Ornette Coleman ‘The Road To Free Jazz – The Early Years 1958-61’ 2CD (Acrobat Music) 4/5

While a mammoth multi-volume CD box set has recently surfaced that sheds new light on the Atlantic years of Ornette Coleman, this double CD set caters for those on a more modest budget, who nevertheless are curious what all the fuss is about and would like an informed overview of the early part of the alto saxophonist’s career. This just also coincidentally happens to be his most accessible period too. Where this compilation comes into its own is in reaching across labels to both Contemporary, for whom Coleman recorded two albums, and Atlantic. Indeed Acrobat seems to be making a virtue more generally in its wider series, of bringing together the music of a single artist and that endeavour, while not altogether pioneering, is to be applauded, and, crucially, provides the listener with a more detailed chronological insight into how the musician was rapidly evolving over a relatively short period in time, here just a four year span.

For this writer, the two earliest albums showcased, ‘Something Else’ and ‘Tomorrow is the Question’, both originally on Contemporary, reveal the umbilical cord link that exists between Coleman and, on the one hand, Charlie Parker, and more generally, with the blues on the other. The lineup on these first two featured established musicians such as drummer Shelly Manne or Billy Higgins and bassist Percy Heath or Red Mitchell, and pianist Walter Norris (on the first album only), which gives the two albums collectively a far more conventional sound in retrospect than one might expect. Among the key numbers on the first, ‘The Blessing’, has remained a favourites among fans and musicians alike, regularly covered by others, while ‘Jayne’ is a personal dedication to Coleman’s wife.

If anything, for many devotees, it is the second album, ‘Tomorrow is the Question’, that is the real debut insofar as it revealed for the first time on record Coleman’s preferred line up of alto, trumpet, bass and drums, dispensing altogether with the use of piano, and freeing up the sound for the use of harmonics, that was to prove to be both a major innovation and polemic, alienating some more mainstream jazz views, while thrilling those in search of something new. Now viewed with the benefit of sixty years or more hindsight, that progression appears both natural, logical and necessary for many of the progressive aspects of jazz that were to follow. Even hard bop practitioners such as Jackie McLean took on board the new approach of Coleman and incorporated it into their own work, thus freshening up their own sounds. In among the evolutionary, and some would say revolutionary sounds, there is music of great beauty and two of Coleman’s most endearing compositions are rightly included, ‘Lovely Woman’ and ‘A Muy Bonita’, the latter a real favourite of this writer.

Signing to Atlantic records under Nesuhi Ertegun, Coleman was joining a rapidly expanding roster of musicians on a label that had first made its name with pop and R&B flavoured artists. The Ertegun brothers were determined to include a larger number of jazz musicians both to promote the music which they genuinely believed in, and to provide intellectual credence to the label. That new line up would henceforth feature the long-term collaboration with bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell (Billy Higgins would perform with them also), and of course Don Cherry. Even now this music still has the capacity to shock and invariably parallels have been made between this perceived more avant-garde form of jazz (and some have questioned whether it even constitutes jazz in the first place) and abstract painting, with Jackson Pollock summoned up as the comparable artist. Four Atlantic albums are showcased here including: ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’; ‘Change of the Century’; ‘This is Our Music’; ‘Free Jazz’. The title track of the last album mentioned itself took up the whole side of the vinyl original and, as a whole, this is uncompromising music that stands the test of time and is profoundly modern in approach, though clearly to these ears still within the jazz tradition, but building new foundation blocks in the process. In sum the music here provides a useful introduction to the freer sounds that Coleman and associates would personalise on Atlantic and other labels such as Impulse and even Blue Note, and if any neophyte jazz fan wanted to start anyway to better understand the music of Ornette Coleman, then here would be an ideal starting point.

Tim Stenhouse