Impulse! Records Celebrates 50 Years of Jazz Innovation With Reissues, Box Set


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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Impulse! Records. Of course, John Coltrane (pictured) was the leading light on this revered imprint, releasing much of his '60s material on the label, but Impulse! was actually founded and run early on by legendary record producer Creed Taylor, who brought the label to immediate prominence under the ownership of ABC.

Now, Verve Records, which is in control of the Impulse! catalog these days, is marking the anniversary by a myriad of different activities that will include live performances celebrating the label and other goodies like reissues.

First off, there will be a new box set: 'First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary,' which will feature the first six albums put out by the label: Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson's 'The Great Kai and J.J.,' Ray Charles' 'Genius + Soul = Jazz,' Kai Winding's 'The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones,' the Gil Evans Orchestra's 'Out of the Cool,' Oliver Nelson's 'Blues and the Abstract Truth' and John Coltrane's 'Africa/Brass.'

This list includes a couple of genuine classics in the Nelson and Coltrane efforts, but the four-disc box will also have a 10-song disc of unreleased material. The biggest news here is that it includes three Coltrane demo recordings of the 'Africa/Brass' material, including the songs 'Laura,' 'The Damned Don't Cry' and 'Nakatini Serenade.' The total running time for the three tracks is only 7:46, but the quality is surprisingly good as it offers some insight into first kernels of thought that Coltrane had for that album (which was recorded months later). The seven other tracks include a mono version of the Ray Charles hit for the label 'One Mint Julip,' the Gil Evans Orchestra's 'Sister Sadie' and alternate studio takes of Coltrane's 'Africa/Brass' project's 'Africa,' 'The Damned Don't Cry,' 'Greensleeves' and 'Song for the Underground'—which have all seen the light of day before.

There is also tentative plans for two-fer reissues of Gil Evans' 'Out of the Cool' with 'Into the Hot,' Art Blakey's 'Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' with 'A Jazz Message,' Freddie Hubbard's 'The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard' with 'The Body and the Soul,' Charles Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady' with 'Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus,' Gabor Szabo's 'The Sorcerer' with 'More Sorcery' and Ahmad Jamal's 'Freeflight' with 'Outertimeinnerspace.' Also discussed in general terms by the label is a new unreleased in live date from John Coltrane—hopefully, it will be closer in sound quality an old radio broadcast released as 'One Up, One Down' than 'The Olatunji Concert,' which sounded like it was recorded inside a metal box. There will also be another box set toward the end of the year, but at this point no one is willing to say what it will include.

From 1961 to 1976, Impulse! was known not only for its great music but also its sense of style, which including the signature orange-and-black color scheme in the early years (the notable exception being the black-and-white 'A Love Supreme') and vivid photography all laid out on big, beautiful gatefold sleeves that were perfect for listeners to roll joints on. Of course, there was also the clever yin-and-yang-style “i!" logo—even back then it was about branding! It all invited the listener in with the promise of a great music or even a life-changing experience. This packaging as much as anything was the reason so many of the artists on the label crossed over into the broader listening public—to be fair, that gap wasn't as great as it is today, but it was nonetheless a gap to be bridged.

Watch John Coltrane's Live 'Afro Blue' Video

Releasing more than 300 albums during its initial era—it was brought back from 1995 to 1999 and was home to Diana Krall, Eric Reed, Donald Harrison and others—Impulse! started with a two-trombone date 'The Great Kai and J.J.' and concluded with Les McCann's 'Change Change Change: Live at the Roxy.' In between, there was broad range of material; nonetheless, truly it was the “House that Trane Built" (to steal a phrase from the label's marketing team).

Though the early years were marked by a number of popular titles, the label took on different identities as time passed. Though as varied as Coltrane himself, the label is perhaps best known for its embrace of the last great (or not so great, depending on your tastes) leap in jazz to the avant-garde. Coltrane led the way with albums that were increasingly demanding of listeners' attention and patience, and acolytes like Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, Alice Coltrane and Albert Ayler followed his lead. For the more political minded, there was the connection to the black power movement of the '60s as well as the arts for the sake of arts sentiment that reigned amongst youth of the era. Considering the challenging nature of the music, these artists had extremely successful runs on the label and proved that a label could turn a profit while releasing this kind of music.

The '70s found the label under different leadership. Label founder Creed Taylor was long gone, as was his successor, Bob Thiele, who worked very closely with Coltrane. Ed Michel, Steve Backer and Esmond Edwards each put his own stamp on the label, for better or worse before ABC shut the label down. The catalog passed from ABC to MCA to GRP to Verve, although much of this shifting was done because the parent companies were merged.

With Coltrane dying in 1967, the label's biggest star and defining voice stopped putting out music. There were a few artists of note on the label in the '70s, including some old jazz icons who continued to work. There were some successful newer artists at the time, like Keith Jarrett, John Handy and Gato Barbieri, emerging or putting out good if not career-defining work, while others like Michael White (no relation to the New Orleans clarenetist of the same name), Brass Fever, Grady Tate and Marcus Wade didn't really catch on. To be fair, Blue Note and the other jazz labels weren't faring much better, with the only real bright spot for jazz sales being the electric fusion of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Mahavishnu and Return to Forever.

As with most of retrospectives, Impulse! at 50 offers jazz fans a chance to stroll down memory lane, perhaps rediscovering a somewhat forgotten favorite or filling out holes in the collection. Perhaps fans are coming across this great music for the first time. Whatever your connection, one thing remains constant: This is a legacy that holds up a half-century later.

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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