OC, alto sx; Don Cherry, tpt; Freddie Hubbard, tpt (on Free Jazz); Eric Dolphy, b clari (on Free Jazz); Walter Norris, p (on Something Else!!!; Charlie Haden, Percy Heath or Red Mitchell (on Tomorrow Is the Question!), Don Payne (on Something Else!!!), b; Scott LaFaro, b (on Free Jazz); Billy Higgins, Eddie Blackwell, Shelley Manne, dr (on Tomorrow Is the Question!)
For the dedicated jazz lover, the Real Gone Jazz re-releases are like manna from heaven -classic albums ca. 1958-early 60s from Quincy Jones, Eric Dolphy, George Russell, Bill Evans (some with his classic trio), Sun Ra, Bud Powell (I haven't bought this one yet), Art Blakey, Cecil Taylor, Ben Webster (I don't need this o ne because I own most of the originals), Horace Silver, Monk, Jimmy Smith (eighteen albums on ten CDs), and now this, six albums by one of the three most creative, innovative and influential jazz musicians of the sixties, Ornette Coleman. (The other two would be Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane.)
Four of the six albums are essential -three with the OC quartet: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, and This Is Our Music, with Coleman on sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Haden on bass, and either Billy Higgins or Eddie Blackwell on drums, both equally attuned to the indeterminate music of Coleman's vision. The fourth indispensable album is, of course, Ornette's double quartet album, Free Jazz, with both of his drummers of the time, Higgins and Blackwell, bassist Haden augmented by virtuoso performer Scott LaFaro, two additional horns, trumpeter Hubbard and bass clarinetist and musician extraordinaire Eric Dolphy, and Higgins and Blackwell in tandem on drums.
The other two albums, Something Else!!! (1958) and Tomorrow Is the Question! (1959), are good transitional, more about a group forming and identifying itself, and it shows in the quality of performance. Something Else!!! is clearly a beginning album: it's advanced West Coast bop with the twist of the leader, Coleman, who even then was clearly an original. But it shows mostly in his solos. Even the melody lines are timid compared to a year later and Cherry, who a year later was playing brilliantly original lines as Coleman's alter ego, is more conventional boppish on this, the group's first ever recorded album. And the drummer, Billy Higgins, who a year later exults in sprung rhythms and suspended time, seems bound by the plebeian bass lines of Payne. Bound by contract, this album features the only pianist to appear on a Coleman album for thirty-eight years, until Geri Allen is featured on the two superb Sound Museum albums. Norris is a solid bop pianist, but he's wrong, wrong, wrong for this album. His solos don't match with Coleman's and his comping behind the horns dulls everything down.
The same thing is true of Tomorrow! Manne, Heath and Mitchell were all consummate musicians, but they all came out of bop, West Coast version, and standard bop rhythms and chords tie down Coleman's non-chordal, non-tight-rhythm flights of fancy. The result is a pedestrian music with occasional flights of brilliance and freedom, the latter coming almost exclusively during Coleman's solos.
So now back to what's outstanding about this exceptional set. (1) Even in the first two albums, Coleman (a) writes good melody heads and (b) he's a b**ch of a soloist. My god, is he brilliant, even at this early stage! (2) Once he was allowed to record with simpatico colleagues -on Shape, Change, and This Is Our Music--everything, everything, about the music is brilliant. The musical heads are intriguing -they come out of nowhere sometimes, and they are always melodically and rhythmically interesting. They're infectious. Fifty years on, you listen to them and they still seem fresh, lime they've not been passed by fifty some years of subsequent music. This is the real stuff. The chemistry between the two horns -Coleman and Cherry - is magic too. Soprano saxist Steve Lacy said that he thought Cherry was intimidated at times by Coleman but I disagree. I think rather that Coleman was clearly the dominant voice in fashioning this new way of looking art music, but Cherry's contributions are right on the mark, and he bought a dancing, fey quality to the music that made it even more appealing. As to the rhythm section, Haden not only plays about the most beautiful -woody, deep--bass of any jazz bassist, but he was -is--a master at providing a solid bass line that moved the music forward but didn't lock down key or even pace, allowing the horn soloist the maximum freedom in solo lines. And Higgins and Blackwell both were fully in tune with this approach to music. What a wonderful group this was. (When Scott LaFaro replaced Haden in the quartet, I thought the group suffered, as good -no, brilliant!--as LaFaro was. Haden was the perfect bassist for that group.)
And so to Free Jazz. Coleman's groundbreaking double quartet album. It appeared six years before John Coltrane's even more revolutionary Ascension. (For a fix on how good that album was, listen to ROVA's Electric Ascension, 2003.) As much as I appreciated how important Coleman's album was, I really didn't like it much until I listened to it in this CD four-pack. The way I listened to these albums was to play them in the car on long trips, where I wouldn't be distracted by other sounds. Listening to Free Jazz that way, and with the advantage of years passed by, I was blown away by it. Its harshness didn't sound as harsh any more, and the moments of beauty in it occupied more of the space and were more intense. Let me mention two as examples. I loved Coleman's solo and Dolphy's bass clarinet obbligatos. The long section featuring the rhythm section, the two bassists and the two drummers, is gorgeous. Haden plays walking bass while LaFaro strums, a la guitar, on the upper reaches of his instrument's frets. Blackwell and Higgins trade gorgeous drum solos that avoid completely the usual problem with drum solos, that they are virtuoso but boring displays. Everything fits this time. The drum solos work.
In short, this is a collection that is so good even in its tentative selections that the serious jazz lover, if he or she doesn't have ALL of these albums already, should dash out right now and purchase it. There is no better jazz than this, short of the best of Ellington or Charlie Parker. (Or maybe Mingus or Tatum.) (Or Sun Ra.) (George Russell.)