Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings

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COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: WEA
WORKS: jazz
PERFORMER: Ornette Coleman (as, ts); Don Cherry (t, cornet); Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, Jimmy Garrison (b); Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell (d); and others
CATALOGUE NO: 8122714102

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Modernism in jazz begins with Ornette Coleman, who has radically renovated a music that threatened to stifle in its own formality. Like all great revolutionaries, Coleman is also a great traditionalist, and his music characteristically enacts a tension between old content and new method.

These recordings, made between 1959 and 1961, document Coleman’s most sustained phase of studio recording, and are his masterpiece. They include classic quartet albums, such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, the experimental Free Jazz for double quartet, a rare Japanese issue and six unreleased tracks, all restored to chronological order.

Two collaborations with Gunther Schuller form a substantial bonus. As a virtuoso alto player Coleman is directly comparable to Charlie Parker, but his music, though packed with references to bebop and rhythm and blues, is all his own. The Atlantic Recordings are a revelation. The fluency and agility of Coleman’s playing was at a peak, the empathy of his fellow quartet musicians and the emotional variety and intensity of the playing are astonishing. Coleman’s metrical and harmonic displacements, considered ‘anti-jazz’ by sceptics, really sound like an exotic modification of bebop. Coleman sought to return jazz to its spontaneous, expressive roots. His sound is lyrical, bluesy, emotionally complex. Don Cherry adds playfulness and wistful ambiguity, and Haden’s bass almost telepathically picks out the implicit harmonic logic.

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The collection contains some of Coleman’s most memorable compositions, – the passionate ‘Lonely Woman’ and plain down-home ‘Ramblin’ ’– works on a par with those of Thelonious Monk, which they recall. Coleman aficionados will need no persuading of the necessity of the issue: newcomers will perhaps sample individual, mid-price reissues of the original albums. David Ayers