It’s probably just an impression that I have, but recordings on the Impulse label are made up of a curious mixture of artists and styles. Over the years I have been very slow to start to listen and appreciate these beasts with their orange and black spines. My first three purchases were John Coltrane sets: The Gentle Side, a curious concoction of immediately essential ballads and vocal tracks that took time to grow on me; the masterful creation that is A Love Supreme and then the veritable maelstrom of Interstellar Space, which challenged me and anybody else within earshot and put me off Impulse for a couple of years. Along the way I’d also listened to Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village, where The Truth Is Marching In is another challenge (but one that has grown on me in the twenty-five years since I first heard it and I expect to return there in due course). I now have over well over 30 recordings on Impulse but that brush with Coltrane at his fiercest has made me wary.
Last week I was browsing in my local used record emporium when I came across Heavy Sounds. ‘What have we here?’ thought I. At first I wasn’t particularly keen, with the title seeming to scream “Danger! Audio Shock Ahead”. After all, this was an album centring on a drummer and a bass player. What could it possibly be like? How heavy would it be? Eventually, I sneered at caution, overcame the unworthy opponent blocking my path and parted with a couple of hard-earned leisure pounds.
I’m delighted that I did. The title is a poor one- Soul-Stirring Sounds would be far better, because it is a work that is diverse and impressive. Raunchy Rita, the opener is a delightful soul flavoured extravaganza. Without further ado, have a listen on YouTube courtesy of Rafael Garcia.
To play, click or touch the arrow.
Next up is a version of Shiny Stockings, a standard which was made popular by Count Basie in a version which featured a solo by Elvin Jones’s older brother, Thad. Elvin makes considerable use of the brushes in his drum accompaniment to this track.
M.E.is surprising. Although only four musicians appear on this track, it has a drilled, big band crispness- almost an orchestral sound. I would guess that this is down to the musical arrangement.
Summertime follows. The recording session was originally booked to feature the guitar of Larry Coryell, but he was unavailable. With studio time on their hands, Jones and Davis began to improvise around the great classic standard, which both men had dreamt of doing with full orchestral backing. The decision was made to record it as a duo and fortune intervened with the result that a special piece of music was created. Starting with bowed bass and atmospheric fills from Jones on the drums, this piece is one that you really should seek out and listen to.
Elvin’s Guitar Blues is next up and features the drummer on acoustic guitar, accompanied by Foster on tenor sax. It’s a delightful blues and sits very well in the context of the set. Here’s That Rainy Day is Foster’s vehicle, featuring a fine extended tone-poem of a saxophone solo that builds from being reflective and almost languid before soaring.
There’s an interesting diversion in quiz territory and if you are ever asked: ‘What links Van Morrison, Eric Dolphy and Bruce Springsteen?’, the answer follows:- Richard Davis played bass on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, considered by many critics to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time, as well as Bruce Springstein’s Born To Run and Laura Nyro’s Smile. He was also the bass player on Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch.
The front cover features a superbly lit, cigarette shrouded image taken by Charles (Chuck) Stewart, who has been responsible for over 3000 album covers to date. Given a basic Kodak camera as a schoolboy, he used it the day he received it to photograph the great Marian Anderson (the first Black woman to perform at NY Metropolitan Opera, as late as 1955!). The photos later sold, which meant that he was a professional photographer from the first day he owned a camera. A previously sourced interview with Stewart outlined his approach as a photographer (sadly the link had expired as of 250917):-‘I just saw a moment that I thought would be rather exciting, that moment when I pushed the button, and apparently it worked.’ He was clearly gifted with the ability to choose the elusive ‘decisive moment’ on very many occasions.
A quick look on Amazon indicates that the CD can get a bit pricy- so perhaps Heavy Sounds is an album to grab If you come across a copy while browsing the second hand music shops. If you do find it, don’t be put off by the title and buy without hesitation.
The band etc: Elvin Jones (drums; guitar track); Richard Davis (bass); Frank Foster (tenor saxophone: tracks 1-3, 5 & 6); Billy Greene (piano: tracks 1, 3, 5 & 6). Produced: Bob Thiele. Recorded: RCA Studios, New York City (not at RVG as sometimes claimed)19 & 20 June 1967. Cover Design: Barbara & Robert Flynn. Cover Photography: Charles Stewart. Released: 1968. Original release: AS 9160.
