Small Medium Large: New quintet continues the legacy of ETA, Los Angeles’ lost experimental music venue

Written By: 
Phil Cho
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Photo by Brian Guido

In conversation with Small Medium Large, a new quintet from the burgeoning new West Coast jazz & improvised music scene.

In 2018, LA-based jazz and post-rock guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Chicago Underground Quartet, Isotope 217) began an extended residency at a small, unassuming neighborhood bar in Highland Park. Held on Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), the sessions would become an essential meeting place for a growing community of experimental musicians in Los Angeles exploring jazz, electronics, and improvisational music. Parker would commit the series to vinyl in 2022 with a double LP pulled from 10+ hours of live tape recordings made between 2019-2021 featuring his ETA IVtet, which included drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Anna Butterss, and saxophonist Josh Johnson.

Though ETA would close its doors unexpectedly in 2023, the spirit of Parker’s Mondays lives on. The next group, and certainly not the last, to emerge from those sessions is SML (Small Medium Large), a quintet composed of luminaries from Los Angeles’s independent music scene featuring Butterss and Johnson alongside synthesist Jeremiah Chiu (Ariel Kalma, Marta Sofia Honer, Icy Demons), percussionist Booker Stardrum (Amirtha Kidambi, Lisel, Lee Ranaldo, Patrick Shiroishi) and guitarist Gregory Uhlmann (Sam Wilkes, Meg Duffy, Perfume Genius). Their self-titled debut album was released last Friday, June 28th on International Anthem and includes a note in the front insert commemorating ETA as “a bygone bastion of the new West Coast sound.” The album is available now in our shop.




SML will perform live at Zebulon for two nights on July 8th and 9th to celebrate the release of their debut album. For advance tickets and more information, visit https://zebulon.la/

Below, In Sheep’s Clothing’s Phil Cho spoke to SML over email about the now legendary sessions at ETA, Los Angeles’ experimental music scene, improvised electronics, inspirations, and more!

The band has quite a diverse mix of backgrounds and portfolios from working as studio musicians to teaching Art & Design to producing for Meshell Ndegeocello. When did you all first meet and how did the idea to play together come about?

J.Chiu: I’ll let Josh, Anna, and Greg share how they met, as they have a deep musical history. Booker and I met in LA through mutual friends in the experimental music scene in LA — maybe through Ben Babbitt — and we spent a lot of time in 2018/19 on percolating on ideas, collaborations, and shows with a few other musicians including Dustin Wong, Celia Hollander, Takako Minekawa, and Ben Babbitt. There was a mutual appreciation for everyone’s solo projects, which of course, extended to what Greg, Josh, and Anna were doing. Greg had a night held at ETA and reached out to see if I wanted to join and we expanded it to those first two ETA nights. The first night was a trio of Josh, Greg, and myself, and the second night was Anna, Greg, Booker, and myself—converging our musical circles.

AB: Josh and I met in 2010 in Bloomington, IN, where we were both studying jazz. We’ve been playing together since that time, initially in the jazz world and then expanding out to more improvised and experimental music. I believe Josh and Greg had met in Chicago perhaps even earlier, but I met Greg shortly after moving to LA in 2014 and the three of us have been heavily involved in each other’s solo projects over the past ten years.

Highland Park’s now-closed venue ETA is at the heart of this album. Can you talk about the history of this space, its role within the Los Angeles jazz and improvised music scene, and how so many magical moments happened there?

AB: ETA is such a special place, and I say “is” because even though the physical space is no longer there, to me it also represents a community that lives on; partly in all the recordings we have from that time, and also in the relationships and connections between musicians and the people who came out to listen. A huge reason why this community was able to blossom was that Ryan Julio, the owner of ETA, is such a passionate music lover, and always encouraged experimentation from everyone who played there. It’s the only regular gig I’ve ever played that truly had no restrictions  – we never had to start at a certain time, we were able to play as long or short as we wanted, whatever type of music, drink whatever we liked. This total freedom, combined with the long relationship that each of us have with that space and community leads to the kind of comfort that really allows you to take creative risks, at least in my mind.

