Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ornette Coleman's "The Atlantic Years"

To be a jazz fan is to be a fan of eras more than specific records. This is particularly true for artists who were active prior to the advent of LPs, but also after.

F'rinstance, when I was slinging platters at Panther City Vinyl awhile back, a customer came in seeking Billie Holiday. The question then becomes which Billie: young and exuberant (her early, John Hammond-produced Columbias, made for the jukebox market with small groups comprising the cream of the era's jazz soloists), in her hitmaking prime (the arranged, orchestrated sides she cut with Milt Gabler for Commodore and Decca), or mature and diminished (the small group dates she cut for Norman Granz at Verve, when her instrument was showing the ravages of hard living)? "Most damaged," the customer said, which made the choice simple, since I'd spied a copy of Lady In Satin, Billie's Columbia swan song, made with an orchestra when her voice was but a husk, but she could still get by on her phrasing alone.

A discriminating friend refers to pre-Bitches Brew Miles Davis as "suit Miles" -- a far cry from the acolytes of the highly individuated trumpeter-bandleader's earlier work who dismissed his '70s oeuvre when it was new.

Listening to Ornette Coleman's Atlantic albums -- to be reissued May 11 in a 10 LP box by Rhino -- it's instructive to remember how controversial the Fort Worth native's music was when he first emerged on the national scene at the end of the '50s. (A 2006 tome about his quartet's debut New York City engagement bears the title The Battle of the Five Spot.) Coleman's "classic" quartet -- himself on alto saxophone, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins -- superficially sounded like bebop, the style -- highlighted by velocity and harmonic complexity -- that had dominated jazz since the end of World War II. But Coleman's compositions eschewed the Tin Pan Alley chord changes that had provided the basis for jazz improvisation since Armstrong, adopting a freer approach to melodic invention -- even freer than Miles (Kind of Blue) and John Coltrane (Giant Steps), who were using modes and scales, rather than chords, as the basis for their explorations around the same time. His horn and his tunes had the cry of the blues he'd come up playing in Texas, and a vocalized quality that came as close as any music has to the sound of human lamentation, while sometimes sounding as simple as children's nursery rhymes. As much as these sides sound like heartbeat today, back in '59, they had the capacity to drive supporters/detractors to levels of vituperation and spleen worthy of today's social media flame wars.

Coleman went on to compose for classical ensembles (most notably his symphony Skies of America, recorded for Columbia in 1972 and performed by the Fort Worth Symphony in 1983, during the week when Mayor Bob Bolen presented Ornette the key to the city) and perform with an electric band, Prime Time (whose 1976 debut recording for A&M Horizon, Dancing In Your Head, upset at least as many people as the original quartet's Five Spot stand had). He recorded extensively, for labels including ESP-Disk, Blue Note, Flying Dutchman, Artists House, Antilles, Caravan of Dreams (sentimental favorite at my house), and Verve. But the Atlantics hold a special place in his canon, not just because of their historic and groundbreaking nature, but because of the fidelity with which the New York engineers Atlantic employed were able to capture the sound of the acoustic group. (To hear what I mean, side-by-side these with the recordings similarly configured Coleman units waxed for Impulse and Columbia.)

The Rhino box includes the six original LPs that were released between 1959 and 1961, three LPs of session outtakes that appeared between 1970 and 1975 (one of those only in Japan), and a tenth disc, The Ornette Coleman Legacy, containing six additional outtakes that first saw the light of day in 1993 on Rhino's Beauty Is A Rare Thing CD box, here making their first appearance on vinyl.

