Graded on a Curve: Ornette Coleman,
To Whom Who Keeps
a Record

Initially issued only in Japan in 1975 and compiling a series of then-unreleased cuts of 15 years vintage, To Whom Who Keeps a Record offers a striking excursion into the Atlantic-era material of recently departed saxophonist and bandleader Ornette Coleman. The configuration he guided during this fertile juncture is amongst his greatest, and the music collected on this album, if not at the absolute apex of Coleman’s achievement, impresses by getting very close. It would serve as a swell introduction to an essential period from a giant of American music, and it’s out now on LP through Superior Viaduct.

1975 was a productive span for Ornette Coleman, though newcomers to his work wouldn’t glean this from a mere glance at his ample discography. In the midst of headway with his dual-guitar Moroccan music-infused electric band Prime Time, he didn’t debut that group on record until well after the calendar for the year had hit waste baskets and been transported to landfills the globe over.

Coleman’s catalog entries from 1975 are The Great London Concert, an August 29 1965 recording by his amazing trio with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, and To Whom Who Keeps a Record’s roundup of previously unissued gems from Atlantic’s vaults. The latter is the finer of the two; although the live set spotlights a criminally under-documented group, it ultimately takes a back seat to the shows captured on Blue Note’s two cornerstone volumes of At the Golden Circle Stockholm.

An opening piece for string quintet also harkens back to Coleman’s earlier ESP Disk Town Hall December 1962; scheduled for release in the US by Arista/ Freedom, The Great London Concert apparently didn’t make it past the promo copy stage. It came out elsewhere through International Polydor as An Evening with Ornette Coleman and the Freedom label as Ornette Coleman in Europe Volume I + II.

To Whom Who Keeps a Record’s story is even more obscure. Pressed by Warner Brothers’ Japanese subsidiary Warner Pioneer, it was the third compilation of unearthed Atlantic sessions to have emerged in the ‘70s; The Art of the Improvisers hit in 1970 and Twins the following year via the company that funded them, both holding a high profile well into the next decade, with the first serving as this correspondent’s introductory Coleman purchase.

For some folks spying it in the saxophonist’s discographical listings (if it wasn’t excluded) To Whom Who Keeps a Record’s Japanese only status no doubt insinuated a platter of leftovers, and it was a shadowy item until the contents were absorbed in Rhino/ Atlantic’s 1995 whopper of a Coleman box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing.

Those owning that collection, bluntly one of most magnificent of the compact disc era, or for that matter the standalone CD of To Whom Who Keeps a Record from 2006 by the Water label, can debate repurchasing the music on LP; the music is certainly strong enough that many will take the plunge, and for listeners in various stages of jazz vinyl shelf building, the easy availability makes its acquisition a no-brainer.

Some reports claim Coleman helped to assemble the comp, while others state he had no involvement; given that the track titles form a philosophical statement, specifically “Music Always” “Brings Goodness” “To Us” “All” “P.S. Unless One Has (Blues Connotation No. 2)” “Some Other” “Motive for Its Use,” I tend to believe the former.

Laid out on the back cover, the titles cohere into a sort of prose poem complementing the high standard of the individual selections, and the opener’s amiable setting might leave Coleman novices wondering what all the now legendary controversy was about; unlike Twins, which included “First Take” by the expanded double quartet that made 1960’s establishment-rattling Free Jazz, this LP represents the core unit of his relatively short tenure with Atlantic, a framework it shares with Art of the Improvisers.

Featuring versatile jewel Billy Higgins in the drum chair alongside bassist Charlie Haden, “Music Always” sets down a perfectly graspable rhythmic foundation for the expressiveness of the horns as Don Cherry flanks Coleman on trumpet. What distinguishes the music is the looseness of the improvising, particularly by the leader.

To borrow the title from his debut for Contemporary Records, Coleman’s ideas were definitely something else, but “Music Always” was also cut in October of 1959, and the differences between it and “Brings Goodness” from almost ten months later and with Ed Blackwell stepping into Higgins’ spot, remain sharp.

To Whom Who Keeps a Record’s first track derives from the sessions for Coleman’s second Atlantic effort Change of the Century, and it’s the sound of a band making major strides in shaking off post-bop orthodoxy; adequately forward-thinking to rattle the cages of moldy figs and bebop militants, it still swung recognizably, if loosely and edgily.

The contrast in “Brings Goodness” is immediately felt in the hyper angularity of the head, the line exposing the accusations of charlatanism as misinformed huffing ; taken from recording dates for This Is Our Music (as is all the 1960 stuff), the increase in confidence is palpable, and the gutsy, bluesy unpredictability of Coleman’s solo is a joy.

Blackwell’s wilder approach to the kit underlines his New Orleans upbringing, and is an excellent fit for this rapidly evolving music. Haden, who added engaging forward motion to “Music Always,” now wields a highly beneficial vertical movement. He and Blackwell provide brief moments of individual expression as Cherry’s lengthier spot reveals his growing ease with a radical conception.

Contrary to many lazy synopses, with the exception of Free Jazz Coleman didn’t completely beak with Modern Jazz while on the Atlantic roster but instead advanced a sort of free-bop concept. That’s basically the scenario for the remainder of To Whom Who Keeps a Record and it was unquestionably influential as progressively-inclined (and piano-less) groups became more frequent as the ’60s unfurled.

After a somewhat harried opening line “To Us” tackles a faster tempo, with the rhythm section understandably devoted to maintaining momentum, though Blackwell’s solo is a treat. Coleman’s playing is superb, but it’s Cherry’s valve splatter that really stands out. Side one’s closer “All” begins as a smoother proposition and gives way to penetrating stabs of alto spiked with momentary flashes of the gutbucket.

The blues was never far from Coleman’s creativity, and it’s interesting to soak up how his iconoclastic style differed from the comparatively conventional explorations of Cherry. This is especially evident in “P.S. Unless One Has (Blues Connotation No. 2)” as the moans, wails, and agitated edge of the alto forecast the extroverted free blowing on jazz’s precipice.

“Some Other” stands apart in this program as a deeper immersion in the blues. It showcases the adaptability of Coleman’s new paradigm and the emotional heft of his playing, which was sometimes belittled as lightweight. “Some Other” also manages to illuminate the structural genuineness of what surrounds it, with the free-bop of “Motive for Its Use” closing the disc on a sturdy note.

Anyone with lingering doubts over the resuscitation of this former obscurity should appreciate that Atlantic put two Coleman albums a year into the racks from ’59 to ’61. Those LPs combine into a highpoint in 20th century music, and the three subsequent compilations add to the sum considerably, To Whom Who Keeps a Record finding Coleman’s accomplishment in rich supply.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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