While it's true this set has been given the highest rating AMG awards, it comes with a qualifier: the rating is for the music and the package, not necessarily the presentation. Presentation is a compiler's nightmare in the case of artists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, who recorded often and at different times and had most of their recordings issued from the wealth of material available at the time a record was needed rather than culling an album from a particular session. Why is this a problem? It's twofold: First is that listeners got acquainted with recordings such as The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music, Change of the Century, Twins, or any of the other four records Ornette Coleman released on Atlantic during that period. The other is one of economics; for those collectors who believe in the integrity of the original albums, they need to own both those recordings and this set, since the box features one album that was only issued in Japan as well as six unreleased tunes and the three Coleman compositions that appeared on Gunther Schuller's Jazz Abstractions record. Politically what's interesting about this box is that though the folks at Rhino and Atlantic essentially created a completely different document here, putting Coleman's music in a very different context than the way in which it was originally presented, his royalty rate was unchanged -- he refused to do any publicity for this set when it was issued as a result. As for the plus side of such a collection, there is a certain satisfaction at hearing complete sessions in context. That cannot be argued -- what is at stake is at what price to the original recorded presentations. Enough complaining. As for the music, as mentioned, the original eight albums Coleman recorded for Atlantic are here, in one form or another, in their entirety: Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, The Art of the Improvisers, Twins, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette, and Ornette on Tenor, plus To Whom Keeps a Record, comprised of recordings dating from 1959 to 1960. In fact all of the material here was recorded between 1959 and 1961. Given that there is a total of six completely unreleased compositions as well as alternate takes and masters, this is a formidable mountain of material recorded with not only the classic quartet of Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, but also the large double quartet who produced the two-sided improvisation that is Free Jazz with personalities as diverse as Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and Scott LaFaro, as well as Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Ed Blackwell, who had replaced Higgins on the music for To Whom Keeps a Record and This Is Our Music -- though Higgins does play on Free Jazz.
The progression of the recording sessions musically is one of dynamics, color, and, with the addition of Blackwell, firepower. As the listener moves from the first session that would become most of The Shape of Jazz to Come, listeners can hear how the interplay between Cherry and Coleman works lyrically not so much as a system, but as system of the creation of melody from dead fragments of harmony, thereby creating a harmonic sensibility that cares not for changes and chord progressions, but for the progression of music itself in the context of a quartet. From the sharp edges on "Focus on Sanity," through "Peace" and "Congeniality," through "Lonely Woman," Coleman's approach to harmony was one of disparate yet wholly compatible elements. This is the story as the sessions unfold, one kind of lyricism evolving into itself more fully and completely with time. On Change of the Century, Twins, and This Is Our Music, Coleman shifts his emphasis slightly, adding depth and dimension and the creation of melody that comes out of the blues as direct and simply stated as possible. By the time LaFaro enters the picture on Free Jazz and Art of the Improvisers, melody has multiplied and divided itself into essence, and essence becomes an exponential force in the creation of a new musical syntax. The recordings from 1960 and 1961, along with the unreleased masters and alternates, all show Coleman fully in possession of his muse. The trek of musicians through the band -- like Jimmy Garrison and Eric Dolphy, as well as people like Jim Hall and Bill Evans where Coleman appeared in Gunther Schuller's experiments -- all reveal that from The Shape of Jazz to Come through Ornette on Tenor, Coleman was trying to put across the fully developed picture of his musical theory of the time. And unlike most, he completely succeeded. Even on the unreleased compositions, such as the flyaway storm of "Revolving Doors" or "PROOF Readers" or the slippery blues of "The Tribes of New York," Coleman took the open-door approach and let everything in -- he didn't necessarily let it all out. The package itself is, as are all Rhino boxes, handsome and original; there are three double-CD sleeves that all slip into a half box, which slips, reversed, into the whole box. There is a 68-page booklet with a ton of photographs, complete session notes, and liners by Coleman (disappointingly brief, but he was pissed off at the label), a fantastic essay by the late Robert Palmer, recollections by all the musicians, and quotes from Coleman from interviews given through the decades. The sound is wonderful and the mastering job superb. In all -- aside from the breach of pop culture's own historical context, which is at least an alternate reality -- this is, along with John Coltrane's Atlantic set and the Miles & Coltrane box, one of the most essential jazz CD purchases.