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Record Store Day Preview Listening Report: Early Ornette Coleman On Contemporary Records

Mark Smotroff takes a step back to move two steps forward…

Before I get to the tasty details about the great new Ornette Coleman boxed set / reissues coming out for Record Store Day later this week — called Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums — I have to include some information for newer collectors trying to decide whether they need to get a collection like this in the first place. 

This listening report is written in part for listeners who are still somewhat new to the joys of music appreciation, people who might be a fan of certain albums by an artist and are perhaps on the verge of what I call “going deep” on their full catalog.  

There is a point when you may find yourself getting into a particular type of music or a particular performer where you will need to do this… Sometimes it is a natural process and you will simply find yourself digging down back to an artist’s earliest recordings to understand how they got to later career peaks. Other times you may need to push yourself a bit…

Yes, you can certainly enjoy The Beatles just by listening to Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper.  But if you really want to know the band you must go back to their first album from 1963, Please Please Me, and even more importantly dig down into the early pre-fame live recordings made in Germany in 1962 to appreciate how far they came in such a relatively short time. And then before you know it you’ll be working your way up to Revolver and The White Album

It is perfectly great to enjoy Duke Ellington’s 1950s extended classics such as Ellington Uptown or Masterpieces By Ellington. But really if you want to fully understand and appreciate his music you really need to go back to the 1920s when he was just beginning to shake up the music world.  And then be sure track down some recordings of the peak “Blanton-Webster” era of his band from the 1940s (be sure to hear the stunning live quasi-bootleg recordings from Fargo, North Dakota, which have become one of my favorites in all of Duke’s catalog!)

Likewise, if you are a growing fan of “free jazz” pioneer Ornette Coleman you’ll want to track down his first recordings made for the Contemporary Records label in the late 1950s, before his innovative concepts were fully developed. Historically this has been somewhat easier said than done if you’re looking for an original pressing as the records didn’t necessarily sell in huge numbers back in the day and are now very pricey collector’s item. They have been reissued over the years but have also been due for a proper 21st-century restoration.

Enter Record Store Day and the fine new two-LP boxed offering from Craft Recordings celebrating Coleman’s musical birth: Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums. It contains Coleman’s first two albums, newly remastered and given a deluxe reissue treatment.

Released in 1958, the first album titled Something New!!!! only partially delivers on that promise. Yes, he was new to the scene and the music has an underlying freshness to it, but in general he had not quite yet broken out into the free zone (if you will) where he would go in just a few years time. That’s not to say this is not enjoyable… Actually I like this album very much! Apparently at the time, he was more or less shunned by many of his peers who didn’t fully understand his harmonic concepts. Listening to this now in 2022, this music simply sounds like fine modern jazz. But at the time, especially with the second album, it was shaking up many insider’s notion of what jazz was and where it might be going…

A little side story:  I recently finished reading a wonderful biography about Charles Mingus and in it I was a little taken aback with how bitter he was by the later point of his life. Particularly — in interviews made between 1972 and 1974 — he was pointing fingers (effectively) towards other musics that had burst onto the scene, taking much of the limelight away from the kind of jazz he (and others) were making. The Beatles and even Ornette Coleman were mentioned and he even insinuated that they didn’t know what they were doing. As I understand, Mingus later made amends about some of these perceptions and, clearly, by the last stage in his life — when he worked with Joni Mitchell — he certainly had gained some better appreciation of the intersections of earlier generations with the new, and of pop music and jazz.   

That said, listening to these early Ornette Coleman recordings in Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums with fresh ears, I hear a very talented musician appearing on the scene nearly fully formed. Just listen to a song like “Jayne,” which is such a compact and joyous melody. I also really like the tune “Chippie.”

Coleman’s second album – Tomorrow Is The Question! – starts to hint at the future but looks a bit lovingly to the recent past. Listen closely and you can hear Be Bop echoes of Bird, Dizzy, Miles and Stan Getz.  I love the title track which sort of feels like he’s gone deep down into an early classic melody like “Jazz Me Blues” and turned it inside out, sideways and upside down.

But, Why Should I Buy This Boxed Set?

Let’s go back and consider the rarity of Coleman’s early albums when considering why you may want pick up a copy of Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums

First off: these albums sound great! Both discs in this set contain Stereo mixes newly mastered off the original analog tapes by Bernie Grundman. I especially like how Shelly Manne’s drums were captured on Tomorrow Is The Question!, underlying the exemplary fidelity captured by engineer Roy Dunann. Listen for those tom-tom fills! 

There are not many 1958 editions of Ornette Coleman’s early albums available these days on the collectors market as they were not  big sellers back in the day. The ones you can find are, accordingly, priced high (on Discogs) ranging from above $100 to more than $200. The asking price for a 1967 reissue is about $150!  And we’re not talking about brand new mint copies here, folks. 

You can get one of the 1980s reissues of the two albums in Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums from the generally excellent sounding “original jazz classics” series In the $20-$25 range. But at that point you might as well spring for these new editions which which are 180-grams thick, lovingly manufactured on dark black quiet vinyl at the acclaimed RTI pressing plant. 

Both albums in the set offer faithful re-creations of the original editions right down to period-accurate record label designs and thick brown cardboard cover stock. The printing quality on the covers is excellent. Both albums come housed in a beautiful, cloth-bound sturdy boxed package with striking blue and white graphic patterning made of the same type of exclamation points featured on both original album cover designs. The only minor error I found on my copy of Tomorrow Is The Question! is that it has Side 1 labels on both sides (no biggie). 

Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums includes an inset booklet with interesting updated liner notes and other background information exploring what Coleman brought to the jazz table in the late 1950s (and the challenges he faced trying to break into the scene). 

There are many wondrous layers to discover in Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums. If you like Ornette and don’t have these early albums or are simply upgrading your collection, you really can’t go wrong on this one. 

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