Ornette Coleman – The Atlantic Years
(Rhino 081227940690. Review of 10 LP Box-Set by Phil Johnson)
Remastered from digital transfers of the original tapes at AIR Studios in London by engineer John Webber, who used analogue technology for the vinyl lacquer-cutting, Ornette Coleman –The Atlantic Years is a magnificent box set of ten 12” 180g LPs that duplicates the original albums’ sequence and contents, together with a new essay/liner note by Ben Ratliff, all contained in a nifty slipcase that feels as weightily substantial as an old-school school atlas. Analogue nerds will complain that the remastering is not direct from the original tapes and therefore fails to meet the gold standard of an AAA all-analogue process (the reissue producer Florence Halfon says the tapes were not in good enough condition to go straight to cutting), but the Atlantic/Rhino CD box-set Beauty is a Rare Thing released in 1993 (whose digital transfers presumably formed the basis for the new vinyl mastering) sounded great, and so does this. Just like the music, the audio is bright (but not vulgarly so), forceful and full of in-your-face attack.
The only things to appear on LP for the first time are the CD box-set’s six previously unreleased tracks, which here make up a final LP, The Ornette Coleman Legacy. In no way markedly inferior to the music on the six original Atlantic albums or the later editions of material released (and repeated here) as The Art of the Improvisers, Twins and To Whom Who Keeps a Record, these tunes are a very welcome addition to the vinyl discography and feature at least one bona fide masterpiece in the ridiculously swinging, seemingly part Texan and part Caribbean-flavoured I Heard It Over The Radio.
As Ratliff notes in his introductory essay, all Coleman’s Atlantic recordings were made within what seems a crazily brief time period of 22 months between 1959 and 1961. Unsurprisingly, the music sounds all of a piece and can be listened to as one continuum. It still comes across as radical and joyful, bluesily be-boppy and looney-tune melodic, with a rhythmic energy that continues, even at this half-century and more’s distance, to make listeners move whether they want to or not. Playing each album through as I write, it’s almost impossible not to drum one’s fingers on the desk, echoing the curiously arhythmic yet compulsively danceable measures that animate each tune. Like his fellow mid-century maverick Thelonious Monk, whose compositions have a similarly off-centre metre, and almost no one else, Coleman really did march to the beat of a different drummer. As the drummer on the Atlantic sessions was either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell, whose patented shuffle-rhythms have never been bettered, the beat provides a powerful foundation for the twin strike force of Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry to wail against. And wail they do, while the bass fiddle of Charlie Haden (or Scott LaFaro, and both of them in the double-quartet ‘Free Jazz’) steps nimbly between and around the ever-shifting rhythmic sands.
The controversy this music stirred up at the time seems mostly irrelevant and some of the nay-sayers have taken a bit of a knock. Who would take the historical significance of Art Farmer or Maynard Ferguson over Ornette now? As Ratliff writes, this is great American art of the twentieth century as much as it is great jazz. It’s also a tribute to the people that produced it: to Atlantic’s Nesuhi Ertegun, who signed Coleman and oversaw the sessions; to recording engineers Bones Howe and Tom Dowd, who captured the sound so faithfully; to photographers William Claxton and Lee Friedlander, who took pictures for the sleeves. And above all to Ornette Coleman and the musicians, whose work is treated with due reverence in this landmark box of wonders, which retails for £170 or so.
The Ten Albums Included
The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1959)
Change Of The Century (1959)
This Is Our Music (1960)
Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960)
Ornette On Tenor (1961)
The Art Of Improvisers (1970)
To Whom Who Keeps A Record (1975)
The Ornette Coleman Legacy (1993)
Release Date 25 May 2018 / Product Details at Rhino.com