Beauty is a Rare Thing
Ornette Coleman played with sidemen as diverse as Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia. His songs have been covered by the likes of David Sanborn and newcomer saxophonist Joshua Redman -- the jazz world's latest young lion, and the son of Coleman's '70s collaborator Dewey Redman. Coleman's style and compositions have influenced contemporary avant-gardists Bill Frisell and John Zorn. Yet, as too often befalls a major influence, Ornette Coleman's own work is seldom listened to; perhaps because, until now, it has not been readily available on compact disk or systematically anthologized.
The long neglect ends with Rhino's six-CD compilation of Coleman's complete Atlantic recordings from 1959 to '61, part of an ambitious Rhino project to issue major anthologies of virtually every free-jazz artist (Coltrane, Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk) who recorded for Atlantic from the mid-'50s to the early '60s -- the heyday of the post-bop, "new thing" and "third stream" experimental jazz movements.
In contrast to the recently released Coltrane anthology -- a slick repackaging of already-available work with little new or worthy "undiscovered" material -- Beauty is a Rare Thing includes not only all of Coleman's eight pioneering Atlantic albums, but also the complete To Whom Who Keeps a Record (available before only as a Japanese import), six previously unreleased tracks and a pair of hard-to-find collaborations with John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartet's pianist and primary composer, and an early Coleman supporter.
The boxed set (which includes a 72-page booklet of interviews and commentary) is a seven-and-a-half-hour education in Coleman's "harmolodics": a collective style of free improvisation that, for example, joins the altoist with pocket trumpeter Don Cherry, the two playing a melodic or rhythmic line in different keys but with parallel relations between notes.
"Harmolodics" infinitely multiplies the roles and possible permutations of this piano-less quartet. Just as the horn section shifts from melody to rhythm, so too can bassist Charlie Haden -- a wild man in his younger days -- and drummer Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell be freed from simple time-keeping chores, and drive the melodies or initiate the "timeless" rhythm that led so many early listeners to dismiss Coleman as a mad crank or, worse, a flat-out hoax.
Even today, Coleman's free jazz remains an acquired taste. The best introductions to his improvisation and impulsively breathing "talking" alto sound are the oft-anthologized "Lonely Woman" -- in which a short, plaintive, bluesy line anchors a series of sharply accented solo variations on an accelerating bounce rhythm -- and "Ramblin'," a reminder of the leader's apprenticeships in 1950s Texas juke joints that strikes against the limits of its R&B melody, tone and dynamics.
As if to allay early skepticism, the box set displays Coleman's extensive command of musical traditions -- swing, pop, blues, hard bop, ballads -- traditions that his quartet stretches, mutates, punctures and defamiliarizes. Long before anyone cooked up the idea of the postmodern, Coleman was already there, ushering a variety of pastiche, dissonance, parody, and seemingly random song structures and solo patterns into the post-bop era.
-- Bill Levine
In 1962, a rowdy 15-year-old named Rocky Hill got himself kicked out of school. His family banished him to an uncle's farm in Elaine, Arkansas, where he sat on a tractor in the hot Delta sun for six bucks a day. Fun meant beer in the juke joints along the Mississippi, and music like nothing he had ever heard. "They treated us great in there," Hill remembered in a recent conversation. "They would sell us beer and we would eat catfish and listen. Who was playing I have no idea, but they were just wonderful. From then on I was hooked."
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Home in Houston after his agrarian exile, Hill set about learning blues guitar. Younger brother Dusty picked up the bass. The brothers went on the road with Freddie King and played everywhere from Houston dives to the Filmore West. Dusty eventually became one-third of ZZ Top, but Rocky just hung out around Texas, played with house bands, sat in with friends and, in 1985, recorded Midnight Creepers.
Nine years later, Hill's CD is finally out, and it manages to be both historically interesting and musically intimidating. Notable talents -- including Uncle John Turner, Louis Bovis, Tommy Shannon and Kim Wilson -- took strong advantage of a chance to record without commercial concessions, and the result is raw, rude, loud, rowdy and obnoxious. Of special note is a guest appearance by the late Albert Collins, whose precise licks complement Hill's ferocious attack as they pay respects to Texas guitar great Sam Hopkins on "Lightnin' Struck Out." Collins also contributes on the misogynist, homophobic, hilarious "Bad Girl Blues," which scales a steep pinnacle of unabashed political incorrectness.
But it's Hill's guitar that's the highlight here, and he plays it like a man who brought a meat cleaver to a knife fight.
-- Jim Sherman