Free Jazz in stereo

The Speakers Corner reissue retains the gorgeous die cut front cover, the gatefold framing a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s “White Light.” I discovered Pollock in the late 1960s, attending an open curriculum college where my only art class encouraged students to emulate Pollock’s style. But I was already a record junky and spotted the Pollock front piece on the Free Jazz cover flipping through record bins. That purchase led to a lifelong love affair with Ornette’s music.

Maybe Atlantic’s recording style in the late 1950s and through the 1960s didn’t give the sound of Blue Note or Contemporary records a run for their money. However, the no nonsense style was more than adequate with small jazz ensembles or rhythm and blues. Coleman’s double quartet format and wild improvisation was much more challenging and, for many decades I concluded it was more than Atlantic’s recording engineer Tom Dowd could handle. The original stereo sounded somewhat jumbled and artificially separated, with a hole in the middle of the soundstage. The mono original was an improvement in musical terms, but fell short of placing the players properly in space. The structure of the recording was just calling out for proper stereo presentation. You are supposed to differentiate the two quartets, but not isolate them in different rooms as the original, and a 2012 ORG Music reissue seemed to do.

Thus the low expectations with which I queued up this latest reissue, mastered by Kevin Gray. i should have had more faith. it was immediately apparent that, for the first time, this latest version clearly presents the two bands in a seamless space, without the huge hole in the middle found on earlier stereo pressings. It has never sounded better. If you are new to Ornette Coleman, this record will likely challenge and disconcert, at least at first – a bit like Alice entering Wonderland through the rabbit hole or stumbling through the looking glass. But the really good news is that this Speakers Corner reissue delivers the clarity and sense of spatial relationships that finally allows you to see into the recording, the kind of clarity necessary to appreciate this complex music. Free jazz can take you to an alternate universe – if it doesn’t drive you out of the room first. Give Free Jazz more than a single listen, and (especially with this new reissue) you may, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, wonder what is jazz but a dream?