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Reviving the Era of Coltrane : The Soma Quartet's sound is 'serious contemporary improvisation' inspired by '60s jazz giants. The group also doesn't shy from having its way with pop standards.

January 14, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

GLENDALE — Alan Cook was just 15, standing in his bedroom in his parents' home in Garden Grove, when his musical world was turned upside-down.

The fledgling drummer was listening to the album that one music critic called "the most powerful human sound ever recorded." That album was John Coltrane's "Ascension," an expressive, free jazz-leaning 1965 recording that featured such notables as saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Elvin Jones.

"I was really taken aback," recalled Cook, who had been mostly listening to the relatively tame sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. "It was very raw and forceful. I had to read the liner notes to understand that was what Coltrane called a 'spontaneous composition.' 'Ascension' has had an impact on my direction as a musician."

Coltrane's music had a similar effect on guitarist Chuck Jennings. He was 19, rooming with a classical guitarist named Stuart Cary in Richmond, Va., when Cary played an album with Coltrane's 1960 classic, "My Favorite Things." The saxophonist's lilting, expansive 13-minute version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic deeply touched Jennings.

"It was the music that I had always wanted to hear," Jennings, 36, said. "I was playing pop at the time, not jazz, and that album inspired me to play jazz."

Jazz of the '60s, as typified by these recordings by Coltrane and the renowned Miles Davis quintet that featured Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, underpins the music that Cook and Jennings play today in their Soma Quartet, which Cook calls "a serious contemporary improvisational jazz ensemble."

"We're attracted to the developments in jazz from that era," said Cook, 43, in a phone interview from his Garden Grove home. The group, which also will spotlight saxophonist Andy Suzuki and bassist King Dahl, performs Thursday at Jax in Glendale.

The band's repertoire includes a broad range of material from tunes that can become completely spontaneous to such pop standards as "There Is No Greater Love" and less-often heard compositions of the '60s and '70s, such as Shorter's "Infant Eyes" and Ornette Coleman's "Law Years." At Jax, the band tends to pull in the reins and eschew tunes that are free form and without structure.

"We play at Jax with a different concept, though that doesn't mean we limit ourselves," Cook said. "Tunes like 'Infant Eyes' allow you to play from within yourself, to play something beautiful, because that's what we feel from this music."

A group that relishes spontaneous improvisation doesn't usually select standards to perform, but Cook finds no problem with that course of action.

"Standards are a different shade of what we feel," he said. "You could dissect a tune like 'No Greater Love,' rearrange its elements, make it a 'free' interpretation, but if you align yourself with the sentiments of the song, like thinking about the lyrics, there's enough there to express yourself with."

Group interaction is important to a Soma performance. "Our music is just as much inspired by what the bass player and drummer are playing, as what you hear from the soloist," Jennings said in a conversation from his Silver Lake home.

Consistency marks the band's performances, says Jax's general manager, Gary Watanabe. "They're very tight and the players blend in well."

Cook and Jennings met in 1990 at a jam session at the Iguana Cafe in North Hollywood and had an immediate fondness for each other's playing. That affection remains. "Chuck's a fiery player. He has a strong desire to further himself as a musician," Cook said. "Alan's always making a contribution," Jennings said. "He's very responsive."

Cook, who cites Williams as a primary influence, began playing drums as a preteen. "I tore the cardboard rollers out of hangers and used them as drumsticks, banging on anything I could," he said. Later he got a drum set and pretty much taught himself to play. He worked with several Southern California rock and jazz bands before forming Soma.

Jennings, a 1981 graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, has also had a variety of experiences, from playing in a band that performed Nigerian "highlife" music to blues bands. "I like it all. I just like to improvise, no matter the setting," he said.

Soma doesn't work a lot, and that bothers Cook.

He wonders about the band's future. "We're in a quandary," he said. "We have to decide whether we're going to make a recording and try to get work out of town, perhaps go to Europe, but that remains to be seen. Club owners like to bring in 'name' acts, and to be a developing band trying to stay alive in smaller clubs, that's a hard row to hoe."

Where and When

What: The Soma Quartet.

Location: Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 500-1604.

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