ETA, Highland Park (closed)

“ETA is such a special place, and I say ‘is’ because even though the physical space is no longer there, to me it also represents a community that lives on…”

Anna Butterss

International Anthem is starting to become a sort of hub for this new wave of “improvised music” in Los Angeles. What can you share about the scene and community of musicians here in LA?

J.Chiu: From my perspective, the landscape of improvised/experimental music in LA seems to be in full blossom. It’s unclear to me if this is a new occurrence—though it feels that way—or if it just took time to locate as a newcomer (now 10 years in) from Chicago. When I first arrived, I was going to as many shows as possible, and found myself most regularly at Zebulon or at ETA when Jeff Parker began his Monday night series.

International Anthem is special. A large part of their ethos lies in a familial, community-focused approach. They exert a lot of love and energy in helping artists grow, and if you look closely enough at their catalog, you should be able to see the tether from one artist to the next. Similarly, if you look at SML, you might see five solo artists sitting in seven or more overlapping groups and configurations.

LA feels quite ideal and wonderful—all of the overlap between scenes, musicians, musical approaches. You have the nucleus’ (nuclei?) of Jeff Parker & International Anthem, Leaving, Living Earth, Minaret, Wild Up, ETA, Zebulon, 2220 Arts, Coaxial, etc… that all make space and bring artists together to experiment, improvise, and work things out. It’s critical support that doesn’t go unnoticed.

Small Medium Large was recorded during two separate two-night stands at ETA. Can you trace the atmosphere and overall feelings from those nights? Any memorable moments that might not be captured in the recordings that were experienced by those who were physically there?

G. Uhlmann: It’s fun to think back on. It almost feels like thinking back on a time in LA more than those 4 specific nights in some ways. ETA was such an integral part of all of our musical existence at the time and a real laboratory for experimentation. It was a place you could dream up a band and they would fully support you and be enthusiastic. It’s hard to emphasize enough the importance of spaces like that.

That being said, I felt those nights were all really special and there was the feeling like a band was being formed at the moment. There were people crowded around sitting on the bar floor at the front which is always a great sign. People really came to listen. The first couple of nights had a first date type of feeling, but a very good first date. We individually had played with at least one other person in the group, but not all together. That’s always an exciting place to start from though. It feels a little risky and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Night one was a trio and night two, a quartet. After that we were like, let’s combine them! And we did the 3rd and 4th nights as a quintet.

Photo by Brian Guido

“Improvisation isn’t something that immediately comes to mind with sequencing, but it is a huge part of synthesis, as the slight turn of a knob can lead you into new territory.”

Jeremiah Chiu

The foundation of many of these compositions seems to come from Jeremiah Chiu’s synthesizer grooves and polyrhythms. Jeremiah, can you share your approach to creating electronics for an improvised jam scenario? Susumu Yokota is mentioned in the liner notes... How has he influenced your work? Are there any other synthesists that you look up to that work in a sort of similar setting with instrumentalists?

J.Chiu: With electronic music, it feels inherent to the instruments to have things be quite rigid and “clocked” because we’re often working with sequencers. I’ve been focused on balancing that rigidity with something more fluid, and intentionally, more human. Improvisation isn’t something that immediately comes to mind with sequencing, but it is a huge part of synthesis, as the slight turn of a knob can lead you into new territory. So, having worked with synthesizers for 20+ years now, I have a level of comfort with the instrument that allows me to listen and respond in the moment. With my current modular synthesizer setup, I have the ability to live record anything in or out of the box—Josh’s sax, for example—and manipulate the recording through reel-to-reel style manipulation, granular synthesis, or more traditional effects processing. It’s interesting that Susumu Yokota came up. I imagine that this has something to do with Acid Mt. Fuji’s organically evolving trance, but I’d say that major touchpoints for me are always early synthesists: Raymond Scott, the greater YMO landscape, kosmische staples like Cluster and Ashra, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Herbie Hancock. I’m not sure how much any of them were working directly in an improvised setting with other instrumentalists, maybe Herbie, but, this might be the perfect opportunity to dig further into the research and collaborate on an ISC Hifi playlist!

The sound of the album lies somewhere between krautrock and free jazz. I’m guessing genre zones were not decided upon prior to the jams but can you talk about how this sound might have emerged from this group of musicians? Any albums you were all listening to or share in common as influences?

