WITH CLASSICAL GROUPS like the Kronos Quartet and pop figures like Pat Metheny recording his works, Ornette Coleman's enormous impact on modern music has never been clearer. The "harmolodic" school in any key that has grown up around the softspoken Texas composer, bandleader and saxophonist continues to create much of the most exciting music in jazz today. "Harmolodic" is Coleman's term for his theory of harmony, movement and melody which allows for simultaneous improvisation within an ensemble context.
The concert by two Coleman alumni, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, scheduled for Friday at d.c. space, has been canceled because Cherry will be in Japan with Coleman. The vacuum can be filled with the abundance of new harmolodic recordings, including one of the best albums of Coleman's career.
ORNETTE COLEMAN -- "In All Languages" (Caravan of Dreams CDP85008). Coleman celebrates "30 years of harmolodic music" with a double album that features his original 1957 quartet on one record and his 1987 Prime Time septet on the other. Seven of the 18 compositions are tackled by both hands in turn, and the similarities prove more striking than the differences. The acoustic quartet offers a more patient, less cluttered sound, while the electric septet is more urgent and bristling.
It is astonishing how the singing melodies and skidding rhythms remain the same in each setting. For all the talk about his role as a musical iconoclast, too little attention is paid to Coleman's gorgeous and heartfelt melodies. Never have those melodies been as striking or as accessible as they are here. Nor has the level of playing around the composer ever been as consistent. This is the best Prime Time album ever and very nearly the best quartet record too. It's the best possible introduction to Coleman's music.
RONALD SHANNON JACKSON & THE DECODING SOCIETY -- "When Colors Play" (Caravan of Dreams CDP85009). Of all Coleman's disciples, none has grasped the role of melody and movement in harmolodics better than his old drummer Jackson. After a three-year recording hiatus Jackson is back with some of his best music ever, six pieces inspired by his trips through West Africa but unmistakably American in their tuneful propulsion. The new, improved Decoding Society boasts two saxophonists and two guitarists whose lyrical solos seem to be elevated by Jackson's churning rhythms.
POWER TOOLS -- "Strange Meeting" (Antilles New Directions 7 90627-1). Jackson joins his old bassist Melvin Gibbs and his old production client Bill Frisell for this project. Three numbers are Jimi Hendrix-like barn-burners, with Frisell's guitar screaming over the full-tilt charge of Jackson and Gibbs. The other seven tunes are more reflective. Frisell's guitar assumes a liquid, languid approach, while Gibbs and Jackson roam with a light touch, in search of melody as much as rhythm. This isn't as well thought out as the disc by Jackson's working band, but it has its moments, including a surprising march version of "Unchained Melody."
GREG OSBY AND SOUND THEATER -- "Greg Osby and Sound Theater" (JMT 870 011). Osby has never played with Coleman, but this young New York alto saxophonist has obviously modeled himself on the master. You can hear the harmolodic influence in the way Osby's striking sax melodies dart this way and that, and in the way the rhythm keeps shifting and never settles down. Osby incorporates Japanese folk music and mainstream jazz into his compositions without losing his distinctive voice. With strong support from pianist Michele Rosewoman and bassist Lonnie Plaxico, Osby makes a most promising debut on this import album.
JEAN-PAUL BOURELLY -- "Jungle Cowboy" (JMT 870 009). James "Blood" Ulmer is Coleman's best known guitarist, and Bourelly has clearly patterned his own sound after Ulmer's mix of harmolodics and Hendrix. Bourelly leans more towards Hendrix than Coleman, which makes sense, because he's a better singer but weaker guitarist. Despite guest appearances by the likes of Julius Hemphill and Andrew Cyrille the album falls into too many funk cliches, but it does suggest that he might be the first to translate harmolodics into a pop song structure.