In 1959 at the Five Spot Café in New York City, a young Ornette Coleman began to rock the jazz world on its side with the not-so-sweet sounds of free jazz. On November 5, 2010 at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall, Coleman continued to push the boundaries of music to the very limit.

Although Coleman has experimented with a rock-and-roll setup at his live shows (even venturing as far as to feature Flea, the bassist of the funk-rock group the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Coleman used the same strange instrumental setup he has for the past several years, with Tony Falanga on upright bass, Al MacDowell on electric bass, and his own son, Denardo Coleman on a fully-equipped drum kit.

Much of Coleman’s 2006 album Sound Grammar comprised most of his set, including the album’s best-known tune “Sleep Talking.” However, the melodies of “Sleep Talking,” along with the rest of the set, often got lost or confused through the overflowing amount of the quartet’s improvisation, or as Coleman calls it, “harmolodics.”
While the intensity of the harmolodics in the performance might have sounded cacophonous to a novice’s ear (and according to my novice friend, it did), the improvisation allowed Coleman to vary his set as he has for the past five decades. Coleman integrated both of his secondary instruments in the set, including a screechy violin on the fourth song, transforming the band into a set of three-string instruments with drums. This ensemble gave the set an anxious tension.

But this incongruence is probably the last thing Coleman worries about. In fact, the most riveting tune in the show began with Tony Falanga ripping through the prelude to a Bach cello suite (of all things) and closed off with Denardo Coleman’s rhythmic beats growing so heavy that he knocked over a cymbal, leaving two nervous stage-hands to fumble around the kit trying to set it up right again.

From the use of Bach’s cello suite to remnants of “Bye Bye Blackbird” on the set’s third song, the show illustrated Coleman’s tendency towards musical quotation (or song-snatching), which was pleasantly woven throughout the set and added a certain comfortable familiarity to the group’s very unfamiliar improvisations.
Still, while pushing boundaries is all good and dandy, the group’s featuring of vocalist Mari Okubo came off as a bit forced. Okubo’s vocals sat uncomfortably between opera and prolonged yelps of pain, and the quartet seemed to have a difficult time finding a common ground with her.

The audience, however, loved it and after much muffled coaxing from Falanga, Coleman returned to the stage for an encore which was a little more listener-friendly. Following the format of the evening, Falanga amazed the audience with his swift improvisation while MacDowell mimicked Coleman’s saxophone melody synchronously. Denardo held it up with hip-hop inspired beats and Coleman himself quietly played with his signature, fluttery saxophone sound.

While some of Coleman’s set may have verged on cacophony and often the members of the quartet seemed to be grooving to a somewhat inaudible groove, Ornette Coleman’s performance convincingly demonstrated that jazz is not dead; it is alive, well and reinventing itself.