Ornette Coleman: The Atlantic Years

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Ornette Coleman: The Atlantic Years
Now that the vinyl boom has officially become big business, it is not surprising that major labels are scrambling to put together reissue projects from their back catalogs that will benefit from this cash cow. Rhino has already successfully tapped their holdings for superb mono boxed sets from both John Coltrane and Ray Charles. For their latest endeavor, they have turned to an artist on the fringes of jazz popularity. Ornette Coleman is far from being a household name and yet Rhino has pulled out all the stops for a weighty boxed set that taps every moment from the saxophonist's 22-month tenure with Atlantic.

The last time Coleman received the royal treatment was when Rhino previously packaged said music on six compact discs for 1993's Beauty Is a Rare Thing. Keeping in line with the practice of the time, that set was sequenced with the pieces presented in chronological order. If you wanted to experience the original albums, you needed to program your CD player as such. That reason alone makes this new vinyl package enticing as the original album contents are presented as released. Beginning in 1959 with The Shape of Jazz to Come, Atlantic's initial run of offerings would include Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette!, and Ornette on Tenor.

The firm and textured outer box houses ten records that are presented in glossy European-style jackets much like the ones used for the Beatles mono set. Although the ultimate source for the music has not been clearly revealed, the 180-gram LPs were newly mastered by John Webber at AIR Studios. This reviewer found all the records to be flat and extremely quiet and the included booklet features commentary from writer Ben Ratliff and superb photos from the legendary Lee Friedlander.

Coleman's first two records, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, are cut from a different cloth in that they were done on the west coast at Radio Recorders by the great Bones Howe. Not mentioned enough for his skills as an engineer, Howe lends a sparkling realism to the quartet featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins. Pieces like "Ramblin'" and "Focus on Sanity" reveal the inner workings of a finely-tuned machine. You can hear that even better in this new vinyl presentation. There's a visceral presence to the music that makes it all the more engaging.

By the time of 1960's This is Our Music, the locale had changed to New York with Tom Dowd at the control board and Higgins had been spelled on drums by Ed Blackwell. The sound is a different, although not in an adverse way. Haden's bass might reach even further depths on "Blues Connotation" and Blackwell seems to be an even better fit. If anything, there seems to be less air around the horns. This is even more evident on Free Jazz where two different quartets are playing at once, one on the right channel and the other on the left. Nonetheless, this new master manages to sport clarity and separation that is missing in the compressed sound found on the previous CD set.

The initial run of Atlantics concluded with Ornette on Tenor released in 1961 and offered no doubt as a way to convince critics that Ornette had the goods to deliver on the larger and more popular horn. A few years before the decade ended, Warner Brothers would acquire the Atlantic holdings and in 1970 they must have decided the time was ripe to scour the vaults for unreleased Ornette material. They managed to put together three further albums, The Art of the Improvisers, Twins, and To Whom Who Keeps a Record. Then, the 1993 box brought out six more titles which are included here as the tenth and final record of the set at hand.

In the final conclusion, there is a lot of music to absorb here and in the original guise one gets a truer picture of the label's release chronology. The covers and pressings are without question of high quality and one would be hard pressed to express any kind of caveats about Rhino's new production. These pressings are really that good. Looking impressive on the shelf, this will no doubt be the go-to set for Ornette fans for many years to come. Now let's hope Rhino gives the same treatment to Mingus in the near future.

Associated Equipment Used for Evaluation

VPI Scout 1.1 turntable with Soundsmith Zephyr Mk III cartridge Musical Fidelity A3CR amplifier and preamp Sutherland Insight phono preamp Bryston BCD-1 CD player Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 805 loudspeakers Cardas cable and interconnects, Chang Lightspeed power conditioner


Ornette Coleman: saxophone, alto.

Album information

Title: The Atlantic Years | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Rhino

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