Thursday, May 19, 2011

First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary

It was 50 years ago this year that ABC Records, having recent success with such pop acts as Paul Anka, Buddy Holly and others, decided to create a specialty label specifically designed for jazz music. One of the company’s most successful producers, Creed Taylor, who had already brought the company a significant modicum of success creating some fairly profitable novelty records and jazz discs – notably Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s Sing A Song Of Basie, Quincy Jones’s This Is How I Feel About Jazz and Billy Taylor’s My Fair Lady - lobbied hard to take charge of the endeavor.

Taylor was given the green light and ended up forming one of America’s most iconic-ever jazz labels, Impulse Records. He already had strong connections in the jazz world, allowing him to immediately start working with jazz’s greatest artists and some of the art’s emerging talent.

He became intimately involved in formulating the label’s name and identity, resulting in one of the strongest brands that jazz has ever known, before or since. Oddly, Taylor’s first idea was to name the label “Pulse,” to capture the intense rhythmic feel of jazz. But the name was already taken. He then came up with “Impulse,” which reflects the essence of jazz even better.

He and his secretary at the time, Margo Guryan, who later became a songwriter and artist in her own right, conceived the bold orange and black colors as well as the brilliantly conceived logo utilizing a lower-case “i” (the first letter of the label’s name) and inverting the letter to become an exclamation mark (“!”).

Taylor insisted on high-gloss, heavy cardboard, gatefold covers with exceptional four-color photography (coordinated by frequent associate, photographer Pete Turner) – a philosophy he would insist upon again when starting his own CTI Records label in 1970 - and something that no other jazz label was doing at the time. This sort of lavishness was given only to classical records of the period. And this was the sort of importance Creed Taylor insisted was necessary for and not hitherto given to good jazz.

Impulse snagged both Ray Charles and John Coltrane away from Atlantic Records, ensuring a huge amount of credibility for the label and permitting Taylor to pursue pet projects like Kai Winding (he’d had great success with Winding and J.J. Johnson at Bethlehem a few years before) and give relative unknowns like Oliver Nelson a shot.

Charles went onto record for ABC Paramount, heading up his unbelievably popular country and western albums, without returning to Impulse. But Coltrane, of course, went on to wax some of his greatest, most searing and highly searching, music for the Impulse label through his 1967 death. He also acted as a catalyst to bring other jazz leaders like McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane to the label.

After only six productions, Creed Taylor was lured by MGM to head up Verve Records, which had recently been sold to the film and music company by label founder Norman Granz - who curiously went on to produce Coltrane’s European concerts in 1962 with Eric Dolphy that resulted after Creed Taylor waxed Africa/Brass for Impulse.

Taylor left Impulse and his dream of running his own jazz label in order to helm an established jazz legacy that included such greats as Johnny Hodges and Stan Getz, with whom he coordinated the popular introduction of Bossa Nova into the world’s musical vocabulary.

Taylor would achieve huge hits at Verve with Bossa Nova leaders Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, João Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto, Walter Wanderley and others as well as jazz hits for Jimmy Smith, Kai Winding, Bill Evans, Gary McFarland and many others before leaving for A&M in 1967 and starting his own CTI label in 1970.

Five months after Taylor’s departure from Impulse, ABC brought in producer Bob Thiele to run things. Thiele (1922-86), a closet jazz fanatic who had earlier recorded jazz greats for his own Signature label, had also produced hits for ABC by Buddy Holly and wife-to-be Theresa Brewer.

It is Bob Thiele who gave Impulse the great diversity and impressive reputation it has to this day, prolifically capturing Coltrane, giving “free jazz” an outlet and one of its only airings on a major label at the time, recording jazz traditionalists like Duke Ellington (and a number of Ellingtonians), Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines and Pee Wee Russell, organ combos, psychedelic pop-jazz fusions and cutting-edge upstarts that other labels of the day were unwilling to record.

Thiele started several Impulse subsidiary labels (notably BluesWay) but departed in 1969 to run his own Flying Dutchman label and related subsidiaries. The Impulse label drafted several more high profile producers to take over, including Ed Michel and Esmond Edwards. But things pretty much ground to a halt in 1979.

Attempts to revive the label happened in the mid ‘80s by the label’s owners at the time, MCA), then again in the ‘90s by GRP. But Impulse is not what it used to be. There really isn’t an Impulse anymore. Impulse is now merely one of the Verve Music Group’s “imprints” and the occasional CD pops up bearing the Impulse logo, including Alice Coltrane’s swan song, Translinear Light (2004), and José James and Jef Neve’s For All We Know (2010).

Still, the label that crafted so many jazz classics deserves to be celebrated. Fifty years after its initial formation, Impulse should be recognized and appreciated for what it achieved.

This particularly handsome set is a fair introduction to the label, beautifully and thoroughly exploring its origins, but sadly disregarding the entirety of Impulse’s post-Creed Taylor legacy.

