By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
And there was Something Else here. Bebop had been ulcer music, outwardly relaxed but intellectual and tyrannical, a factory to turn alienation into technically prodigious artifacts of machine-tooled modern beauty. Following it in the mid-'50s was "cool" West Coast jazz -- eat lotus and forget. Ornette Coleman's music was truly new, the sound of being born: no devices, no illusions, just human blurt, spontaneous and natural. Was it art at all? These first recordings were only a hint. In a minute, people would really start to wonder.
Several revolutions would break out in Coleman's own life in 1959 and 1960: his working quartet would crystallize, he would change labels, he would change coasts, and people would start to yell about him. Lester Koenig, king of Contemporary, used to work with Nesuhi Ertegun, who headed the jazz line of Atlantic records in NYC. Both thought a change of labels and locations was in order for Coleman. Says Koenig, "We just couldn't support him in Los Angeles. There was no place for the group to work." That meant dinky record sales and media invisibility. New York was the place.
Right away, beginning in May 1959, when Coleman was 28 years old, Atlantic abandoned notions of compromise and began recording the straight stuff, the Ornette Coleman Quartet including Cherry (age 22), Higgins (22) and Haden (21), who had aready been rehearsing together maniacally for about a year. "We would really practice and know the tunes frontwards and backwards," says Cherry in the box's notes. "The object was to take the first take." Which they usually did. And nothing like it had ever been done before. The group. That's what Beauty Is a Rare Thing is about.
The sound was new, but it's not as if the music were performed on rubber bands by football players. There would be a head, a melodic statement, played in unison or "harmolodic" harmony by sax and trumpet and flowing around a series of bends and rhythms that seemed to pop out of nowhere, like flashes in a daydreaming mind. Then the drums and bass would break into a straight rhythm and a series of solos would follow just as they might in bebop, except that, harmonically, there were no rules. Bebop had added a couple of new notes to the blues scale, and had opened up a new dimension of chord substitutions. But there was no piano in Coleman's group to block out the improvisational borders, and the musicians had trained themselves to play not off a structure, but off a constantly changing set of interrelationships in melody and mood.
Beauty Is a Rare Thing magnifies Ornette Coleman's rapid radicalization, his transformation from lonely innovator to point man for the avant-garde jazz scene that exploded in his wake. Though the transition was natural, in some ways it was forced on him by circumstances: changes in personnel and a need to stay outside of the outside.
Right beside Coleman at every turn was Cherry, Coleman's "twin," the man furthest inside the leader's mind. Their unison lines were graceful, flexible, breaking the listener's tendency to stamp Coleman an eccentric: look, there's at least one other guy in the world who can do that. His solos had a warm, blurry feel that made his vibratory runs and helium-balloon balladic flights seem friendly. And as a commentator, he provided just the right interjections to motivate continued dialogue.
Listening to the Hollywood recordings from which Coleman pulled his first two Atlantic albums, you have to wonder if he wasn't a little bit lucky that the great individualist Ed Blackwell had moved back to New Orleans a few years previous. That loss made way for Billy Higgins, whose contribution at that moment was crucial. From the fanfare "Focus on Sanity" to the yearn of "Lonely Woman," from the Latin perk of "Una Muy Bonita" to the turkey-in-the-straw goof of "Ramblin'," Higgins had one thing on his mind: groove. For listeners who must have been yanking their earlobes every 10 seconds to adjust to the truant Coleman and Cherry, Higgins' sensuous cymbals laid out the familiar foot-tap that kept them locked in. In 1959, few were ready for Coleman, Cherry and the polyrhythmic bash of Blackwell.
And Charlie Haden was the ideal bridge. Like Higgins and unlike Coleman, Haden didn't just circle the beat, he insisted on it. Whether he was playing half-time, double-time or thirds, even when he was improvising alone, Haden hammered out a coherent rhythmic logic that was simultaneously a bulwark and an inspiration -- check out his anchoring role in the midst of the ritardandos and quarter-time dropouts of "Free." Just as important: his sense of melody. Haden's walking accompaniments were also melodic challenges, showing absolutely no debt to Coleman's EEG patterns. And his solos were songs in themselves.
Out of the Atlantic sessions, recorded between 1959 and 1961, came The Shape of Jazz To Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette! and Ornette on Tenor. From same sessions also came the hodgepodges The Art of the Improvisers, Twins and the Japan-only To Whom Who Keeps a Record, all released in the '70s. Of the several valuable services Beauty Is a Rare Thing provides, the main one is its sequential inclusion of all the performances Coleman recorded, displaying the music's incredible consistency. Make no mistake: though freedom was a rule, it was a very disciplined freedom -- this was not jamming. If it were, you'd find a large number of throwaways. Instead, you get a notion of why quite a few tunes were not released until a decade later, and why those '70s grab-bags, inconsistent as they are in terms of cohesiveness, offer so many high-quality selections: the original LPs just didn't have enough room. Otherwise, why leave the beautiful "Just for You" off Jazz To Come or fail to include the arrogant, sexy "Brings Goodness" on Our Music?