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`Fly' flies free without any chordal weights

Saxophonist Mark Turner's trio accepts daunting harmonic challenge with ease.

January 26, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is taking on one of the more daunting jazz tasks -- performing in a trio that does not include a traditional harmony-producing instrument.

Decades ago, Gerry Mulligan startled the jazz world with what was then described as a "piano-less" quartet. Since then, improvising without the comforting chord foundation provided by piano, guitar or organ has become far more common. But it's always challenging: for the soloist, because the only harmonic interaction is with the moving lines of the bass; for the listener, because the music has few of the chordal sounds that provide points of reference during free-flowing improvisations.

In their opening-night set Wednesday at the Jazz Bakery, Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, who identify themselves collectively as "Fly" (with both the slang and the literal references that the label implies), approached the challenge with the empathy that can derive from long-time musical interaction.

The pieces had titles such as "Emergence Resurgence," "Stark" and "State of the Union." But, aside from differences in tempo and meter, they offered little in terms of melodic appeal, serving mainly as springboards for wide-open improvising.

Turner used the opportunity to open a Pandora's box of sounds, multi-phonics, high harmonics and, occasionally, a lyrical passage or two. His style, reaching back to John Coltrane's explorations of the '60s, with a few references to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler thrown in for good measure, was an impressive display of an unfettered musical imagination using the full resources of his instrument.

Grenadier was both the catalyst and the grounding force. In some tunes, he initiated the action with driving, ostinato rhythmic patterns. In others, he provided sturdy linkage between Ballard's percussive accents and Turner's envelope-stretching improvisations. Ballard added an ever-dependable structural framework, while enhancing the proceedings with a colorful array of taps, scrapes, brushes and rumbles.

And that "missing" harmonic instrument? No problem. Fly's players, as it turned out, were fully capable of producing stirring musical aerobatics in their own uniquely chordal-free fashion.



Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City

When: 8 and 9:30 p.m. through Sunday

Price: $30

Contact: (310) 271-9039

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