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All That Jazz

Ornette Coleman Resurgence Fills the Air

May 23, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the most controversial jazz figures of the last few decades, is becoming a darling of the artistic establishment. Often misunderstood, frequently distressed by his encounters with what he has described as the world of "commercial music," Coleman is experiencing a remarkable renewal.

On Thursday, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In early July, his latest composition, "? Civilization," receives its world premiere in Paris, with the U.S. premiere taking place at New York City's Lincoln Center Festival celebrating his life and art.

Other Coleman works scheduled for the festival, which runs from July 8-11, include "Skies of America," performed by Coleman's Prime Time octet with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Kurt Masur.

On July 10, he plays with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, members of his original quartet. On July 11, Coleman--with Prime Time, a rapper, dancers and video artists--performs "Tone Dialing," a work whose radical presentation style (which includes onstage body piercing) aroused significant audience reaction during its debut at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1994.

The Coleman revival is surprising, given the maverick nature of his music and--for many--its thorny listening qualities. When the Texas-born Coleman arrived on the scene in the late '50s (most visibly during a controversial New York City booking at the Five Spot Cafe in 1959), he played what was generally described as "free jazz." What that meant, essentially, was free improvisation, unrestricted by harmonies or rhythms. Coleman, with trumpeter Don Cherry (and Haden and Higgins), arrived with a repertoire of original tunes--most of them rich with blues and bebop qualities--and wide-open solos. ("In All Languages," an album chronicling a 1987 reunion of the quartet, will be released July 1 on Coleman's Harmolodic/Verve label.)

The impact upon a young generation of arriving players was powerful, and the '60s resonated with the Coleman-influenced sounds of avant-garde jazz. He developed a theoretical system--Harmolodics--which he described as the philosophical foundation for his music. And, when the avant-garde began to fade in the '70s, he created the electric, rock and blues-tinged Prime Time. By the '80s, he had become a cult figure, by the '90s, a venerated creative icon.

Coleman's current revival has been accompanied by his record deal with Verve/Polygram, which has thus far resulted in the release of four CDs of new material since 1995. And many titles from his '70s and '80s albums on the Artist House and Caravan of Dreams labels are scheduled for release.

In retrospect, much of Coleman's earlier work--especially his Atlantic and Contemporary albums--is pleasantly listenable. The appealing, Texas blues quality that is at the heart of his music touches all of his soloing, regardless of whether or not he is playing in meter or with explicit harmonies.

His later works (especially after he took up the trumpet and the violin) can be more difficult. And the orchestral pieces--assembled with minimal orchestrating skills--are fascinating primarily as large-scale reflections of his smaller musical perspectives.

But there's no denying the 67-year-old Coleman's importance as a jazz iconoclast. And it's good to see a jazz artist of his stature receive this kind of well-deserved recognition.

Playboy Update: Los Van Van, the Cuban band that blends jazz, rock and Caribbean rhythms into a signature style described as "Songo," has received permission to perform at next month's 19th annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. The band's performance on June 14 will be its debut appearance at a major jazz festival in the United States. Limited seating is still available for the festival. Information: (310) 449-4070.

On the Radio: KLON station manager Judy Jankowski reports that the station--the Southland's primary jazz outlet--has become a member of National Public Radio.

"We've been trying to do it for quite a while," she said, "so that we can have access to their fine jazz programming . . . ."

Although a schedule has not yet been set, Jankowski anticipates adding four NPR jazz programs to KLON's lineup by July: "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz," "Jazz Set With Branford Marsalis," "Jazz Profiles," hosted by Nancy Wilson, and "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center." KLON's acquisition of the membership returns NPR jazz shows--which have been largely unavailable since KPCC's change in programming earlier this year--to Southland jazz fans.

Free Music: Saxophonist Harvey Wainapel performs at two free programs this weekend with a quintet. The first is tonight at the L.A. County Museum of Art, 5:30 p.m. (213) 857-6000. The second is at Pedrini Music's afternoon concert Saturday at 1:30, (818) 289-0241.

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