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Jazz At Lincoln Center Faces The Music Of Ornette Coleman

It finally happened: Congenitally conservative trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra presented its version of Ornette Coleman's radical music. For two nights, the big band which for the past 10 years has established its purpose as codifying and institutionalizing jazz tried to assimilate the convention-defying repertoire of a composer and multi-instrumentalist who believes the world and everything in it are in a constant, complicated yet harmonious flux.

Coleman himself has performed at Lincoln Center, though never under Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsorship. Lincoln Center is a conglomerate of presenting organizations, each with its own artistic director; Marsalis is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of greater Lincoln Center's constituent organizations. The annual summertime Lincoln Center Festival, which is not a program of Jazz at Lincoln Center but can make use of the same concert halls that J@LC uses, celebrated Coleman's works in 1997 by twice presenting his symphony Skies of America, performed by his octet Prime Time and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Kurt Masur. In the same week, Coleman concertized on alto saxophone, trumpet and violin with his longtime associates, drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden, and led his electric octet Prime Time in two shows, one featuring art-rockers Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed sitting in as guests.

Some of that music was sublime, and some of it was puzzling. Coleman is a tuneful, penetrating and always bluesy saxophonist, whose sound is full of human speech patterns, laughs and cries. He has written many songs with memorable themes. But he typically uses those themes to launch himself and his fellow players into personal expressions that leave the basic rules applied to melodic variation over chord progressions and steady beats within bar structures far behind. In Prime Time, which consists of two electric guitarists, two electric bassists, electric drums, amplified Indian hand-drums (tabla), a keyboards player, and Coleman on alto sax, violin and trumpet, everyone solos on his own part simultaneously, for a clangorous update on the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz. Skies of America, first performed in 1971, asks the symphony players to take enormous liberties with the score. They are seldom willing to do so.

Virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was a classical prodigy as well as the son of a straightahead jazz pianist, has the same reluctance to embrace the essence of Coleman's concept—that all musicians are creative and spontaneous, capable of collaborating without reference to Western rules of musical conduct to raise their own consciousnesses and that of their audiences to exalted states. But he cannot dismiss Coleman's classic melodies from the 1960s the way he can reject the electric, rock and funk-related jazz adventures of Miles Davis from the 1970s. So he chose several well-accepted Coleman songs, and had them artfully arranged for his large repertory ensemble.

The arrangements gave all the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members something to do, but free improvisation was not part of the plan. The best of the charts were by saxophonist Ted Nash, for the Latin inflected "Una Muy Bonita" and the roaring finale, "Kaleidoscope". The first of these emphasized the bouncy melodies played on the original version by Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry; the second gave strong voice to Coleman's aggressive side. Lesser efforts such as trombonist Ron Westray's fussy writing for "Lonely Woman" locked in the literal qualities of the song rather than liberating its anguish. Of the soloists, only Wynton blew outside of typical harmonies on "Free", as Coleman does, though Walter Blandings on soprano sax had a nice duet with bassist Carlos Enriques on "W.R.U." Also, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, a veteran of Coleman's bands, played on "Ramblin'" and "Peace", demonstrating more originality, maturity and conviction than anyone else on the bandstand.

"These are some of Ornette's earliest compositions", Redman said when he grabbed the microphone during the concert's second half. "He has done so much more than these over the past 50 years. Let's give it up to the genius of Ornette Coleman!" The audience dutifully applauded. Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members looked ready to get back to their scores. The neat and pretty organization of Coleman's tunes may have made them accessible, reassuring and safe to the people in the audience, but it robbed them of their composer's insistence of surprise.

So the concert was mildly pleasing but also a disappointment. It presented an opportunity for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members to grow—to embrace a challenging but rejuvenating approach to music-making, to dig into themselves and come up with genuinely spontaneous, unpredictable, and deeply personal improvisations. They wouldn't have had to employ Coleman's still-controversial theory for all their future repertory concerts, but it might have been a way of thinking they could have applied his ideas when they seemed appropriate. They could have taken his songs to heart.

Strangely enough, Wynton Marsalis never mentioned Ornette Coleman's name from the bandstand, though he spoke up to credit every one of his Orchestra members for their arrangements and their solos, and even thanked those who didn't play solos that night for their contributions to the ensemble. Marsalis often speaks of jazz being about blues and swing, but another essence of jazz is its iconoclasm, its defiance of accepted conventions, its sense of permanent revolution, its demand that music be real and so always new. Marsalis's heroes Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington believed in that, and so does Ornette Coleman. Is such iconoclasm at odds with the jazz repertory movement? If jazz repertoire isn't performed to be real right now, but only to be considered as an exhibit from the past, what good is it? Jazz isn't a museum exhibit, it's a living thing. Jazz at Lincoln Center aspires to life—so let the true jazz impulse breathe, and be.