This year's JVC Jazz Festival has added a new wrinkle - or rather a New Age wrinkle - to its usual fare of mainstream jazz and fusion. Festival producer George Wein set aside an evening early in the ongoing event for guitarist Alex de Grassi's band and the group Shadowfax - two well-known New Age acts - to perform at Carnegie Hall. Other performances so far have included Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Chick Corea, and the Count Basie Orchestra, as well as the usual piano recital series and David Chertok's ``Giants of Jazz on Film.'' One outstanding event was the appearance of saxophonist Ornette Coleman with his original quartet.
The De Grassi/Shadowfax concert was a strange affair, drawing an entirely different crowd than one usually sees at the festival. Upscale babyboomers came out in droves to hear their favorite music. De Grassi thanked Mr. Wein for ``taking a chance on something different'' and then launched into a set that had only the most tenuous relationship to jazz. But never mind - De Grassi never said it was jazz. He did take a couple of solos that sounded sort of jazzy, but the rest of the music was a mixture of folk and classical, with a rock backup. Most of the music was soothing and dreamy - lots of one-chord drones and pretty melodies.
Shadowfax, a sextet using saxophone, bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, lyricon (an electronic wind instrument), and violin, played slightly more intense music, with ethnic, especially Middle Eastern, overtones. The group created a wall of sound with little definition, except for some repeated melodies and mildly insistent percussion. The music was close to rock but didn't inspire the response from the audience that rock bands usually do. Most people sat very still in their seats, a few moving their heads ever so slightly. Truly, this music demands very little of the listener - the idea seems to be to relax and let it wash over you.
And then there was the World Saxophone Quartet - what a contrast! These four men play without a rhythm section and have proved time and again that they don't need one. At their concert at Town Hall, they strutted about the stage, playing riveting jazz that was grounded equally in the blues and the avant-garde.
Hamiett Bluiett set up a bluesy bass line on his baritone sax, and the others (David Murray, Julius Hemphill, and Oliver Lake) soloed freely over it, making their horns talk and squawk. Then Bluiett took center stage and played unbelievably high notes on his low sax, eliciting gasps from the audience. At one point, all four joined in harmony on a wonderfully quirky melody, then jumped into a totally cacophonous yet somehow cohesive improvised section, and then, with the slightest cue from Hemphill, they landed back on the melody with perfect timing. Although the quartet has made numerous albums, it's best to hear them live so you won't miss their humorous ``choreography'' and subtle clowning.
But the stellar event of the festival thus far was the appearance of saxophonist Ornette Coleman at Town Hall with his original quartet: Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. This was the group that turned the jazz world on its ear back in the early '60s and still sounds fresh today. Coleman opened up with his current band, Prime Time, a rock-based outfit with two drummers, two bassists, and two guitarists. Then he brought out his quartet to a standing ovation. Coleman, the most lyrical of the so-called avant-garde players, played affectingly on pieces that were associated with the quartet - each one a reminder of how he had redefined bebop and the blues with his extraordinary originality. Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell were all in excellent form - truly an unforgettable evening.
The festival concludes this weekend with performances by Diane Schuur, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, Chuck Berry, Tania Maria, Spyro Gyra, Rub'en Blades, Hank Jones, and many others. For information, call (212) 787-2020.