Rhino Records has come to refer to itself as the master of reissue. For once, a company's rhetoric matches its place in the market.
In three recently released box sets, Rhino set out to document recordings by musical giants--Ornette Coleman, Otis Redding and Charles Mingus--and, through meticulous care and sparkling remasters and mixes, has succeeded in producing wonderful collections.
The six-CD Ornette Coleman collection, Beauty Is A Rare Thing--The Complete Atlantic Recordings is the most ambitious and most successful of these three sets.
Many of Coleman's groundbreaking works from the late '50s and early '60s were recorded for one of Coleman's eight Altantic albums. These entire albums are on Beauty Is A Rare Thing, as is one album previously only released in Japan, and six previously unreleased selections.
This is Coleman--perhaps the greatest plastic alto saxophonist of all times--at his anguished, melodic best. Most of the tracks on this set feature Don Cherry on pocket-trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums--musicians who all were serious innovators in their own rights. It was this quartet that established what came to be known as free jazz, and it was these recordings that did the establishing.
Being able to trace Coleman's amazing, groundbreaking rise in the jazz world is the most satisfying aspect of this set. The beatuiful intricacies of "Ramblin" and the startlingly solos on "Free Jazz" are perfectly transferred, guaranteeing a strong result, for this collection can not be critisized on musical grounds.
One unfortunate drawback to arranging the whole of an artist's work, however, is that some of the amazing clarity of individual albums gets lost in the newly-born sequences. Change of the Century and The Shape of Jazz to Come, both great Coleman albums, are better served by listening to them straight through (just imagine what it would be like hearing Miles Davis's Kind of Blue with other tracks thrown in between).
But this is a necessary evil. Beauty Is A Rare Thing is an amazing collection of the work of an amazing musician. The set comes with a well-written 72-page booklet that features about twenty-pages of quotes (lots of predictable stuff such as, "I don't know what he's playing, but I know it's not jazz...") and a couple of decent essays.
Charles Mingus's Thirteen Pictures, a two-CD set, part of an ongoing Rhino Presents The Atlantic Jazz Gallery series, tries to provide a retrospective of Mingus's whole career, without releasing all of something.
For the most part, the set succeeds. The 13 tracks selected here all capture Mingus's eccentric brilliance and startling arranging style.
And, somehow, the set manages to steer clear from feeling like each song was meant to be a token something ("Cumbia & Jazz Fusion" the one Latin song, "Myself When I Am Real" the one piano song, "Meditations on Integration" the one social-protest song, and so on), perhaps because every piece in this set is so breathtaking.
Mingus's jaunty, powerful bass lines on classics such as "Haitian Fight Song," "Better Get Hit In Your Soul" and "Ecclusiastics" are truly inspiring in their power and realization.
On Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, Rhino tries to achieve a balance between the all-encompassing Ornette set and the overviewish Mingus set; instead of giving you all of Otis, they'll give you all you could ever want.
This four-CD set is roughly organized according to CD, foscusing, in turn, on early singles, then, later, more modern stuff--posthomous tracks released after Otis's death (he died in a plane crash in December 1967)--and live recordings.
The first three CDs are pretty much what you'd expect; there's not a lot of new stuff here, but it's a nice collection, and long overdue, considering the boxed-set attention that other artists get. (Come on, how much do we really need a Donovan box set?)
What's really striking about this collection is the live material on the last disk. This collection has none of the problems of consistency that plague the plethora of live Otis albums currently available. Remastered and cleaned up, Rhino includes some of the best Otis tracks recorded (a soul-wrenching "Try A Little Tenderness", for one) as well as some great tracks recorded at audibly small venues--on the classic "These Arms of Mine," women can be heard repeatedly offering Otis their arms for comfort.
Rhino is planning to continue re-releasing old Atlantic catalogs. If they sustain the intelligence and care they did in both the selection and composition of these three sets, future releases should prove to be as sure a bet as these three are.
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