At his best, Elvin Jones is a virtual force of nature. Smiling his perpetual grin, grunting his rhythmic utterances, his arms and hands moving in swirling arcs as he renders his multileveled beats, he is a compelling figure, the personification of modern jazz drumming.
At the start of his opening-night set Tuesday at the Jazz Bakery, however, Jones seemed to be operating in a lower gear. Despite the ever-present voltage that has characterized his music since he was a vital element in the John Coltrane groups of the '60s, Jones and his musicians seemed a bit distracted and not quite in sync with one another.
But the lull didn't last long, changing dramatically when Jones dug into his first solo. Starting with relative decorum, he soon began to move up to speed, unleashing the sudden bursts of percussive energy, the dynamic multi-rhythms and compelling contrasts of sound and texture that are his creative stocks in trade.
The program settled back for a few moments after Jones' breakout, as trumpeter Eddie Henderson delivered a lyrical but charged version of the ballad "You Don't Know What Love Is." Then the energy level continued to rise with each of the following numbers, ascending an escalating scale of musical excitement.
Aside from the fascination of Jones' drumming, the key element in the music was his successful restoration of '60s avant-garde-style improvisation, clearly an area that still possesses a wealth of creative riches. His interaction, in particular, with the frenetic tenor saxophone work of Sonny Fortune (better known as an alto saxophonist, but more impressive on the larger instrument) resonated with memories of Coltrane. Henderson, a generally decorous player, added some surprisingly edgy choruses.
Pianist Carlos McKinney, vigorously in pursuit of dissonances, explored the Cecil Taylor areas of the keyboard. And bassist Greg Williams, a rock-solid accompanist, touched upon the modal aspects of the Coltrane legacy in his intriguing solos.
The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 271-9039. $20 cover tonight and Sunday at 8:30 and 10 p.m., $22 cover Friday and Saturday at 8:30 and 10 p.m.