The leading jazz label of the 60s and 70s, Impulse Records, receives a fitting -- if slick -- history.
Ashley Kahn has already written two books about jazz: Kind of Blue – The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece and A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. In his latest disc history, Kahn turns his attention to one of the most famous jazz labels of all time in the excellent The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the entertainment company ABC-Paramount was starting to get into the music business, and jazz, in those days, was still considered as having the commercial potential to be widespread pop music. And so the idea for a new jazz label was cooked up -- featuring a high-end product with carefully chosen artists, well-conceived album ideas, well-financed recording sessions, and slick package design: A black and orange spine, full-color gatefold covers, and a clever trademark: a distinctive i followed by an exclamation point.
The record label was called Impulse, and producer Taylor Creed was its guide during its formative years. Creed made a fine start. In addition to crafting a distinctively sellable package for Impulse, he did very well with his actual recordings.
Impulse’s first half dozen releases featured Kai Winding, JJ Johnson, Ray Charles, and Gil Evans – along with Oliver Nelson’s classic The Blues and The Abstract Truth and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass –this last album a hint of things to come from the musician who would be the definitive artist of the Impulse label. Although Creed left after a few years, he turned over a strong business to producer Bob Thiele, who developed the label into the high-minded imprint it ultimately became. His method was simple and fairly old school: hire great musicians, put them in the right circumstances, and let them do their thing.
Thiele, originally a fan of swing music, began his jazz re-education largely under the guidance of Coltrane, a musical partnership that led to release of albums by Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Chico Hamilton, Gabor Szabo, and Pharoh Sanders.
Thiele also had the good sense to let Coltrane follow his own rapid course of development, most notably in the production of Trane’s A Love Supreme in 1964, a pivotal point in the saxophonist’s creative trajectory. And it is Coltrane’s bold, passionate, and intelligent artistic sensibility which left a most lasting imprint on the label, even after Trane’s death in 1967 and Thiele’s departure. For the most part, even as ABC Records began to pressure Impulse for more profits, its later mainstream, avant-garde, world, and fusion projects still maintained a balance of originality, energy, brains, and even political awareness in the work of Shepp and Sanders, as well as Amhad Jamal, Alice Coltrane, Sun-Ra, John Klemmer, Gato Barbieri, Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, Marion Brown, and Keith Jarett.
Nevertheless, by 1977, the original Impulse Records stopped releasing new material and essentially became a back-catalogue label, with Coltrane’s classics leading the way. But what a run it was, and Kahn’s detailed and carefully-paced book tells the story exceptionally well, with generous helpings of interviews and photographs. And, better yet, the book is interspersed with fascinating mini-profiles of the production of almost 40 of the most famous albums ever released by Impulse.
At its best, Impulse Records was a thought, an idea: Give jazz and jazz artists the respect and support the music deserves, and recognition will follow, as well as profits, however modest.
Kahn puts it best in his closing chapter, a tribute the musician who stood for that idea as much as the label did.
He writes, “John Coltrane claimed on the cover of A Love Supreme that ‘one thought can produce millions of vibrations.’ Time has proven him correct: his own ideas and recordings have vibrated in that very quality. The House That Trane Built – as a record label, a musical approach, and a more inclusive way of hearing the world—continues to stand.”