NEW YORK — 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.