Saxophone colossus Odean Pope is not aging gracefully

That's a compliment.

The Philadelphia tenor axman, 70, is renowned for devout Coltrane-like muscularity and tonal sensitivity; versatility as a leader, whether it's the nine reeds of his churchy Saxophone Choir or the cinematic funk of Catalyst; and potency in sessions with rhythmatists Max Roach and Art Blakey.

Pope showed during Friday's Ars Nova Workshop show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance that he continues to breathe fire, improvising while holding dear each melody as if in a lover's embrace.

Pope caressed every tuneful phrase, from the gentle arpeggio and subtone-blown warmth of his solo on the self-penned ballad "Tall Grass" to his hasty, tasty blips of Coltrane and Monk. He let each melodic phrase run away for a playful moment, entreating it with a deep skronk or a soft high squeak, before pulling each back for another warm kiss. Pope showed affection for Clifford Brown by emulating, then reinventing, the bop trumpeter's complex riffs.

Half the credit for that passion and inventiveness went to Pope's duet partner, Sunny Murray, 72. The free drummer and composer worked with giants (Albert Ayler, Don Cherry) and has turned percussion into a punctuation-heavy conversation rather than mere keeping time. Friday night was no different. But Murray, an engaging leader with albums under his name since 1965, didn't just make weird rhythm or monologues out of odd propulsion, though he could be heard mumbling and chanting during Pope's quietest subtone solos. Murray pursued a fascinating chatter with Pope, engaging the saxophonist in dialogue even when he seemed to be drumming to himself. Where Pope was cool and scholarly, Murray was a portrait of chance with cymbal rides loud, rim shots tap-dancey, and brush strokes splashy. At one point, Murray's sticks on his snare's skins sounded as if he were sanding silk.

Sauntering scattered moments like Murray's "An Even Break (Never Give a Sucker)" turned into something like a free-jazz My Dinner With Andre, with its principles winding through existential dilemmas, random circumstance, and matters of the heart.