Friday, March 24, 2023

Bob Thiele Emergency – “Head Start” (1969)

I. Bob Thiele

Bob Thiele is best known these days as the producer responsible for making Impulse Records the iconic label it became in the sixties. Thiele took over Impulse after founder Creed Taylor left (after about a half dozen iconic releases) for more lucrative work at Verve in 1961.

But if Impulse is now considered “The House Trane Built,” it is significantly due to Thiele’s undaunting and visionary patronage of saxophonist John Coltrane. Thiele gamely let Coltrane record whatever he wanted – balanced by occasional appeals to the mainstream – even while critics were harsh and sales were negligible.

Only Coltrane’s early death enshrined his Thiele-produced recordings as great sermons in the church of Impulse.

While Thiele’s belief in and support of Coltrane seemed at the time to bet against the odds – jazz’s big short – Thiele was hardly a novice in the jazz world. In his teens, Thiele founded his own jazz label (Signature) and co-founded his own jazz magazine (called Jazz, appropriately enough, and later Jazz & Pop).

When Signature failed – Thiele always seemed to favor, even celebrate, out-of-fashion players and styles – Thiele took a job as staff producer at Coral Records. There, he produced hits for Buddy Holly and Theresa Brewer, who would later become his wife. Thiele was also known for arranging many jazz-first collaborations, such as the historic meeting in 1960 between Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

II. Bob Thiele Albums

Less known about Bob Thiele is the catalog of recordings he made under his own name. These in-name-only recordings were often made in the company of rotating studio musicians and/or star soloists known as “The New Happy Times Orchestra” (1967-1974) and, later, “The Bob Thiele Collective” (1991-93).

Few jazz producers had the name recognition – or the chutzpah – to record under their own names. Norman Granz, however, attached his name to those Jazz at the Philharmonic records in the fifties. And Creed Taylor, who literally signed his name to his productions, briefly attached his name to several novelty records (1958-60) in an effort to cloak the actual leadership of Kenyon Hopkins, signed to another label at the time.

Curiously, Thiele – who “rubber stamped” his Impulse, ABC and BluesWay productions – only started recording under his own name after John Coltrane’s July 1967 death. Perhaps as sole champion of the now-revered jazz icon, Thiele felt he had market cachet. But most of these records – save the icky tribute “There Once Was a Man Named John” on the otherwise underrated Thiele-led The Mysterious Flying Orchestra (1977) – had precious little to do with John Coltrane.

And none were particularly popular.

The best, or at least best-known, Thiele projects were often features for strong soloists. These likely include the big band psych jazz of 1967’s Light My Fire, with guitarist Gabor Szabo and saxophonist Tom Scott, and the surprisingly consistent and straight-ahead Sunrise Sunset (1991), a feature for David Murray (!) with sterling support from John Hicks, Cecil McBee and Andrew Cyrille.

More often than not, Bob Thiele-led records were unholy mish mashes that blended in styles with out modes, like the strange fusion that is 1975’s I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood - credited in classic easy-listening fashion to “Bob Thiele & His Orchestra” – featuring several of Oliver Nelson’s final works and soloists such as Tom Scott, Mike Wofford and Oscar Brashear.

(The album’s odd title is based on a 1939 headline in DownBeat magazine regarding boogie woogie pianist Pinetop Smith’s 1929 death. Thiele covers “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” on the album, in addition to a particularly lovely cover of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Theme from ‘Chinatown’.”)

III. Flying Dutchman

By 1969, Bob Thiele officially left Impulse and began contracting his services to the label. He’d even scored a surprise hit there that year with Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” That year also saw Thiele launch his own label, Flying Dutchman Records.

Named for the 18th-century myth about a ghost ship forever doomed to sail the seven seas, Flying Dutchman seemed to catalog Thiele’s interest in recording jazz, both mainstream and cutting edge, Broadway musicals as well as R&B and soul.

Not only did Thiele go a long way to chronicle activism and poetry in his Flying Dutchman productions – something particularly daring and unusual for jazz labels or any major label to take on at the time – he was also hugely responsible for the wave of “spiritual jazz” that emerged during the turn of the decade.

