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Free Flight, James Launch Jazz Series

September 22, 1987|ZAN STEWART

Bob James and Free Flight gave a study in jazz-fusion contrasts before a packed house at Sunday's opening of the three-concert "Contemporary Jazz Series" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Pianist-composer James, who travels to the Southland from New York about once a year, offered his brand of medium tempo jazz-pop-funk, which ranged from atmospheric one-chord grooves to carefully orchestrated sound paintings that moved through many moods.

"Westchester Lady," of the multimood variety, began with the theme brightly yet lightly played by James. Then the band--Peter Moffitt, electronic keyboards; Kirk Whalum, saxes; Dean Brown, guitar; Gary King, bass; Buddy Williams, drums; Docter Gibbs, conga drums and percussion--roared in, bringing things way up. Just as quickly as the band reached a thunderous climax, it dropped to a shimmering quiet.

A less-complicated tune was "Zebra Man," where the bearded James displayed his trademark electric piano sound, delivering relaxed lines that flowed easily on top of a subtle yet insinuating rhythm.

James was at his artistic best during an unaccompanied introduction to "Never Enough," as if entertaining himself at home in the late evening hours. More of this type of free-wheeling creativity would have sparked the sometimes overly calculated set.

And if James played everything at medium-slow to medium-fast, Free Flight, a spirited quartet that fuses classical, jazz and rock idioms, accented the faster tempos in its opening set. Since the members of this band--James Walker, flutes; Michael Garson, MIDI acoustic grand piano; James Lacefield, bass; Ralph Humphrey, drums--are all virtuosos, the tunes that flew by were replete with sizzling passages.

Sometimes the speed worked, as on the adaptation of Mozart's C Major Piano Sonata, where the exchanges between Walker and Garson were dazzling; sometimes it didn't, as on the frenetic "Solar."

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