The pros of improvising

One of the great features of the long-running Open Gate Theatre series is the local platform it provides for cutting-edge musicians from Northern California. Experimental music needs exposure to grow, and the precious few opportunities to hear such work tend to make musical mavericks feel isolated. Open Gate has forged an important bond with San Francisco and Los Angeles avant gardists.

Accordingly, Sunday's concert at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock showcases important experimentalists from San Francisco: saxophonist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh, and the duo of reedman Phillip Greenleaf and percussionist Nick Tamburro.

It's also the 16th anniversary of the series co-produced by Alex Cline and Will Salmon. That's an extraordinary milestone for music whose outlets seldom have any sense of permanence. “Will and I decided to make it a monthly series,” says Cline, from his Culver City home, “rather than weekly. It didn't put so much pressure on the rest of our lives. That's probably what's ensured our longevity.”

Cline will play drums for Modirzadeh's band, with contrabass virtuoso Mark Dresser (up from San Diego, where he teaches at UC San Diego). Modirzadeh, Dresser, Cline and trumpeter Amir El Saffar recorded the unassumingly spectacular album, “Radif Suite” (Pi Recordings, 2010), under the saxophonist's leadership. The music brings to mind the fluid ensemble interplay and solo articulation of the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet of the early 1960s, yet there's something more.

Fifty-year-old Modirzadeh has seriously addressed Coleman's harmolodic system (equal value for harmony, melody, rhythm and motion), and found a meeting place for Persian scales and modes. “I wanted to reconcile Persian modality and jazz harmony,” he says from his home in San Francisco. “What I call ‘chromodal' is a dialogue between musicians who come from different musical systems without having to compromise themselves.”

Born in Durham, N.C., to an Iranian father and American mother, Modirzadeh played for many years out of the post-bebop tradition. He cites John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson as inspirations. Theorist/composer George Russell expanded his conception at the New England Conservatory, and study with Persian violin master Mahmoud Zoufonoun gave Hafez a larger view of music. “Russell's cycle of fifths was brilliant,” he offers, “and I discovered that it's consonant with the Persian intervals.”

A 2007 interface with Coleman himself through the San Francisco Jazz Festival revealed the mysteries of harmolodics. “Ornette is a living prophet,” Modirzadeh declares. “He doesn't say much about his music, but it's all explained in the tunes themselves. He liberated me from my own system and set my melodies free.”

No stranger to SoCal, Modirzadeh did his doctoral dissertation at UCLA. A 2009 booking at the old Jazz Bakery in Culver City brought him together with Dresser and Cline. Sunday's concert has the saxophonist in a state of delicious anticipation for the addition of cornetist Bobby Bradford, one of the two remaining original Coleman collaborators (the other is bassist Charlie Haden). “It's a great honor for me that Bobby wants to play this gig,” Modirzadeh says. “With musicians like Bobby, Mark and Alex, the music is almost secondary; I don't have to give it much thought. Their spirits are so rich in the common humanity that it's affirming. We give each other courage.”

For his part, Bradford notes Modirzadeh's grasp of Coleman's encompassing concepts and musical syntax. “I heard him up north in 2007,” the cornetist discloses from his Altadena home. “I thought: ‘He's really on Ornette's case.' He's a terrific player — all over the horn. And I can count on one thumb the players who can really get to what Ornette is all about.”

What: Hafez Modirzadeh Quartet with Bobby Bradford, with Alex Cline and others.

Where: Center for the Arts, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock

When: Sunday, March 3, 7 p.m.

Admission: $10

Contact: (323) 226-1617,


KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World