Flying Dutchman’s fourth release was a double-disc set called Head Start, helmed by an all-over-the-map collective billed as the “Bob Thiele Emergency.” Released in November 1969, Head Start is ostensibly a label sampler, featuring such Flying Dutchman artists as Tom Scott, Ornette Coleman, Jon Appleton, Horace Tapscott, John Carter and Bobby Bradford.

But this was hardly a label sampler. It is more a declaration of what Bob Thiele hoped to achieve on his label. In terms familiar to filmgoers, think of Bob Thiele as a director and Head Start as a series of short films with various musicians as the stars.

IV. Emergency

Likely riffing off the Tony Williams Lifetime’s then-recent and similarly double-disc set Emergency!, the oddly dubbed “Bob Thiele Emergency” is less about making a musical statement than marketing a manifesto. Whereas Williams set out to chart a course at the crossroads of jazz and rock, Thiele seems to suggest here that there was more than one way to chronicle jazz at the dawn of the seventies.

Head Start - the title likely conveys Thiele’s idea of a “sneak peak” of what the listener can expect from Flying Dutchman – is roughly divided in to four parts, one for each side of the original record and each trafficking in different kinds of jazz. The range mirrors much of the music Thiele oversaw during his years at Impulse: from commercial (side one) and traditional (parts of side two) to “New Thing” and avant-garde (sides two and three).

Tom Scott kicks off side one with a large ensemble of L.A. studio players wailing on the title track. It’s a bit of righteous funk straight out of a Lalo Schifrin action movie score or the TV show Mannix. It’s the same kind of groove that made Scott’s later Starsky & Hutch theme song so infectious.

Like many of Scott’s other riff-based compositions, it’s catchy, even earwormy, and should probably have been a hit – for somebody. But it somehow died on the vine. (Scott would perform the song again on the 1971 album Better Days by Joe Pass, who makes a brief appearance elsewhere here.)

Next up is Scott’s ”Freaky Zeke,” one of those sleazy blues numbers so many movies and TV programs cued up at the time to suggest a strip joint or seedy bar. Other than Howard Roberts’ fuzz-guitar solo, there’s nothing much going on here.

This leads into a suite called “Beatle Ballads,” with Scott-arranged takes of “Blackbird,” “Julia” and “I Will,” all of which originally appeared on the Fab Four’s so-called White Album). The weird Tijuana Brass take on the otherwise pretty “I Will,” however, throws the suite for a loop (it sounds like a parody of something). It would have been much more memorable if Scott & Co. simply took on “Blackbird,” a lovely feature for Scott on flute.

The funky ”Lanoola Goes Limp” was written by Jules Chaiken, rock journalist Ellen Sander (!) and Artie Butler, writing under his Max Hardy pseudonym, for a 1969 Thiele-produced record by the so-called Plaster Caster Blues Band, a studio group featuring, among others, George Smith (who factors on this record’s “Pickin’ Taters Blues,” and co-written by Flying Dutchman artist Esther Marrow).

”Lanoola” showed up again on another Thiele production by the so-called Revolutionary Blues Band (also 1969), another studio concoction, there featuring Tom Scott. On this particular variation, Roger Kellaway takes an edgy funk solo and Scott’s signature sound is ever present. But the jokey New Orleans bits heard here seem a bit off-putting and make this listener wonder what they were up to.

Turning side one over reveals an ambitious six-part history called “The Jazz Story,” which swings from the blues to the “Avant Garde” – with four pieces written by Tom Scott and performed by a quintet featuring Horace Tapscott, John Carter and Bobby Bradford. Not much of it leaps past mere music-school exercises. No less an authority than Quincy Jones would be stymied by this sort of thing a few years later. So, the less said here, the better.

Moving on to side three reveals the second of the record’s themed “suites,” the mostly moving “Dedication to John Coltrane.”

The three pieces heard here make for a heady brew of jazz that’s more contemplative than swinging, and considerably more compelling than the usual filler on the typical Thiele-led disc. First up is the haunting improvisation “Lament for John Coltrane,” with Joe Farrell on flute and former Coltrane associates Wilbur Little on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. A whole album of this trio would have been monumental. But you’ll have to go to Blue Note for Elvin Jones’ Poly-Currents to hear more.

