Here it is: Ornette's first recording, containing his most conventional compositions, one ("The Blessing") written in 1951. Even so, it came only after a long period of struggle ("...most musicians didn't take to me; they said I didn't know the changes and was out of tune.") He was an elevator operator in an L.A. department store; he'd take the elevator to the top floor and practice for hours. He was about to return to Forth Worth when Red Mitchell heard a tune of his; it led to an audition and two albums for Contemporary, of which this is the first. It was a signpost, leading to a pathbreaking career.
Two things should be done when hearing this: you should remember Ornette's horn is plastic, and you should forget his later work. His tone sounds a little muffled, mushy perhaps; it has little of the sharp ringing tone of altos like Cannonball or Art Pepper. Don Cherry, the trumpeter heard on much of his work, says "it has a drier, warmer sound without the ping of the metal...He can now express on his horn what he hears, and he has a very unusual ear." Admittedly, the plastic tone sounds funny to these ears, though it does contribute to the feel of this record.
These are also early compositions, using chords, which he would soon abandon on his Atlantic sides. Those wanting free jazz will have to look elsewhere. There are moments of dissonance here (in the theme of "The Disguise"), but this is largely a straight-ahead date, with the corners slightly askew. There is much worth hearing here, especially the compositions, which received the bulk of the praise when this was originally released. My favorite tunes here would be "The Blessing" and "The Disguise"; "Alpha" and "The Sphinx" are also worth mention. Don Cherry has several fine moments and possibly takes instrumental honors. He has a good muted solo on "The Blessing", and strong moments on "Jayne" and "Chippie". Ornette's best solo comes on "When Will the Blues Leave?" and "The Sphinx". While totally competent, the rhythm section (especially Walter Norris on piano) seems to be a strict mainstream vein, and perhaps more avant-garde players would have gotten more out of these tunes. (Norris gets a few solos, but none really stand out.) As played, only the horns command attention, which is just as well, considering it's Ornette's show, and that of his tunes.
Where did this record lead? Not far, at least at the moment. A follow-up album, TOMORROW IS THE QUESTION!, was made in 1959, but jobs were still scarce. He moved to New York and signed with Atlantic, resulting in the albums which remain the basis of his reputation. This record was a foot in the door; the big noise (and big it was) would come later.