First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary captures the first of the label’s six recordings, namely J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding’s The Great Kai & J.J., Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz, Kai Winding’s The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones (never before on US CD), The Gil Evans Orchestra’s Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s Blues And The Abstract Truth (a title mistakenly preceded with “The” in its earliest form and carried through on multiple reissues), The John Coltrane Quartet’s Africa/Brass, the monaural 45 version of Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep,” previously issued bonus tracks from Gil Evans and John Coltrane and several unessential Coltrane rehearsal takes never before released.

Beautifully packaged, this celebratory set includes four tremendously warm sounding discs (re-mastered from Rudy Van Gelder’s original recordings in 2010 by original producer Creed Taylor, in his first work-for-hire stint in over four decades, with Universal Music’s Kevin Reeves) presented as part of a hardcover book, measuring 10 inches by 10 inches (why not 12 by 12, like an LP?), with 80 pages of text, full-color pictures, reproductions of each album cover and inside gatefold sleeve. The design is gorgeous and the paper stock is just as classy as you would expect a tribute to Impulse Records to be.

Ashley Kahn, author of the less-than-stellar book on the Impulse label, The House That Trane Built (2007) and producer/annotator of the corresponding four-disc label overview The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (also 2007), provides a particularly well written and worthy label history (and introduction), transcribes commentary and remembrances from Creed Taylor and includes interesting background to the origin of each one of the six albums featured here.

And the music is, simply, to die for. It should surprise no one that at least four of these recordings rank not only as some of the Impulse label’s most historic outings, but flourish as some of the most essential recordings in the entirety of jazz. It’s no coincidence that Creed Taylor, who has produced more than his fair share of immortal jazz classics, helmed all six albums, the only music he made at Impulse. And even though some of the music here might not reach the timeless status of, say, a desert island disc, all of it is lovingly conceived and immaculately delivered.

The First Impulse package matches this distinction, offering a stunning and enduring presentation of audible and packaging artistry.

All tracks were supervised by Creed Taylor and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, with the exception of John Coltrane’s three never-before released “rehearsal” tunes at the end of Disc 4.

Disc 1 features The Great Kai & J.J. (Impulse A(S)-1) by J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding with the tracks “This Could Be The Start Of Something,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Blue Monk,” “Judy,” “Alone Together,” “Side By Side,” “I Concentrate On You,” “Moonglow/Theme From ‘Picnic’,” “Trixie,” “Going, Going, Gong!” and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones (Impulse A(S)-3) by Kai Winding with tracks “Just For A Thrill,” “Speak Low,” “Lil Darlin’,” “Doodlin’,” “Love Walked In,” “Mangos,” “Impulse,” “Black Coffee,” “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” “Michie (Slow)” and “Michie (Fast).”

[Interestingly, The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones is the only one of the six albums included in the First Impulse set that has never been issued on CD in the US. Guess not everything here is as “legendary” as we’re made to believe. Despite its appearance on a long out-of-print Japanese CD, First Impulse marks the remarkably rare Kai Winding album’s long-awaited and worthy American CD debut.]

Disc 2 features Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse A(S)-2) by Ray Charles (with the Count Basie band, arranged by Quincy Jones) with tracks “From The Heart,” “I’ve Got News For You,” “Moanin’,” “Let’s Go,” “One Mint Julep” (Impulse’s first and nearly only hit single), “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town,” “Stompin’ Room Only,” “Mister C,” “Strike Up The Band,” and “Birth Of The Blues” and Out of the Cool (Impulse (A(S)-4) by The Gil Evans Orchestra with (the great) “La Nevada,” “Where Flamingos Fly,” “Bilbao Song,” “Stratusphunk” and “Sunken Treasure.“

[Curiously, Concord Jazz now owns the rights to Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz and has reissued the set several times, pairing this landmark Impulse set (Charles’s only appearance on the label) with instrumentally-oriented sets Charles did later in his career for his own Tangerine label bearing the moniker My Own Kind of Jazz.]

Disc 3 features Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse A(S)-5) by the Oliver Nelson Sextet (featuring such stellar talent as Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, George Barrow, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes) with (the immortal) “Stolen Moments,” “Hoe-Down,” “Cascades,” “Yearnin’,” “Butch and Butch” and “Teenie’s Blues” and Africa /Brass (Impulse A(S)-6) by The John Coltrane Quartet (with orchestra arranged by John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and conducted by Eric Dolphy) with “Africa,” “Greensleeves” and “Blues Minor.”

Disc 4 contains the “extras,” such as they are, including Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep (mono single version)” – added at producer Creed Taylor’s insistence – Gil Evans’s “Sister Sadie” (which first saw the light of day on a 1978 compilation LP and was included on an American CD version of Out of the Cool issued by GRP in the 1990s), the extra Coltrane tracks from Africa/Brass, which made up a second volume LP in the ‘70s and was included on a double disc Africa/Brass CD issued in the ‘90s (the great “Song Of The Underground Railroad,” “Greensleeves (alternate take),” “The Damned Don’t Cry,” “Africa (first version)” and the Coltrane rehearsal tracks of “Laura,” “Nakatine” and “The Damned Don’t Cry.”

For more detail and to purchase, visit Hip-o

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