Captures one of jazz’s most inventive artists at his peak.
Saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s time at Atlantic has been well documented, with good reason. For just under two years from 1959-1961, he put together a string of albums that marked a landmark shift in playing and thinking about jazz. The Atlantic Years collects these six albums on vinyl, along with three later compilations and a record of material previously only available through the Beauty is a Rare Thing boxed set. The new deluxe box, presented in release order, shows both the consistency of Coleman’s creative burst as well as the subtle shifts that move through the short period. This is not hyperbole: Coleman’s work in this period is some of the most important jazz of the era.
The two key albums here, 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and 1960’s Free Jazz, still stand out as his most fundamental works, but they may well mark a dividing line for listeners. In some sense, neither record sounds as astonishing as it must have at the time; we’ve had almost 60 years to get used to them and their myriad successors. At the same time, each offers as much complexity and challenge as ever, even if in different ways.
The Shape of Jazz to Come hews closer to traditional jazz, relatively speaking. Such tracks as the moody “Lonely Woman” and “Peace” have recognizable themes. Coleman’s quartet gets weird, but while traditionalists may find the group appalling, the typical jazz listener will be more attuned to its charms. The genius of this album – Coleman’s best of the era – lies in its mix of conventional forms and ideas with completely novel approaches. The group is exciting precisely because it hints at discernable order, only to reject it. Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry play off each other briefly in “Lonely Woman” as part of a new sort of conversation, but they’re still speaking a language we recognize. Melody, harmony, and time get bent, but we know what they are.
Free Jazz pushes Coleman’s experiments further, utilizing a double quartet to go on one of jazz’s ultimate adventures. The album builds on composition more than its reputation suggests, but the leader’s demanding ideas of harmonics and rhythm come to fruition. The eight musicians find moments of clear unity, but they primarily work to enhance each other. What your hear in these ensembles at their best and freest is the sound of each member supporting chaos; it’s less controlled than jazz had previously been, and the shifts in key and rhythm seem random, but when one musician steps out the others are there to buttress whatever the soloist is doing. This can be the most alive of Coleman’s albums in its headiness but, while it makes sense in the progression of these Atlantic albums, it also stands out as jump into applied theory.
If these are Coleman’s defining albums of the period, the rest of the catalog shows that Coleman and his groups (particularly the quartet with Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins) rarely stumbled. Change of the Century nearly matches The Shape of Jazz to Come, continuing its work. Opener “Ramblin’” swings, but remains perpetually surprising. Cherry and Coleman both hint at linear figures that never quite align. Coleman’s odd sense of tone expands on the title track amid his idiosyncratic flurries of sound. While he still plays with pitch, the absence of his signature tone makes Ornette on Tenor just a touch less engaging than the rest of this collection, even if it offers a pleasant change of pace
Among the personnel shifts of the period, Haden’s work jumps out. The other bassists Coleman worked with at the time (Scott LaFaro and Jimmy Garrison) fit well, but Haden’s ability to straddle more traditional playing and out-there excursions puts him in a sympathetic mode with his bandleader. He can play parts that, if they don’t exactly walk, at least skip in support of the music’s shuffling groove. At other times (his solo halfway through Free Jazz, for instance, although his work as a foil against other soloists can be just as compelling), he shows a willingness to chase new sounds and rhythmic thinking right alongside Coleman.
The compilation material holds up well. It may be a step down in quality from the studio releases, but only because those are so incredible. Coleman basically couldn’t fail for two years, and his bandmates kept up (though choosing to work with Cherry and Haden in particular made that mutual success much more likely). The Atlantic Years captures one of jazz’s most inventive artists at his peak. Amid all the melodic and rhythmic redirection in this set, the idea that the peak lasts for 10 LPs might be the most surprising point of all.