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Coleman kicks into action at Royce

September 28, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It's hard to imagine a better choice than alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman to kick off UCLA Live's fall season Wednesday night at Royce Hall. Still vibrant with the cutting-edge qualities of musical adventuring that have characterized his music since he arrived in the late '50s, Coleman -- the recipient of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award -- affirmed his reputation as one of the principal icons of post-bebop jazz.

His performance, however, underscored the fact that the foundation of that iconic status remains as unclear as it was in 1959, when Coleman's performance at New York's Five Spot jazz club unleashed a barrage of directly conflicting opinions about his music.

Was he, as one side suggested, masquerading average skills behind a "free" improvisation style that demanded no allegiance to harmonic patterns or metric regularity? Or was he, as his supporters asserted, an imaginative musical genius, opening a new world of improvisatory possibilities? Those questions probably will follow the 77-year-old musician for the rest of his career.

Coleman's first number at Royce, "Following the Sound," made it clear that -- whatever prevailing opinion may be -- his methodology has not changed dramatically. Instead of performing with a basic quartet, he appeared, as in recent years, with a more unusual ensemble: acoustic bassists Tony Falanga and Charnett Moffett (the latter the son of Charles Moffett, one of Coleman's drummers from the '60s), electric bassist Al McDowell and Coleman's son, drummer Denardo Coleman.

Rather than follow the traditional jazz pattern of theme and improvised variations, Coleman now tends to emphasize collective playing, in which his high-flying alto saxophone lines take a spontaneous leadership role. At times, bassist Falanga, who mostly played with a bow, contributed a jazz version of the sort of melodically echoing phrases common in qawwali, the hypnotic Sufi devotional music. Occasionally, and most notably on the encore offering of "Lonely Woman," Coleman's plangent melody lines surfaced through the roiling textural surroundings.

The pieces were drawn mostly from last year's CD "Sound Grammar," many unfolding with virtuosic rapidity and ending with the sudden-halt characteristic of his first quartet's music. The effect on the overflow audience of the swift change from sound to silence was dramatic. And one couldn't help but wonder if the barrage of cheers and applause had as much (or more) to do with the trickery of the piece's ending as with the quality of its improvising.

Coleman's own playing, despite its seemingly revolutionary aspects, is rooted in the Texas blues of his youth. Echoes of that period reverberated through his take on one of his jauntiest lines, "Turnaround."

But over the last few decades he also has incorporated a vivid palette of sounds -- high harmonic shrieks, blurringly fast runs, multiphonic honks -- that suggest a musical version of Jackson Pollock's action painting. And, beyond the avant-garde jazz and free-jazz descriptions so often applied to his music, it may well be that the most accurate label for what Coleman brought to Royce on Wednesday would be "action jazz." Improvising, that is, in which the spontaneity is everything, anything goes, and the music that comes forth is simply a product of the unfettered encounter between the musicians and the moment, and one another.

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