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Jeff Moehlis: Ornette Coleman Still Shaping the Future of Jazz

Legendary saxophonist plays free jazz in UCSB Arts & Lectures performance at Campbell Hall

Trying to describe Ornette Coleman’s music is like trying to draw a picture of a river — one that sometimes has raging rapids, sometimes has a gentle flow and sometimes becomes so powerful that it changes the landscape. You can capture an impression, a reflection of what it is like at a point in time. But the real thing is so much more expressive, more subtle and more dynamic.

In Coleman’s music, there are notes that aren’t on a scale, but there are no wrong notes. There are phrases that have never been played or heard before, and probably never will be played or heard again. There are ideas that can be appreciated, but perhaps not truly understood by anyone except their creator.

Coleman is an innovator, a restless soul, a conduit of creativity. He is one of the pioneers of free jazz, a movement originating in the 1950s and 1960s that downplayed such niceties as fixed chord changes or tempos. His 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come and 1960 album Free Jazz — the latter of which gave the name to the subgenre — are regularly hailed as among the most important in the history of jazz.

Now at age 80, more than 50 years after these seminal albums were cut, Coleman is still at it, with no obvious signs of compromise or slowing down. On Friday night, he treated the half-filled house at Campbell Hall at UCSB to an evening of unbridled improvisation.

Coleman — mostly on saxophone but also with snatches of trumpet and violin — was joined by bassists Tony Falanga (stand-up bass) and Al MacDowell (electric bass), and son Denardo Coleman on drums, giving a quartet that really smoked. Falanga was all over the neck of his bass, sometimes nearly running out of fingerboard. MacDowell impressed with blazing lightning runs, and Denardo Coleman likewise with frenetic beats.

Notably, Falanga and Denardo Coleman also played on Coleman’s 2006 album Sound Grammar, which was honored with a Pulitzer Prize.

Although part of Coleman’s musical philosophy is that the contributions of all players be given equal weight, it was his saxophone that commanded the bulk of the attention. At times soaring, at times blistering, always fluid and expressive, it gave a moving target to focus on amid the tangle laid down by the others.

There were a few surprises, to me at least. One was when Falanga started a piece with J.S. Bach’s famous Prelude from his Cello Suite No. 1 (remember, this was on stand-up bass), which was quickly deconstructed by Coleman’s violin and sax and the others. Another was guest Mari Okubo’s experimental operatic vocalizations — certainly not to everyone’s taste but offering something quite different for one piece.

Coleman and the band did revisit the past, including the swinging “Turnaround” from his 1959 album Tomorrow Is the Question, and the lovely “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, played as an encore after the generous 90-minute set.

Wow! This concert really showed that, despite his advanced age, Coleman continues to push the boundaries of jazz.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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