AB: Josh started a little tradition of listening to Miles’ Live at the Plugged Nickel on the way to ETA. It’s more about getting into that space of deep listening and freedom, rather than emulating anything specific, stylistically. We almost deliberately don’t talk about the music beforehand, which is incidentally also what we do with Jeff’s Monday Night Band. It’s fun to go in without any preconceptions, and to be playing with such skilled musicians that we can really do that effectively.

J.Chiu: I don’t think we spoke about anything besides what wine or drink to order before playing — nothing decided, open to it all. That being said, I do remember Booker and I listening to Sextant and On the Corner en route to ETA, and talking a lot about Can and Tony Williams Lifetime.

The album’s post-recording editing/chopping/re-arranging references techniques used by Teo Macero's Miles Davis albums. Would love to hear more about that process and working with Nagra tape recordings.

B. Stardrum: With the exception of a few overdubs, this music was engineered and recorded live to Nagra tape by Bryce Gonzalez at ETA and given to us as pre-mixed stereo files. Things happen live that just don’t happen in the studio — playing in front of an audience and receiving that spontaneous feedback is magic. But, we were working with several hours of music that we wanted to weed down to an LP’s length, and we wanted it to sound like a developed album, not just a document of the live gig. Working with only a pre-mixed stereo file of an entire band as a starting point to making an album is a major limitation, but it was also an opportunity.

We took inspiration from Teo’s collaborations with Miles. On albums like On The Corner, Bitches Brew and Live Evil, they cut up (actually spliced tape) long performances and studio jams and stitched them together into more succinct compositions that would fit onto vinyl. Taking cues from electronic composers like Stockhausen who were experimenting with tape manipulation in composition, they pioneered this technique of splicing and editing jazz and improvised music. So, while we were not splicing actual tape, we worked in Ableton and edited long form improvisations down into shorter arrangements, sometimes leaving longer passages, and other times creating shorter loops or manipulating the original recording in some way, adding over dubs, etc.

I love how “Feed the Birds” flows directly into “Greg’s Melody” and sounds like it was the end of one of the shows or jam sessions. For those of us who are less familiar with the dynamics of improvised music, how does a moment like that happen in a jam setting?

J.Johnson: When we’re improvising together I think often we’re looking for opportunities to create contrast and explore different topography — especially in the context of “set 1” and “set 2”. A moment like “Greg’s Melody” feels like a breath of fresh air and relief. We get to walk into a different, contrasting room in the house. Energetically, you feel the thing that’s been expanding over the course of a set contracting, slowing down into reverent beauty — sending you off for the night.

What are some other Los Angeles albums from recent years that are worth paying attention to or deserve more attention?

J.Chiu: This might be the perfect moment to mention that if you were to listen to any one of our solo records—or even putting two on simultaneously (!)—that you might find the synergy between our textures, tones, and approaches to rhythm and melody. Recently in LA, I loved Ben Lumsdaine’s Murmuration Without End, Josiah Steinbrick’s For Anyone That Know’s You, Celia Hollander’s 2nd Draft, Byron Westbrook’s Translucents, Patrick Shiroishi’s I was too young to hear silence before, Lisel’s Patterns For Auto​-​Tuned Voices And Delay. 

AB: Paul Bryan’s Western Electric from earlier this year is incredible. I’ll second Jeremiah in saying that any of our solo records would be a fitting companion to Small Medium Large. Also want to highlight Greg’s duo record with Meg Duffy Doubles, and on a very different note, A Grape Dope (John Herndon) Backyard Bangers.

What’s coming up next for this group?

G. Uhlmann: We’re doing a few release shows coming up which is very exciting. It’s hard for the group to get together often because of everyone’s schedules, so we’re trying to take advantage of when we play by recording shows when we can. So, who knows maybe we’ll have another record started soon! Part of the concept of the group is that it can expand and contract depending on the circumstance out of necessity and I feel that idea has even extended beyond the scope of the group into other configurations with two or more members. It has had a spider web effect and has really inspired us to collaborate with everyone in the band in different capacities. In some ways inspired by the model of the AACM in Chicago and how communal and generative that movement/time was.

Photo by Joyce Kim

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