (the milky bong of the Fender Rhodes), Steve Solook, percussion (vibes, sleigh bells, drum kit, and cymbals), and Tiffany Du Mouchelle, dramatic soprano (high-voltage highs). The Warrens’ warren, maybe 1000 square feet, sports a loft bed, a skinny kitchen, and a practice room, with antique pianos, speakers, mics, music stands, floor cables, and opaque-windowed streetlight struggling to get in.

Over three hours, “My New Home” searches for footing. Garrison tells me he’s enamored of Du Mouchelle’s upper range. He’s composed this 11-part suite — much of the text on his own frisky lines — to stir this soprano’s bel canto. It’s true: her voice has a rounded vivacity to it, not unlike Renee Fleming. As the group inches forward, the work’s structure feels out of reach, aimless. Du Mouchelle expresses what’s hovering: “We’re really looking for something that’s not quite here,” which is echoed by Solook: “It still has no intention as a group.”

Arianna, holding clarinet in one hand and leaning the thrice-larger bass clarinet on her shoulder, says she’s not worried. These floaty passages will meld in performance; the audience will help shape the work’s pauses and pacing and ground their timing. “We’ll be able to feel their energy direct us,” she offers, rubbing her thumbs and fingers together like money due. They move on.

Thus, in half-hour blocks, the five iron out the folds in this ethereal 50-minute piece. Much of it is meditative: dense, vapory sounds of vibes and cymbals and electronics from which the soprano’s exclamations burst through like sunbeams. In its quieter moments, which are more numerous, the effect is like walking through the Mojave desert at night, star-loud silences and audible thoughts. When I ask Garrison about this new work’s origin, he refers to his post-adolescent music education.

Strange vibrations

It began at UCSD in 1969 when he enrolled as a rock ’n’ roll guitarist in the early years of the school’s launch, a laboratory of new-music exploration, which, he says, “hasn’t ever changed.” Back then, the work composed at UCSD was “earth-shaking.” Oceans of strange vibrations, created on-the-spot, from innovators like Roger Reynolds, Robert Erickson, and Kenneth Gaburo. Much of it stung (still stings) the Brahms-coddled ears of the public. Such pieces involve performance art. A trombone player, dressed like an Army general, speaks a patriotic text into his mouthpiece. A pianist, after 20 hours of sensory deprivation, improvises before a live audience. An ensemble, augmented by a Moog synthesizer, live and on tape, dances with the machine’s blips and beeps.

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