Vinny Golia. Courtesy: Vinny Golia

As musician origin stories go, Vinny Golia’s is a peach. 

A respected visual artist who was spending a lot time around experiment-minded jazz innovators in the early 1970s, he landed a plum gig creating the cover art for Chick Corea’s 1971 Blue Note debut The Song of Singing. Already thinking about pursuing music himself, Golia promptly invested his proceeds. 

Vinny Golia’s Heptacontakaiheptagon Ensemble, Sunday, March 5, 7 p.m., The Finnish Hall, 1970 Chestnut St.

“I made some money from that and I bought myself a soprano saxophone,” he told me in a mid-’90s interview at his home in Silverlake, which he’d filled with a vast menagerie of wind instruments to keep that soprano sax company. In 1973, he’d relocated from New York City to Los Angeles, where he’s long been at the hub of a sprawling community of improvising musicians steeped in jazz and new music techniques. 

In much the same way he’s embraced a more-is-more approach to his instrumental arsenal Golia has an affinity for assembling and conducting throngs of musicians. Performances by the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble have taken on legendary status in LA, events he’s often documented with albums on his label 9 Winds Records.

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Over the years he’s cultivated deep ties to Northern California’s improvised music scenes, and at 7 p.m. Sunday an extraordinary gathering of the tribes takes place at Chestnut Street’s Berkeley Finnish Hall to celebrate Golia’s 77th birthday. Presented by Outsound, an organization that champions adventurous music, the celebration features Golia directing a 77-piece large “Heptacontakaiheptagon Ensemble” premiering a new piece he created for this event.

The ensemble was convened by saxophonist/composer Rent Romus, who also organized the 70-piece concert at Berkeley Finnish Hall in 2016 for Golia’s 70th birthday (“We were going to do this for his 75th birthday, but obviously couldn’t,” Romus said, “so waited until the moment seemed right.”)

Golia’s 70th birthday concert. Courtesy: Vinny Golia

He’d been familiar with Golia’s work for years and bought many 9 Winds releases by Golia and other artists before he started to get to know him at in the mid-aughts at Sacramento concerts and festivals presented by guitarist Ross Hammond. They shared a rambunctious sense of humor and an unusual path into musicianship, “and I think of us as kindred spirits,” Romus said. “I’d book him at Outsound New Music Summits and the relationship has grown organically.”

A prolific artist with more than 100 albums documenting all manner of ensembles and situations, Golia spent his formative years in the 1970s collaborating with a brilliant cadre of L.A. jazz artists, including cornetist Bobby Bradford, clarinetist John Carter, and pianist Horace Tapscott (who was a master at choreographing large-scale performances with musicians, dancers and poets). Romus cites his 9 Winds label as an inspiration for his own EdgeTone Records, and Oakland saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, who’s also playing in the Heptacontakaiheptagon, has similarly credited Golia with providing a roadmap for his Evander Music label. 

Romus isn’t sure what Golia will be playing in the ensemble, “but I’m assuming he’s bringing something spectacular, like a contrabassoon,” he said. “There are not a lot of people in jazz and improvised music that can really wield the power of such a large ensemble, particularly playing original music with notation, graphic scores and hand cues.”

Detailing all the musicians participating would be excessive, but a partial list of just the drum and percussion ranks includes William Winant, Aaron Levin, Donald Robinson, Suki O’Kane, Jason Levis, Robert Lopez, Cheryl Leonard on natural object instruments, and Moe! Staiano (another artist renowned for orchestrating large-scale musical events).

“It’s not like everyone was handpicked,” Romus said. “This was an open-call and we’ve got musicians representing all styles, levels and ages. As Vinny conducts and trains the players in his techniques, he brings out the best in everybody.”

Courtesy: Vinny Golia

Violinist Asher Wrobel, the 12-year-old son of Heptacontakaiheptagon alto saxophonist Beth Schenck, is the youngest participant, while trombonist Ron Heglin, a musical explorer in his mid-80s, is the oldest player. Some musicians are conservatory-trained while others don’t read musical notation. 

“They’ll have graphic scores with a combination of shapes and colors,” Romus said. “It all comes together through hand signals and cue cards, weaving all these different people together, creating this at times chaotic and at times very melodic experience with hills and valleys and an amazing array of sounds.”

Surrounded by some six dozen musicians isn’t the only way to experience Golia. Vegan chef Phillip Gelb is hosting him at his West Oakland loft Friday as part of his ongoing dinner and solo recital series. He’s serving a four-course vegan Italian meal paired with Golia on a variety of winds (saxophones, clarinets, flutes, double reeds). On March 10, Gelb serves up a Caribbean menu with a solo performance by Berkeley electric bass maestro Kai Eckhardt.

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Based in New York City since the mid-1980s, Romero Lubambo has carved out a spacious niche as the preeminent Brazilian jazz guitarist in the northern hemisphere. Over nearly four decades and more than 500 recordings, he’s become a ubiquitous presence as the cat of choice for everyone from Yo-Yo Ma and Dianne Reeves to Tom Harrell and Angelique Kidjo. Joining forces with pianist Marcos Silva, a fellow Carioca made good in the U.S., Lubambo plays a rare duo concert Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of the school’s ongoing JAMBAR concert series. There will be beauty. 

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....