Amazing Records That Sound Incredible: Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959; Atlantic, 1966)
Is there a more perfect moment in music than when, after some atmospheric scene-setting by Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, Ornette and Don Cherry come in HORNS BLARING on the extreme right and left, blasting out the immortal riff to “Lonely Woman”?
It is also a perfect hi-fi moment. Fond as I am of mono, especially for jazz of this era, this is an experience that you need to have in stereo. It’s one of the discs I like to put on for visiting friends. I love watching them get adjusted to the quiet start, find themselves enjoying it on its own merits… and then have the rug pulled out from under them, their noise floor shattered, their minds absolutely blown by the texture, sheer volume, and absolute beauty of those horns.
And that riff. For me, Ornette isn’t an album guy or even a song guy. He’s a RIFF guy — the Keith Richards of jazz.** There are other good songs and moments on this album, but nothing approaches that opening riff. And really, aside from the cartoonish “Ramblin’” (from Change of the Century) and clownish “Old Gospel” (from Jackie McLean’s New and Old Gospel, where Ornette plays trumpet) — nothing in his whole catalogue does.
I haven’t heard a 1959 stereo first pressing, but it’s hard to imagine it could sound any better than my 1966 US reissue. My reissue definitely sounds better to my ear than the recent Kevin Gray Speaker’s Corner reissue, which is terrific but a little too robust, lacking the sharp attack of a copy closer in time to the original tape. The two cost about the same, so get a 60s Atlantic! (Also: thick laminated cover, cool gold “Stereo” stamp, beautiful blue and green labels…)
** Speaking of rock legends: there is an amazing video of an older Lou Reed expressing his obsession with this very riff by singing it out. Seek it out on YouTube.
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