APPEARS WITH HIS TWO BANDS : ORNETTE COLEMAN EXPLORES OLD, NEW

A wave of laughter rippled through the capacity crowd of 1,500 at Town Hall here when Charlie Haden began stuffing cotton into his ears near the end of Ornette Coleman's JVC Jazz Festival appearance Tuesday. Haden, the acoustic bassist with Coleman's reunited original quartet, was merely taking precautionary measures as the members of the composer/saxophonist's current Primetime band trouped on stage and plugged in their instruments before joining the quartet for the finale of the 2 1/2-hour performance.

When the combined groups concluded an appealingly light-hearted version of "Theme From a Symphony," the audience responded with a five-minute standing ovation that brought Coleman back from the wings for a curtain call. More importantly the performance established that Coleman's singular approach to music--which he calls harmolodic and still defies precise explanation--remains uncompromisingly distinctive in whatever context he places it.

The reunion of Coleman, Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell (who replaced Billy Higgins in the lineup much as he had during the quartet's initial New York appearance in the early '60s) for their first live performance in 25 years made Coleman an inescapable presence in the New York media in the weeks preceding the concert. The New York Times ran one article touting the performance as "one of the jazz events of the decade," and Village Voice devoted its quarterly centerfold supplement to Coleman and his music.

And the group's powerful, assured performance offered ample evidence that its remarkable ensemble empathy hadn't diminished over the years. The sound may have eerily echoed those early Coleman albums on Atlantic Records but the freshness and originality of his style imbued the music with a contemporary vitality.

Focusing on new material like the spicy Spanish-flavored Latin genetics helped deflate any nostalgic expectations, even if the biggest audience response was reserved for "Lonely Woman," an early classic with mournful horns rising over Haden's melancholy-based drone. Haden and Blackwell were outstanding throughout the set in maintaining an insistently physical pulse while Coleman's lyrical blues-tinged alto sax solos were constantly inventive.

The one weak link Tuesday was Cherry, who wore a sour, distracted expression and didn't come close to filling his role as front-line foil to Coleman. He consistently failed to hit high notes, faltered noticeably on the faster tempos and ran short of ideas during his solos.

Despite sound problems, Primetime's opening set showed that the septet has matured considerably since its last Los Angeles appearance. With twin electric guitar-electric bass-drum trios flanking Coleman, Primetime's dense sound lacks the wide-open atmosphere or the cohesive focal point that the formidable Haden-Blackwell tandem provided the quartet.

But Primetime has made enormous strides in employing dynamics and leaving enough space for the individual instruments to be heard. The stop-on-a-dime ending to the break-neck "Biosphere" elicited gasps from the crowd and the lyrical, round-like introduction to "Story Tellers" by bassists Jamaaladeena Tacuma and Al MacDowell cleverly shifted into a hard funk back beat behind Coleman's yearning, bluesy lead. The ebullient drumming of Calvin Weston and shaven-sculled guitarist Bern Nix's canny chords and spidery single springlines were highlights throughout the set.

During a Monday afternoon interview in the Manhattan offices of his legal advisers, Coleman said that future live appearances by the original quartet, either by itself or jointly with Primetime, depends on ironing out scheduling conflicts. But the New York concert was only part of a plan Coleman, 57, has devised around his just-released double album, "In All Languages," on the small, Texas-based Caravan of Dreams label.

By featuring the quartet and Primetime performing new material--and having both bands interpret six of the same pieces--Coleman hopes to focus attention purely on his music rather than the labels used to categorize it.

Coleman's career is on a high-profile roll by his standards. After 15 years of sporadic album releases on a variety of labels, he has apparently found a home with Caravan of Dreams. In addition to "In All Languages," the company has released Primetime's live "Opening the Caravan of Dreams" and "Prime Design/Time Design," a piece for string quartet and percussion inspired by the late Buckminster Fuller, in the last year. Coleman's "Song X" collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny in 1986 was a critical and commercial success that introduced his music to a wider audience.

The wide-ranging exposure and acceptance of his music is a far cry from the days when Coleman was alternately hailed as an innovator and denounced as a charlatan. Coleman gradually won over most of his critics as his career progressed through the '60s and early '70s but never enjoyed any commercial success. But he never thought his music was uncommercial.

"I always thought commercial music meant like there's only one Coca-Cola so it's automatically commercial," Coleman said. "Since no one was playing the way I was, I thought that I would just automatically be commercial.

"Only in '75 did I ever get on a bandstand and play something that I had recorded. Until then, it would always be a brand new program because I thought this was the way of the creative person. I wasn't making any money but I was making lots of music."

But Coleman's vehicle for making music changed dramatically after two trips to Africa in the early '70s where he played with Nigerian street musicians and the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco. On his return, he began shifting to electronic instrumentation to come closer to the huge, 100-plus piece of harmolodic orchestra he still dreams of assembling one day.

That shift sparked another ongoing round of controversy, particularly when Coleman began working with younger musicians in Primetime grounded in funk and rock as well as jazz. But Coleman remains adamant about continuing to allow each musician to freely interpret his melodies.

"It really amazes me when all of a sudden one guy will play a note or a rhythm and just light up everything," he said. "You never know when it's gonna happen but you couldn't have that if you had a guy playing only one thing."

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