Despite the best efforts of James M. Cain, Chinatown and BoJack Horseman, L.A. noir still doesn’t get the respect it deserves next to what goes on in Gotham. This is doubly true for jazz, where a combo of experimentalism, perceived lack of gravitas and the general laid-back vibe of West Coast Cool doom it to second-fiddle status, seemingly forever. All these years later, and when folks want to feel how La La Land destroys the dreams of its citizens, they dig out “Hotel California,” not Chet Baker. Shame, really.
If anyone could change that perception, it’s pioneering avant-garde drummer Billie Davies, a disciple of fellow “California Hard” stylist Max Roach and someone who, true to her gypsy resume, actually lived on Hollywood Boulevard for a time. Her latest release is typically daring, capturing the perfectly frightening freedom of being lost in El Lay, largely thanks to the cool glissandos and lonely brass of keyboardist Evan Oberla and the kind of youthful energy you need for this sort of piece: new vocalist IRIS P, who brings some R&B flair to tracks like “Jacaranda” and “Yellow Sunshine” (which is not the kind of nature you’re thinking of, maybe). Meanwhile, Billie as usual plays counterpoint, creating the menace simmering under the surface naiveté that makes all that ambition seem weighted down, if not doomed, by reality. The set’s only major flaw is her decision to use electronic drums on half the album, augmenting and sometimes replacing her usual setup entirely; they just don’t have the expressiveness of a trap kit, turning Billie’s wise Greek chorus into a drunken party crasher. Ironically, a little more traditionalist grounding is just what the album and its subjects need most.