Craft Recordings / Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds CR00595
Format: LP

Musical Performance: ***½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****

Jazz composer and saxophonist Ornette Coleman was so revolutionary that even now, 65 years after he recorded his first album, his music remains challenging. His recording debut, Something Else!!!! (1958), and its follow-up, Tomorrow Is the Question! (1959), both appeared on Contemporary Records, whose owner, Lester Koenig, signed Coleman after bassist Red Mitchell brought his work to Koenig’s attention.

Craft Recordings has reissued Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is the Question! on vinyl as part of its Contemporary Records / Acoustic Sounds series. Bernie Grundman remastered the recordings and Quality Record Pressings manufactured the LPs. I’ll be looking at the new pressing of Something Else!!!! here, and my point of comparison is the 2011 CD release, which was part of Concord’s Original Jazz Classics series. Joe Tarantino did the mastering for that CD release.

Something Else!!!!

Coleman’s highly experimental music moved beyond traditional approaches to harmony, so the inclusion of pianist Walter Norris on Coleman’s debut album has sometimes been thought of as a compromise. Norris and bassist Don Payne were bebop-style players who gave Coleman a recognizable foundation on “Invisible,” but Coleman used his introduction to jazz fans to demonstrate he had an ear and vision that were utterly new. The other musicians—Don Cherry on trumpet and Billy Higgins on drums—were part of Coleman’s own circle and already understood his goals.

Moving from the CD to the new pressing, I heard a slightly wider soundstage on “Invisible,” which gave me a better view of individual instruments. When Coleman and Cherry state the melodic theme, I heard more separation between them. Higgins’s cymbals on the CD had more splash, but more sustain and vibrancy on the LP. Coleman’s sax solo had somewhat more grit on the CD but sounded more cohesive on the LP.

“Jayne” opens with Higgins playing the ride cymbal while going back and forth between the snare and tom drums. The cymbal had a brighter sheen on the CD, but a bit more resonance and openness on the LP. I again heard more separation between the sax and trumpet during the ensemble sections on the LP, and when Coleman solos, I heard his subtle changes in dynamics and emphasis more clearly. Norris’s piano had more force on the CD during solos, but individual notes lingered more on the LP, and his chording sounded harmonically fuller. Higgins’s cymbals during his feature cut more sharply on the CD, but were more expansive on LP, and his drums had more tonal depth.

The quintet sounds most confident on “Alpha,” which moves at a swift clip. I heard more resonance from Payne’s bass on the LP—a more convincing presentation of an acoustic instrument than on the CD version. Norris’s comping was also presented more fully, which helped hold things together during busy ensemble passages. Coleman’s unique phrasing and tonality are perhaps less jarring now than they must have seemed in 1958, but they are vital to his performance and the development of his musical ideas. Both are clearly presented on this new pressing.

Something Else!!!!

Of the nine tracks on Something Else!!!!, “When Will the Blues Leave?” sounds closest to the kind of music Coleman would soon be making when he moved to Atlantic Records in 1960. Norris seems to be more at ease, and Payne swings hard on the tune. The new LP had a somewhat firmer and more pronounced bass presence, and Higgins’s kick-drum accents punched a little harder than they did on the CD. Coleman’s and Cherry’s solos had a softer tone on the LP than on the CD, but seemed to flow with less effort.

I generally like Joe Tarantino’s mastering, and the CD version of Something Else!!!! is brighter than the new LP; more vibrant and livelier. While Grundman’s LP master at first struck me as subdued, the additional room he has given to the instruments lends them more timbral accuracy. It also let me hear more clearly that Norris is on occasion hesitant during chord changes and solos. Payne is more confident, but both he and Norris are used to a set of rules that Coleman was determined to break.

My copy of the LP is consistent with the high standards set by Quality Record Pressings. It arrived flat, quiet, and correctly centered. The cover is heavyweight cardboard, with tipped-on artwork. The LP is housed in a good-quality antistatic sleeve.

In a 2010 essay about Coleman, pianist and critic Ethan Iverson noted that, aside from Cherry and Higgins, the musicians who accompanied Coleman on the two Contemporary Records LPs were “not Ornette’s people.” Coleman’s third album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, appeared on Atlantic Records and features Coleman with Cherry, Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden. All three had experience with Coleman and knew what he needed, and the resulting album still sounds uncompromising, bracing, and distinctive.

It’s probably true that Something Else!!!! allows you to ease into Coleman, but part of the excitement of the album comes from hearing him push against the more traditional assumptions of some of the other musicians, urging them to follow his path. This new pressing gave me a better picture of the interaction of the players, and the ways that Coleman ultimately triumphed in pulling willing but somewhat puzzled jazz musicians in his direction.

Tomorrow Is the Question

As I noted, Craft Recordings has also reissued Coleman’s second album as part of this series. Space prevents me from looking at both LPs in detail, but admirers of Coleman will also want the reissue of Tomorrow Is the Question! (CR00596). I compared it to a 1988 Original Jazz Classics CD, mastered by Phil De Lancie. On Bernie Grundman’s new master for the vinyl reissue, Red Mitchell’s bass had more presence and attack, and I heard far more detail from Shelly Manne’s drums. Coleman and Cherry sounded more fiery and immediate throughout on the new pressing.

While Coleman went on to fulfill his vision more fully with Atlantic and Blue Note, his recording career began with Contemporary Records, and his work there is beautifully presented on these well-pressed and excellently mastered LPs.

. . . Joseph Taylor