STLJN Audio Archive: The Leon Thomas Album
For this week's installment of the StLJN Audio Archive, we revisit The Leon Thomas Album, originally issued by the late singer and East St. Louisan Leon Thomas in 1970 on the now-defunct Flying Dutchman label.
In contrast to Thomas' sparse debut recording. Spirits Known and Unknown, which positioned him as part of the music's avant-garde, his second album as a leader features a full band arranged by saxophonist and St. Louis native Oliver Nelson and including a number of well-known mainstream jazz musicians of the time.
The track list on the album (pictured) includes Come Along," I Am," Bag's Groove," Um, Um, Um" and the LP-side-long Pharoah's Tune (The Journey)." The complete personnel includes Thomas (flute, percussion, vocals), Billy Harper (tenor sax), Howard Johnson (baritone sax), Jerome Richardson (alto sax), James Spaulding (flute), Donald Smith (flute), Ernie Royal (trumpet), Arthur Sterling (piano), Bob Cunningham (bass), John Williams (bass), Billy Cobham (drums), Roy Haynes (drums), Richard Landrum (percussion), Gene Golden (percussion), Sonny Morgan (percussion) and Oliver Nelson (arranger, conductor).
Here's what Thom Jurek of All Music Guide had to say:
Side one is the up-tempo jazz ride, as Thomas and company rip through a host of his own tunes, such as the scatted post-bop of I Am" and the nearly bar-walking blues of Come Along." But the side is graced by an absolutely stunning read of Milt Jackson's Bag's Groove," with Harper leading a five-horn section.The Leon Thomas Album has been out of print for years, and apparently never made it to CD. While vinyl copies do pop up on online auction sites from time to time, you can download a free .mp3 of the album, courtesy of the music-sharing blog Orgy in Rhythm, here.
The real gem on the album is Pharaoh's Tune (The Journey)," which comprises all of side two. After setting up a live audience with a narrative laced with sound effects from the vanguard jazzers, the tune develops its groove about four minutes in and the bells and yodel come out, and from here it's Thomas at his improvisational best as both a singer and a bandleader. Everybody here is inspired, especially the two drummers. Harper, Spaulding, and Smith weave snake-charming lines around one another, and the entire thing just lifts off and never returns. It's a breathtaking ride made all the more so by the long, jazzed-out setup of side one. Why this guy wasn't huge is a mystery.
The StLJN Audio Archive links only to recordings that are out-of-print or that never have been commercially available. The purpose of the Audio Archive is to encourage discussion, appreciation and knowledge of St. Louis jazz artists, and we urge you to support them (or their estates) by purchasing authorized recordings and merchandise and, whenever possible, attending live performances.