After nearly two decades, a musical epoch in jazz, the style could almost be considered classical. Yet, despite the passage of time and the reinforcement of the concert hall setting at Lincoln Center, the sounds were still revolutionary enough to drive some uneasy listeners from Avery Fisher Hall.

Ornette Coleman, highlighting this year's Newport Jazz Festival, appeared here for the first time in three years in a program Thursday night that bridged his avant-garde breakthrough style of the '60s and current format: a plugged-in, two guitar, two-drum and bass powerhouse behind his alto saxophone explorations.

What was remarkable was the continuing freshness and validity of Coleman's original contribution - free rhythmic and harmonic improvisation against a scaffolding of form.

His assertive, tubular saxophone tone wandered freely between and within keys, chords, melodies and rhythms, but the musical thoughts were always precisely shaped and unfolded logically and succinctly.

In a program note, Coleman explained that his "music is made up of written and unwritten parts. The players have their written parts to play and the freedom to play any musical idea, providing they can return to the original part at will."

Terming this style of playing "harmolodic," Coleman said "it is a music that fulfills one's musical views without being restricted to form."

Coleman was hailed as the successor to Charlie Parker when he turned the jazz world on its ear in the late '50s and helped push the sounds of jazz instruments to their improvisational and expressive limits in the "free jazz" style of the ensuing years. He demonstrated at the concert that his musical ideas remain as provocative as ever.

In the first half of the program, Coleman was reunited with many musicians who were part of the experimental groups h led in the '60s.

The octet included Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, David Iznezohn and Buster Williams, both on bass, drumers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, and James Blood Ulmer on guitar.

The highlight of the opening set was its final number, "Sound Amoeba," which gave each musiciana chance to play an extended unaccompanied solo. The piece concluded on a brief ensemble chorus.

There was no flagging of interest in the dazzling succession of exposed solos. Each was articulated distinctively and the wide-ranging improvisations were filled with interesting musical ideas and technical execution that avoided being either excessive or repetitious.

Particularly noteworthy was the sizzling solo by Ed Blackwell, who scored with restrained brush and cymball work that was typical of the economy of musical expression displayed by all.

At other points in the set the entire group hurtled forward in abandoned simulatneous improvisations, led by Coleman's high-keening saxophone sound and Cherry' piercing trumpet and supported by the textured rumble of the large rhythm section.

While the reunion was sentimental there was nothing backward-looking or nostalgic about the music.

The second half of the concert was the eagerly anticipated appearance of Prime Time, Coleman's current group with whom he recently recorded his first album in five years, "Dancing in Your Head."

Prime Time relies on rock instrumentation but sounds nothing like the slickly homogenized marriage of jazz and rock that many five jazz soloists, like George Benson, are now playing to win a wider audience.

If there is any concession to popularity, it is the firm predictable beat of the tandem drumming of Shannon Jackson and Ornette Denardo Coleman the saxophonist's son. Otherwise man the saxophonists's son. Otherwise the playing is ruggedly unpredictable.

At the creative center of the group are Coleman and lead guitarist Bernard Nix, who together strike the sparks.

Coleman, resplendent in a sky-blue embroidered silk suit he donned for the second set, alternately sparred and intertwined with Nix's guitar.

On "Sleep Talking," the two alternated in a call-response pattern, with a hypnotic guitar figure each time evoking an impassioned reply from the saxophone. On "Mukami," a tune named after Coleman's wife, Nix played a long-lined melody that sounded like an exotic version of "the nearness of you," an old standard with Coleman threading his way through the notes.

The evening ended with "Song X" in which Coleman produced some of his most energized blowing of the entire evening concert. Besides his alto, Coleman also played the trumpet for several solos as well as the bass clarinet.

Coleman, now 47, plans to follow his New York concert with a tour. It is good news that he has returned to performing publicly in such a creatively self-assured way.