Live Jazz: The Ornette Coleman Quartet at Royce Hall

By Don Heckman

There weren’t a lot of surprises in Ornette Coleman’s performance at Royce Hall Wednesday night in a UCLA Live concert.  The ensemble he now leads, with Anthony Falanga on acoustic bass, Al McDowell on electric bass and his son, Denardo Coleman, on drums, has been his primary vehicle of expression for a few years now.

But Coleman, at 80, is still one of the most dynamic voices in jazz.  Both his improvisational techniques and the essential elements of his music haven’t changed much since his arrival on the scene in the late ‘50s, but he continues to use them in a way that invigorates the fundamentals of the improvisational art.

His ninety minute, non-stop program ranged across his catalog, a few older items such as the blues classic, “Turnaround,” as well as selections from his 2006  Pulitzer Prize winning album, Sound Grammar. From a more unusual perspective, there was a piece structured around the Bach Cello Suite #1 featuring impressive arco work from Falanga, as well as an odd, untitled piece juxtaposing the soprano voice of Mari Okubo against Coleman’s soaring alto lines.

Although his demeanor, when he walked slowly on stage, appeared frail, there was nothing fragile about Coleman’s playing.  Now, as they were decades ago, his spontaneously generated “free jazz” solos, soaring through an unfettered harmonic universe, were assemblages of riffs and licks drawn from his Texas r & b roots.  Even in his most abstract, note-heavy moments, it was the roots quality that coursed through the solos – combined, at times, with a surprisingly repetitive use of major scale patterns – that provided the connectivity for an audience that responded enthusiastically to every number.

Both the framing and springboard for Coleman were provided by his trio of musical associates.  And the longevity of their musical relationship was apparent in every note.  Coleman’s first group – with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins – was often praised, justifiably, for their startling musical empathy.  And the same can be said of his current quartet.  Often starting with a rush of emotion-filled notes, tossing ideas across collective improvising, stopping suddenly on a dime, they partnered perfectly in every colorful stroke of Coleman’s richly expressive musical paintbrush.

Photo courtesy of UCLA Live.

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