On a balmy night, as thousands of New Yorkers circled ’round Battery Park looking for a way into the concert area and trying to figure out the ticketing system (although this music was at one time known as “free jazz,” this was that rare open-air event with a ticket price), the whole scene struck most of us as a “harmelodic” occurrence. For roughly 30 years out of the 40 that Ornette Coleman has reigned as jazz’s preeminent “philosopher king” (in Gary Giddins’ term), the saxophonist and composer has been talking about something called harmelodics. No one knows quite what it means, although it seems to connote both a musical-performance system and a broad-based political social ideology.
This three-hour concert could be seen both as a retrospective of Coleman’s amazing career and as a sampling of all the various strata of music he’s involved in today, which can be organized as pop or folk (Global Expression), classical (Freedom Symbol), and, for lack of a better word, jazz (the classic trio with Haden and Higgins).
The Global Expression unit had the most possibilities: on his classic 1976 album “Dancing in Your Head,” Coleman recorded with both the Master Musicians of Joujaka and, in their first appearance on record, his electric funk ensemble Prime Time. Global Expressions combines both strains, the pop feel of Prime Time but with Eastern acoustic instruments and chanting instead of heavy electronics.
The half-hour composition “Freedom Symbol” utilized a chamber orchestra of 10 strings, plus woodwinds, one trumpeter (Lew Soloff) and tympany. The ensemble sections were vaguely reminiscent of Bartok and Stravinsky, but contain some dazzling writing for strings, which makes the most out of the pull between consonance and dissonance.
The concert’s first two segments, however, may qualify as merely interesting more than fully satisfying: One couldn’t tell if “Global Expressions” suffered because of an unfocused ensemble or a poor sound system, but between the chanting and the Indian percussion, it was often difficult to decipher what was going on.
“Freedom Symbol,” bogged down by a very long string of completely unaccompanied solos (of which Soloff’s was by far the most riveting) by virtually all 20 musicians, is a concert work not well served by the alfresco venue and picnic atmosphere.
By contrast, most were there to hear one of the unfortunately infrequent reunions of the legendary Coleman trio with Haden and Higgins, and the threesome more than delivered with a short but pungent set at the end of the evening.
This group is one of the great joys in all of music: at times a collective, with alto, bass and drums all playing an equal role, at times with Coleman’s sinewy alto charging ahead while H and H provide support.
Haden is best known as leader of Quartet West, an ensemble devoted to preserving classic American songs, and one couldn’t help but feel that Coleman’s lines, which are metrical and conventionally in tune, are not all that different from the great pop standards that jazzmen typically jam on.
Forty-one years after he rocked the jazz world to its foundation with his breakthrough album “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” one point that no one could have sensed in 1959 becomes clear — that Coleman’s music has more in common with what came before it than with what came after it.
“We hope you enjoyed yourselves this evening,” Coleman said at the end of the night, “and if you didn’t, perhaps you will next time.” This too is harmelodic.