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Jazz Review

Alto Madness, the Little Big Band With Expansive Sound

August 05, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the 1940s, tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura once led a group labeled Bop for the People. The group alto saxophonist Richie Cole is leading at the Jazz Bakery this week--Alto Madness--is in many respects a descendant of Ventura's effort to make the complex sounds of bop accessible to wider audiences.

Cole always has been an aggressive sort of musical communicator, his style a supercharged combination of influences from Charlie Parker and Phil Woods.

His performances are often spiced by his idiosyncratic sense of humor and a willingness to apply his improvisational talents to virtually any piece of music (including television themes such as "I Love Lucy") regardless of its quality or potential.

His performance Thursday night was no exception. The current installment of Alto Madness consisted of a four-horn front line--Cole, trumpeter Bob Summers, saxophonist Doug Webb and trombonist Bob McChesney--and the rhythm section of pianist Lou Foresteri, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Dick Weller.

The music encompassed old standards such as "Love for Sale" and "Come Fly With Me," as well as more unexpected items such as the rarely heard ballad, "A Portrait of Jenny."

All of it was delivered in a set of arrangements by Cole written in classic little-big band style, using rich, block-style harmonies in an effort to make the four horns sound like a much larger ensemble.

The technique was effective at times, especially in the slower ballads. More often, the impact of the charts was reduced by the rarity with which Cole added contrapuntal color or searched out instrumental timbres beyond the four-horn voicings.

His playing, characteristically, was ebullient and effusive, at its best when he was stepping nimbly through his lexicon of bop riffs, less interesting when he indulged his habit of inserting quotes from other songs.

At 52, Cole has been playing long enough to do just about anything he wants with the instrument, yet his performances continue to be examples of great technical skill squandered, of a gifted improviser in search of a musical focus.

* Richie Cole and Alto Madness at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Los Angeles. Tonight at 8 and 9:30, and Sunday at 7 and 8:30 p.m. $22 admission. (310) 271-9039.

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