The recorded music that I write about here at downwithit Is a mixture of old favourite albums, some of which I’ve lived with for years and other sets that are much newer to my ears. This set, Thembi by Pharoah Sanders only came into my possession less than 24 hours ago.
Regular readers may have read my comments on Pharoah’s Africahere. I’ve been listening to his later albums for over 20 years now and I’ve seen this amazing performer live on a number of occasions, but for a variety of reasons I’ve not heard much of his earlier work on the Impulse label. I was put off in the case of Thembi by the cover portrait (a very poor excuse indeed). I am not very taken by Pharoah’s hat, tunic or unusual choice of instrument. How fickle and foolish can I get?After all, unusual hat choices have not stopped me listening to Monk. And I don’t suppose Pharoah would be very impressed by the clothes I chose and wore as the 1970’s progressed.
I can reveal that my fashion-led prejudice against Thembi has been exploded.
Thembi was Pharoah Sander’s 7th release and his 5th on Impulse. Some critics have noted a move away from muscular and strident free jazz on this set and have commented unfavourably on a record which Steve Huey (AllMusic) describes as being all over the map. We shall see.
The first track Astral Travelling is a gentle Lonnie Liston Smith composition. It is brought to you here on YouTube courtesy of Praguedive:-
To listen, touch or click on the arrow.
The stereo sound is most engaging with a myriad of percussion instruments adding texture and teasing the ears. I know little about studios and recording but I suspect that full use was made of the facilities for multi-tracking and over-dubbing available at The Record Plant in Los Angeles (tracks 1-3) and it’s sister Record Plant in New York City (tracks 4-6).
Red, Black & Green starts out with a minute of cacophony, which led to an unfavourable comparison to a new vacuum cleaner in my household. It soon resolves into a soundscape, albeit one overlaid with some challenging sounds, before entering the sombre yet beautiful territory that John Coltrane explored on the brief and stunning Alabama.
The title track Thembi returns to melody and light multi-layered percussion. It is a self-penned composition that charts the course that Pharoah would follow on his later albums (so much so that I just checked the six that were close at hand to see if this track had been revisited in later years. It had but only in kind).
Love offers bass player Cecil McBee a solo performance- another of Thembi’s soundscape for quiet reflection. It is the first of the three New York tracks, recorded in January 1971, 6 weeks after the LA session, and cuts into Morning Prayer. Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano is superb, on a par with that of Pharoah’s later and longstanding pianist, John Hicks. This, in turn, gives way to Bailophone Dance, a splendid closer which shows that Pharoah was listening and drawing on African music.
So there we have it, Pharoah Sanders Thembi. I should have listened to and acted on the wisdom of Bo Diddley:-
You can’t judge an apple by looking at the tree.
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee.
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother.
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover!
Or, evidently, a Pharoah Sanders album! It needn’t have feared the outmost extremities of free jazz because they are not here. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I have turned this around from shop to your desktop in less than 24 hours.
Tracks 1-3: Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Soprano saxophones, bells, percussion); Michael White (Violin, percussion); Lonnie Liston Smith (Piano, electric piano, claves, percussion); Cecil McBee (Bass, percussion); Clifford Jarvis (Drums, percussion); James Jordan (Ring Cymbals track 3).
Tracks 4-6: Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Soprano saxophones, Alto flute, brass bells, percussion etc); Lonnie Liston Smith (Piano, percussion, shouts); Cecil McBee (Bass, Bird effects); Roy Haynes (Drums); Chief Bey, Majid Shabazz, Anthony Wiles & Nat Bettis (African percussion). Recorded: Tracks 1-3: 25 November 1970: The Record Plant Los Angeles. Tracks 1-6: 12 January 1971: The Record Plant, New York City. Produced: Ed Michel & Bill Scymczyk. Recording engineer: Bill Scymczyk. Cover notes: Keorapetse Kgositsile. Originally issued as Impulse AS9206.