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Reissue traces jazz giant Ornette Coleman's 'Genesis of Genius'

ADAM SCOTT: This is FRESH AIR. There's a new reissue of jazz giant Ornette Coleman's first LPs from the late 1950s, just before he began making the records with his own bands that made him a controversial jazz star. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has been listening to early Ornette with fresh ears and likes the music more than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "WHEN WILL THE BLUES LEAVE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In LA in the 1950s, young Ornette Coleman wrote catchy melodies and played alto sax like Charlie Parker's country cousin. Improvising on a tune, he might stretch or scrunch or bend its form out of shape. Old blues guys could stuff like that, not modern jazzers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "WHEN WILL THE BLUES LEAVE")

WHITEHEAD: Ornette Coleman's "When Will the Blues Leave." The Contemporary label liked his tunes and offered to record Coleman with his alter ego Don Cherry on cornet. But the label wanted Ornette's new style songs played old style with a hired rhythm section and without the bluesy deviations. I used to hear Coleman's first album "Something Else!!!!" as freewheeling horns railing against stubborn rhythm players. Listening to it now, I hear Ornette and Don Cherry obligingly giving up some freedom to put their sidemen at ease by sticking to the grid. But the horns keep their searing, bluesy blend that conveys Ornette's characteristic happy, sad, urban, rustic effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "THE BLESSING")

WHITEHEAD: That's "The Blessing," early 1958. A year and a half later, when Ornette's quartet hit New York, playing in their rambling new style, skeptics questioned whether he played, quote, "wrong," unquote, because he couldn't play right. But the album "Something Else!!!!" had already demonstrated he could do that. Not that he and Don Cherry didn't test the limits a little. On "The Sphinx," Cherry sounds like he's trying to coax any kind of reaction out of Sphinx-like pianist Walter Norris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "THE SPHINX")

WHITEHEAD: Ornette Coleman shied away from pianists for decades after his first LP. But he held on to the date's drummer, elegantly swinging Billy Higgins. Ornette's second album for Contemporary, 1959's "Tomorrow Is The Question!," is closer to his own flexible quartet concept. But, again, it ropes in musicians from outside his circle. On drums is West Coast kingpin Shelly Manne, who can hear Ornette's lines need punctuation, but isn't always sure what kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "TURNAROUND")

WHITEHEAD: Red Mitchell on bass. On most of Ornette's second record, the bassist is Percy Heath, from the very proper Modern Jazz Quartet, an unexpected hotbed of Coleman fans. Ornette's spontaneity made him tricky to accompany. But Percy Heath gets it. Rather than define the forms too closely, he plays roaming bass lines loosely tethered to the home key, kind of like Coleman regular Charlie Haden. Years later, folks would call this style of accompaniment time, no changes. You can hear it on the tune "Tomorrow Is The Question!" No complaints about Shelly Manne's brushwork here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "TOMORROW IS THE QUESTION!")

WHITEHEAD: Ornette Coleman's writing had first brought him to the Contemporary label's attention. And he recorded so many good tunes, a few got overlooked. The 11-1/2-bar gem "Mind And Time" has a taunting little two-note kicker that sounds like a kid might have thought it up - a kid with Ornette's gift for earworms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "MIND AND TIME")

WHITEHEAD: Ornette Coleman's two albums for Contemporary are now back on CD and LP as "Genesis Of Genius" - just the kind of grandiose title his records got early on. Back then, Ornette's champions made extravagant claims on his behalf - that his tunes would become classics, that jazz would never be the same, that his quartet was the hottest thing on New York's incandescent 1959 jazz scene. The thing about Ornette is all that hype turned out to be true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "TEARS INSIDE")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Genesis Of Genius: The Contemporary Albums," a new reissue of Ornette Coleman's first LPs from the late 1950s. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new crime drama series "Tokyo Vice," about Tokyo's criminal underworld. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.