Originally released in 1959, The Shape of Jazz To Come introduces signature Coleman compositions "Lonely Woman" (in which a dirge-like theme unfolds over a hyperactive rhythm section, a trademark of Ornette's) and "Peace," while Change of the Century boasts more assured playing from the quartet on numbers like "Ramblin'" (which includes a Charlie Haden bass solo from which punk-era Brit Ian Dury stole the melody he used in "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll"), "Free," and "Una Muy Bonita" (which shows that Ornette was listening to the mariachi music he heard growing up in Fort Worth). Released in 1960, This Is Our Music is the first recording of Ed Blackwell -- whose playing shows the influence of his home city, New Orleans -- in place of Billy Higgins on drums. (Following a narcotics bust, Higgins -- unable to play New York clubs -- became a house drummer for Blue Note Records, performing on epoch-defining sides like Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder.") On the track "Beauty Is A Rare Thing," the quartet improvises freely without a regular pulse, looking forward to the Art Ensemble of Chicago's sonic experiments. A version of the Gershwin brothers' "Embraceable You" applies Coleman's methods to Tin Pan Alley material.

Besides providing a name for a genre (although Ornette didn't dig the label), Free Jazz was unprecedented when it appeared in 1961 -- a collective improvisation by a "double quartet" (the gigging unit of Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell, augmented by Higgins, heroic multi-reedman Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and bassist Scott LaFaro) that took up both sides of an LP. (When Dolphy was in Charles Mingus' band, the titanic bassist-composer had challenged him and trumpeter Ted Curson to play like Ornette and Cherry after hearing the Coleman quartet at the Five Spot. It's no surprise, then, that the track "Folk Forms No. 1" from the 1960 LP Mingus Presents Mingus sounds a lot like "Ramblin'.") The ensemble plays dissonant fanfares before and between each musician's solo turn (with commentary from the ensemble). Much of it sounds rather tame, particularly rhythmically, in comparison to later works in similar vein by Coltrane (Ascension) or Peter Brotzmann (Machine Gun), but Free Jazz was the template. As mentioned earlier, the recording quality is notably superior to the '71 sides Coleman cut with a septet for Columbia (released on 1972's Science Fiction and 1982's Broken Shadows).

LaFaro, best known for his work with pianist Bill Evans, replaced Haden (struggling with narcotics addiction) for the 1961 release Ornette! (which came replete with cryptic initialized titles derived from Sigmund Freud's works). He's a busier player than the dark, brooding Haden, and his momentum pushes Coleman and Cherry, whose interaction by now was approaching telepathy. For Ornette On Tenor, released in 1962, Coleman returns to the larger horn he hadn't played since his Texas rhythm and blues days, and Jimmy Garrison supersedes LaFaro (killed in a car accident) on bass. John Coltrane was listening, and stole Garrison to serve as the last element in his own "classic" quartet. Following this album, Coleman disbanded his quartet and formed a trio with another Fort Worth expatriate, drummer Charles Moffett, and bassist David Izenzon. Cherry and Higgins joined Sonny Rollins' band. They'd also made a record for Atlantic, including some Coleman tunes, with Coltrane. Ornette's influence was spreading. The original quartet members would reunite for the aforementioned Columbia sessions in '71.

Meanwhile, Atlantic released two compilations of Coleman outtakes in '70 and '71. The Art of the Improvisers offers a nice cross-section of work by the '59-'61 bands, with LaFaro and Garrison on one track each. Twins features "First Take," a more succinct 17-minute run-through of "Free Jazz,"  and session outtakes from The Shape of Jazz To Come, This Is Our Music, and Ornette! The 1975 Japanese-only release To Whom Who Keeps A Record is essentially an alternate This Is Our Music, with all but one '59 track originating from those sessions. The Ornette Coleman Legacy is a further testament to the level of creativity at which Coleman and Co. were operating during those 1960 sessions: five of the tracks were cut on a single day in July, with another from the Ornette! sessions to fill out the LP.

The accompanying booklet gives you liner notes by Ben Ratliff -- the New York Times' last great jazz critic! -- and photos by Lee Friedlander to engage you verbally and visually while the records spin. Taken altogether, The Atlantic Years is an impressive edifice and a nice cornerstone for a jazz record collection.


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