Flutist/composer James Newton may be best known as one of jazz's most determinedly contemporary artists, but his recordings and his work as an educator suggest that he is equally dedicated to the music's rich and still-vital past.
Thursday at the Comeback Inn, Newton's CalArts Jazz Ensemble confirmed, in energetic fashion, how much value there is for young players in that long and varied tradition. Using an alternating six to eight musicians, the well-rehearsed group played a program of music that stretched from Jelly Roll Morton to Ornette Coleman.
Unlike many student jazz bands, the CalArts group's performance level remained as high during the solo passages as it was during the obviously carefully prepared ensemble sections. Tenor and soprano saxophonists Mark Miller, Oscar Smith and Robert Foster foraged across the landscape of contemporary styles with a particularly explosive three-horn interchange on a climactic version of Mingus' "Boogie Stop Shuffle."
Trumpeter Ralph Alessi (playing oddly disjunct lines reminiscent of some of Don Ellis' phrasing) and trombonist Robert Zimmerman made up the rest of the front line, with pianist David Ake, bassist Nedra Wheeler and drummer Jeannette Wrate laying down a professionally installed carpet of rhythm.