By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
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7:29 AM PDT, August 4, 2013
Like the nebulous boundaries of Los Angeles itself, encircling the city’s musical sound can be tricky business. There are the vibrations of surf and mariachi music, the crawl of Compton G-funk and laid-back ’50s cool jazz, Mexican boleros and the ladies (and men) of the canyon, along with K-town K-pop and the rush of Hollywood punk. Around every corner a new rhythm, a fresh melodic burst born under the California sun.
It’s a sound that’s virtually impossible to put onto one stage, but on Friday night archetypal East L.A. band Ozomatli and fellow artists at Grand Performances in downtown Los Angeles took a stab at it.
By resurrecting age-old songs about Southern California and weaving in more recent but no less revealing odes to the area — including punk band X’s “Los Angeles” and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” — musicians illustrated the breadth of the region’s experience in the open-air California Plaza.
They were celebrating the publication of writer and USC professor Josh Kun’s new book in conjunction with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, “Songs in the Key of L.A.” Along with a few dozen musicians including La Santa Cecilia, Jackson Browne and the Petrojvic Blasting Company, Ozomatli brought to life songs, many from the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, that have helped define the region.
Oh, then Stevie Wonder showed up and surprised a thrilled plaza with an electrifying version of his seldom performed ode to the city, “Land of La La.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because even before his arrival, the night had seen its share of peaks, mostly due to Ozomatli’s adept work along with pianist-arranger Rob Gonzalez in giving these songs air. For decades this music lived as notation on printed pages filed within the library’s voluminous holdings, many never recorded. You couldn’t tell that on Friday.
Ozo, born as a politically active musical collective that hybridized the sound of urban L.A. starting in the mid-’90s, began the evening with its own love letter to Los Angeles, “City of Angels,” and from there, a musical wormhole opened and the artists and the thousands surrounding them descended into a cobwebbed realm of once-dusty melodies. By the end of the evening these works had rejoiced in the glow of the Southern California present.
A versatile, expert band, Ozo illustrated its range throughout the evening. For a cool jazz take on “I Love You California,” a song penned in 1908 by F.B. Silverwood and A.F. Frankenstein, vocalist Asdru Sierra (who confessed to having a few overdue books) conjured the spirit of Chet Baker with both his croon and an elegant trumpet solo. If you closed your eyes this could have been the Haig, the early ’50s jazz club where, a few dozen blocks west on Wilshire Boulevard, Mulligan and Baker helped birth a West Coast sound.
L.A. country band I See Hawks in L.A.’s rendition of “In the Valley of the San Joaquin,” was polished with the chrome tone of the lap pedal steel guitar. Jackson Browne’s take on the classic L.A. story of “Ramona” brought in a touch of Laurel Canyon folk rock. The artist raised in Highland Park offered his own ode to an area locale with “Culver Moon,” which celebrated a town “about five miles from where the Lakers play.”
It was also a night in which Cheech Marin arrived to sing his funny love letter to his home, “Born in East L.A.,” about a Mexican American resident who while taking a walk to the grocery store gets detained by immigration cops and “deported” from East L.A. to Tijuana.
Tijuana-Angeleno singer Ceci Bastida, with Ozo backing, conjured from the past “El Quelele,” an age-old Mexican ballad published in a 1923 collection called “Spanish Songs of Old California.” She and the band followed that with “Los Angeles,” the 1979 burst of Cali punk rock by X. “She gets confused flying over the dateline!” screamed Bastida.
Those who frequent the city’s farmers markets might have recognized the Petrojvic Blasting Company, the Slavic brass, accordion and drum group that overjoys many a morning shopper with their busking. The group’s take on “Strolling With the California Moon” started off surprisingly weak, but erupted into full-on joy when brass and drums kicked in halfway through, sending ripples across the pond as the plaza’s fountains pumped bursts of water into the sky.
“Chiapanecas” was a song published by a Mexican restaurant on Olvera Street, explained singer La Marisoul of La Santa Cecilia. In choosing it, she said, she was connecting with her own youth performing in the same neighborhood nearly a century after the song was written. She and the band brought to vivid life the music — and accordionist Jose Carlos earned big applause with his work on the crucial Los Angeles instrument.
All evening Kun and others had been teasing a “surprise guest.” Predictably, when Wonder’s name was announced, the plaza erupted. After a gentle, solo take on his “Overjoyed,” which had many rustling for their smartphones and pointing in his direction, Wonder introduced another song from his 1985 album “In Square Circle.”
“Land of La La” tells the classic L.A. story of those looking to reinvent themselves in “the land of la la.” Why? Because “being in La La Land is like nowhere else,” he sang, pounding out synth clusters alone on his keys. Halfway through, Ozomatli reconvened onstage and gradually lifted the song through percussive, tight funk in support while Wonder spotlighted “a land full of lost angels/Movie stars and great big cars and Perrier and fun all day/And that’s enough to make anybody go wild.”
At the conclusion, Ozomatli ripped into its high-energy jam “Como Ves,” and Wonder stayed with the band, with big electric piano chords and a solo — the guys in Ozomatli looking equally thrilled and awestruck. As he played, Wonder was handed a harmonica and he went into a solo.
Slowly, he morphed the harmonica melody into “La Bamba” as the band and most of the musicians from throughout the night eased onto the stage to bond, celebrate and sing with Wonder. It was a truly memorable moment, one that many in attendance won’t forget.
In fact, Wonder should think seriously about a collaboration with Ozomatli. The team sounded amazing together, like they’d been jamming for years.
Even more, not only did Wonder lift Ozomatli but just as impressive Ozomatli propelled Wonder into one of the rare musical realms he’s yet to explore.
Few are the musical experiences that you can safely say, “this is a night I’ll remember the rest of my life.” But that performance of Wonder’s “Land of La La” made a huge dent.
Equally special though was sharing an evening not only with living Angelenos of all shapes and sizes, but with voices from the past. Brought to life to sing the praises of Southern California, their spirit rushed forth through the time-traveling magic of music.