Ornette Coleman, Royal Festival Hall, London

Deep blues and high notes from the soaring free spirit of jazz
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The Independent Culture

Free jazz legend Ornette Coleman closed his 2009 Meltdown with a typically eclectic gig featuring rock bassist Flea, a north African percussion troupe, his current quartet and Charlie Haden, the bassist for the original Coleman quartet behind seminal albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Tonight's closing gig for the 2011 London Jazz Festival features that same quartet of two basses – Tony Falanga on acoustic and Al MacDowell on five-string electric bass – Coleman's son Denardo on drums, and the man himself on sax for most of the night, with forays on trumpet and violin.

It kicks off in high gear, with MacDowell's electric bass filling the rhythm guitar role with thick chords whose sounds evoke a swing-era band playing in some far-off room. Coleman can make his sax sound like a swimmer gasping for air, then take it down to the belly notes and open it up like a vista into the architecture of a classic blues, as inexorable and perpetual as a drawing by Escher. Coleman may be 81, but his energy is relentless, and it's matched by his quartet. The drummer looks like he's on speeded-up film, before slowing the pace for what sounds like a Gothic spaghetti Western, but with fire eating away at the edge of the screen, which is where Coleman's sax comes in, the drum falling in to a pimp's roll and the music going out on the prowl.

This is group improvisation upon a firm but ever-changing architecture, music you can lean on without falling over – thick, rich, big in scale. It has an imaginative pulse, a kind of bat's radar for measuring the shape of the music to come, right as it is happening. The quartet's take on Bach's Cello Suite No 1 begins with bowed bass before the unformed cluster of another tune begins rising up like steam from a vent. Towards the close, basses and sax unite in a florid balladeering, an old bues with petticoats and strong shadows. You watch the band huddled in a small cluster of lights at the very front of the stage as if this were a private work in progress. The encore following a 12-song set is a lyrical flight of fancy on saxophone, child's play in the hands of an old master with the kind of sound that makes you feel you've travelled a long way from your seat. Another triumph for the future sound of jazz.

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