Jazz review: Ornette Coleman at Royce Hall


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It’s remarkable that even at 80 years old, Ornette Coleman can still incite outrage. His crime Wednesday night? (At least in the eyes of a few obstinate fans.) Inviting a turquoise-haired bass player whose day job happens to involve the Red Hot Chili Peppers to join him at the end of his set at a crowded Royce Hall.

As Coleman’s quartet plus a reverent Flea launched into a second song from Coleman’s rich songbook, one silver-haired man toward the front loudly groaned with an anguish that was missing only a Dylan-esque cry of “Judas!” Yet while a few sulked, clearer heads enjoyed a night of Ornette being Ornette -- following his muse anywhere it leads, inviting new sounds to the table and essentially having minimal if any regard for anyone’s expectations.


Returning to UCLA with the same double-bassed lineup that played here in 2007, Coleman was a stately, elegant presence as he slowly walked onstage in a vivid plaid suit. Easing into the mournfully melodic “Sleep Talking” from his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 album, “Sound Grammar” (the first jazz release to earn such an honor), Ornette coaxed curlicues of sound from his horn as he worked the fringe of an ever-darkening groove from his son Denardo, who has developed into a versatile, heavy-hitting drummer since backing the saxophonist at just 10 years old on a controversial 1966 album.

Framed throughout the night by the rumbling upright bass of Tony Falanga and the high, often guitar-like melodic drive of electric bassist Al McDowell, Coleman’s slippery, soaring tone still sounds like nobody else’s. Even as he touched on bursts of rapidfire exploration, deeply swung blues and a surprising venture into a sort of propulsive dance-rock on “9/11,” Coleman sounded smoother than those controversial early days, even as he punctuated his band’s movements with a few brief, fluttering lines on trumpet (which, although full of feeling, isn’t exactly Ornette’s first instrument).

But Coleman can’t resist challenging an audience. In an exquisite bit of genre-mashing, bassist Falanga began sawing a melody from Bach’s cello suites as Coleman gradually, even tentatively, accompanied him, letting the song develop before he and the rest of the band closed in with Denardo’s heavy, almost hip-hop-oriented backbeat taking the song someplace unexpected.

A pairing with Japanese vocalist Mari Okubo, however, was less successful as her operatic flourishes never fully meshed with Coleman’s melodies, testing even the hardiest listener. Later, Falanga’s bowed bass weaved the group into a gorgeously contemplative version of the classic “Peace” that brought everyone back to solid ground.

Which brings us, of course, to Flea. Although it’s worth savoring the delicious irony that any so-called Coleman purist could express outrage at the saxophonist defying tradition, there’s no denying that Flea can flat-out play, and he has been a devout jazz fan and player since he was a kid.

Keeping his eyes low and locked on Coleman, Flea’s zigzagging bass lines formed a roiling bridge between Falanga’s bowing and a few strummed chords from McDowell on the wide-open sprint “Call to Duty,” and later touched on something thick and more atmospheric on “Song World.” Although dressed in a stylishly rumpled gray suit, Flea might not have looked a jazz sideman for some with his rubbery limbs and candy-colored hair, but he sounded like one.

At a curtain call before the encore “Lonely Woman’ brought things to an achingly lovely close, Flea inched closer to Coleman before the group bow, beaming like a giddy student who needed to get closer to the master. Everyone knew exactly how he felt.


-- Chris Barton

The Ornette Coleman Quartet plays at UC Santa Barbara at 8 p.m. Friday. Campbell Hall, 574 Mesa Road, Santa Barbara. $45. (805) 893-3535.