Next is Coltrane’s prayer “A Love Supreme” (the text of which was reproduced on the inner sleeve of Coltrane’s 1964 album of the same name), read by NYC DJ Rosko (a.k.a. William “Rosko” Mercer) – who factored on several other Flying Dutchman albums at the time – and accompanied by Farrell’s otherworldly flute.

This side wraps with the wails of love and anguish of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s “Holiday for a Graveyard,” recorded live – with what sounds like a hand-held tape recording of the performance – at Coltrane’s July 21, 1967, funeral.

Finally, the record wraps with a strange, yet fascinating experimental 17-minute piece titled “A Few Thoughts for the Day.” Built on a framework of Tom Scott’s horn and percussion framework (predating his similar-sounding score to the 1972 film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) and leavened with the electronics of electro-acoustic composer Jon Appleton , “A Few Thoughts” mixes in vocal samples of Martin Luther King, Richard Daley, Robert Kennedy and various news announcers.

While ”A Few Thoughts” hints at the activism Thiele would advocate for at Flying Dutchman – issuing narrative records on the massacre at My Lai and the Kent State murders as well as records by Carl B. Stokes and Angela Davis – Thiele had briefly explored this sort of thing before, notably on Oliver Nelson’s 1967 The Kennedy Dream.

If anything screams “Emergency” here, it is certainly “A Few Thoughts for the Day,” a threnody on violence that has, remarkably, stood the test of time.

V. Afterlife

Grand as Thiele’s intentions may have been here, it’s fair to say that few took Head Start seriously. Indeed, few took to Head Start at all. The record received almost no coverage. But what little was written diverged wildly: Cash Box called it “magnificent” while Billboard came much closer, dubbing the double-disc set “a mixed bag.” Sales were even less encouraging.

The mostly uncommercial Head Start surprisingly yielded no less than three single releases: a 2:27 edit of “A Few Thoughts for the Day” (FD DJ-1); the catchy and hit-worthy “Head Start” b/w “Freaky Zeke” (FD 26005); and a 3:07 edit of “Lament for John Coltrane” b/w “A Love Supreme,” the b-side credited solely to Rosko (FD 26006). But none of these got further than the “promotional only” stage, meaning none received the radio airplay or interest that would yield to a full release, at least one that anyone would buy – making those promos exceedingly rare finds for anyone interested these days.

Thiele managed to put out nearly a hundred discs on Flying Dutchman and its subsidiary labels through 1976. But pretty much all of Head Start’s headliners had flown the coop within that first year. The label ended up building its reputation – if not its coffers – with later recordings by Gil Scott-Heron, Leon Thomas, Gato Barbieri and Lonnie Liston Smith.

After Tom Scott scored his own hit with the L.A. Express in 1974 on another label, Flying Dutchman put out the cleverly-titled 1975 compilation Tom Scott in L.A., a decent set including Head Start’s first three songs (also never issued on CD).

The first five years of the Flying Dutchman catalog was later acquired by the British label Ace Records, whose BGP division issued Head Start on CD in 2013. The CD is well worth acquiring as it includes a previously unissued version of Tom Scott’s terrific bossa “The Flying Dutchman” – but none of the single edits noted above. The 2013 BGP compilation Liberation Music: Spiritual Jazz And The Art Of Protest On Flying Dutchman Records 1969-1974 also includes the above noted "Lament for John Coltrane."

It’s a shame the rest of the record isn’t like this. “The Flying Dutchman” was first heard in a different iteration on the 1969 Flying Dutchman record Hog Fat by drummer Jimmy Gordon, who died last week at age 77 while still incarcerated for the 1983 murder of his mother. Gordon is heard on the Tom Scott-helmed numbers heard here.

Jimmy Gordon and Tom Scott also reunited with Bob Thiele for the producer/nominal leader’s even more uneven 1975 album I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood.

To Bob Thiele’s credit, Head Start neither wallows in the past nor curries much favor with the then-in present. This is a record that looked forward to what jazz could have been in the seventies. While Thiele didn’t get it right (at least here) – the way producer Creed Taylor memorably accomplished at CTI and Kudu – his vision for jazz’s future at a real crossroads at the time was noble and well worth hearing. Head Start is the single-most forward-looking disc in the entire discography under Bob Thiele’s name.

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