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Jazz Review : Jazz Explosion: Another Blast From Its Past

August 18, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — The Jazz Explosion Superband brought much the same bang to the Coach House on Tuesday as it did 13 months ago when the heavyweight collaboration appeared at the same club.

Not only did their first set shadow last year's performance, it followed, almost to the letter, the group's new "Live at the Greek" recording that's been issued under bassist Stanley Clarke's name.

But that doesn't mean there weren't any fireworks. To their credit, Clarke, guitarist Larry Carlton, drummer Billy Cobham, saxophonist Najee and new member keyboardist Brian Simpson worked as a unit, without apparent one-upmanship or the clash of egos that one would expect when four headliners (and one upstart) are brought together.

If anything, this show was more polished than the last, and the principals seemed more comfortable with their improvisational space, resulting in some truly electric moments.

They opened, as they did last year, with a slicked-up version of Charles Mingus' tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Opening on ethereal chords from keys and guitar suspended over Cobham's rolling tom-tom sound, the band fell into a respectful version of the somber theme, then took to straightforward rhythm section support as each of the heavies took a solo turn.

Najee, who opened on soprano sax, switched to his wind-controlled synthesizer, which vaguely resembles a clarinet. He developed the theme in swirling, whistle-pitched tones that, unlike last year, avoided riffing and cheap emotional appeals.

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Carlton picked up that lead nicely, breaking up lines of cream-colored tones with sharp exclamations and bluesy embellishments. Clarke followed, working the high register of his instrument, dropping in an "off to the races" quote as if to foreshadow what was to come.

Then, just as last year, the band switched gears as it dropped into "Stratus," a Cobham tune pulled from his 1973 album "Spectrum." This was followed by Najee's romantic "Buenos Aires," and Miles Davis' "All Blues," which found Clarke switching to upright bass and Najee to flute.

The only new tune in the set, Cobham's "No Looking Back," was one of the most interesting, with each soloist using the simple riff to build impressive, narrative statements as the support of his partners built behind him. The group closed on a long version of Clarke's "School Days" before coming out for an encore with Carlton's pleasant ditty "Minute by Minute."

All the principals gave impressive improvisations throughout the show, with Najee's tenor work and Carlton's fine chordal presentation on "No Looking Back" standing out. Cobham continues to be a fireball of energy, though he sometimes resorts to too much tom-tom foolery to make a point.

Only Clarke seemed continually predisposed to showing off, firing up with technically impressive but musically hollow outbursts of strums and furious fingering.

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Keyboardist Simpson, on the other hand, played reservedly, never challenging his mates, who often nodded in encouragement during his improvs. Only during "All Blues" did Simpson shine with dissonant touches and some Bill Evans-like sensitivity from the upper reaches of his keyboard.

The Explosion scores point for the range of material they cover--a jazz standard, blues, the lesser-known Mingus tune and a wide array of contemporary styles and rhythmic formats--but they need to keep adding new and different tunes, rather than repeat the same show year after year.

Without some updating, their big-bang theory will go out with a whimper. And that would be a shame.

* The Jazz Explosion Superband with Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Najee, Billy Cobham and Brian Simpson plays Saturday at the Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. $27.50. (213) 480-3232.

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