Today, when we hear the first notes of “Lonely Woman,” the first track on the first album Ornette Coleman made for Atlantic Records, very little about the composition, now a classic, or the way it’s played—by Coleman, alto saxophone; Don Cherry, cornet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums—sounds all that avant-garde. If everything is relative, our musical judgments are no exception. We’ve had nearly 60 years, since “Lonely Woman” opened The Shape of Jazz to Come, to assimilate far more radical schemes of improvisation, both solo and collective. But many listeners in 1959 hadn’t yet made the jump, and the required ear/brain adjustments, from swing and bebop to the morphing harmonies, keening melodies, almost Cubist structures, and ensemble elasticity of Coleman’s music. The great trumpeter Roy Eldridge famously said, “I think he’s jiving baby.”
Musicians, critics, and audiences worldwide came around to Ornette, some quickly, some in due time. His early champions included Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, and by the time he died, in 2015 at 85, Coleman was a beloved icon who had played with the Grateful Dead, performed in major symphony halls, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music and a Grammy award for lifetime achievement.
In terms of recordings, Coleman sprang into the jazz world with Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is the Question!, the albums he tracked for the Los Angeles–based Contemporary Records before signing with Atlantic Records. Coleman’s Atlantic years, from spring 1959 to spring 1961, resulted in six studio albums—The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette!, and Ornette on Tenor—the sessions for which yielded more than two hours of outtakes to fill four more albums—The Art of Improvisers, Twins, To Whom Who Keeps a Record, and The Ornette Coleman Legacy.
Coleman would of course go on to mastermind even more expansive works such as Science Fiction and Skies of America, and blaze his own “harmolodic” trail into the 1970s terrain of electrified jazz-rock-funk with his band Prime Time, and continue to seek out collaborators with whom he could push at boundaries, undermine expectations, and attain, and communicate, a kind of sonic and emotional ecstasy. In later years these collaborators included pianists Geri Allen and Joachim Kuhn, and bassists Gregory Cohen and Tony Falangan, most usually with Coleman’s son, Denardo, on drums. But this collection, newly issued on ten 180-gram vinyl LPs—the fruits of Coleman’s labors with producer Nesuhi Ertegun and engineers Bones Howe, early on in Hollywood, and Tom Dowd in New York City—deserves to be enshrined as one of the holy grails of jazz—and of 20th-century music in general.
Returning these titles to high-quality vinyl with remastered audio (by John Webber at AIR Studio) is the scaffold for the physical enshrinement. This material has been anthologized before, on the Rhino CD box set, Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. But as soon as you settle your stylus into the groove—of “Lonely Woman,” “Ramblin’,” “Blues Connotation,” or “Cross Breeding”—you hear what a difference the LP makes. Sound stages are more three-dimensional. The horns have more heft in their tones and timbres. Bass notes are bigger, drums and cymbals better defined. And that aural umami we call warmth is palpable in the spaces between. You make the experience that much richer when you hold the European-style 1960s LP jackets, take in the 12x12 cover art, and pore over engrossing and enlightening liner notes by Coleman, Martin Williams, Gunther Schuller, and A.B. Spellman.
Most of the music is played by Coleman’s classic quartets, with Cherry on cornet or pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden or Scott LaFaro on bass, and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums. One of the great pleasures of listening to one side after another is tuning into the different approaches that the different players bring to the transfiguration of melody, harmony, and rhythm, as well as to group chemistry in a context where anything is possible. Then there’s Free Jazz, the 37-minute single-take album by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet. Coleman, Cherry, LaFaro, and Higgins are matched across from (literally so in the stereo mix) Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Haden, and Blackwell. Here are passages that can still be challenging in 2018—in their sense of urgency and cross conversations—but the open-ended piece unfolds as a flowing mind-meld that is “free” in the best sense of the word “jazz.”