Impulse’s Deep Bench: The New 2-fers

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 04.18.12 in Spotlights

Mysteries / Shades

Keith Jarrett, Lucy Stoltzman & The New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

There was always more to Impulse than John Coltrane. As part of the label’s 50th anniversary victory lap in 2011, Impulse launched the “2-on-1″ reissue series, pairing compatible ’60s or ’70s LPs, usually on one CD. The series digs deep into that catalogue’s riches, reflecting its diversity. The New York avant-garde is represented, but also bebop and hardbop stars, distinguished Ellingtonians, drummers and pop-influenced guitarists: music for big, small, hot and sweet bands. The series even includes some of the overproduced ’70s stuff that chased crossover success. If you want to know why some jazz fans still hate the ’70s, what the estimable Sonny Criss, John Handy and Blue Mitchell recorded before Impulse went dormant shortly afterwards. (MCA revived the brand in the mid ’80s.)

Those last items referenced are in the second, winter 2012 batch of 2-in-1′s, containing one bona fide essential — twinned Charles Mingus 11-tet classics from 1963 that ably juggle his gospel, Ellington and jump-blues strains — and more notable releases than we have room to discuss.

Coltrane admired his fellow fast, interval-minded, tough-sounding tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, who rarely recorded outside Sun Ra’s orbit. But Gilmore did a few ringer sessions in the ’60s, starting with 1962′s The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard where the saxophonist holds his own in fast Jazz Messenger-ish company including trombonist Curtis Fuller and pianist Tommy Flanagan. Hubbard was then Art Blakey’s trumpet star, and his crackle, attitude and manly swagger raise the bar for his mates. That session’s paired with Freddie’s Body and Soul, for which Wayne Shorter arranged extra horns and occasional strings. Eric Dolphy’s flute is uncharacteristically out of tune in a couple of spots, but he makes up for it with the skittering alto solo kicking off “Clarence’s Place.”

The circle of players Coltrane brought to Impulse included altoist Marion Brown, who’d played on Ascension. Subsequently, Brown recorded for ESP, and moved to Paris for a spell where he fell in with the great drummer Steve McCall, a linchpin of Chicago’s genre-trampling AACM collective. The AACM influence is strong on Brown’s Geechee Recollections & Sweet Earth Flying from 1973 and ’74, with their declaimed texts (including Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer’s story “Karintha,” complete), African percussion and impressions thereof, and respect for the uses of quiet open spaces and judiciously applied electronics. McCall’s on both albums, alongside Chicago colleague Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet for Geechee; on the latter session, AACM honcho Muhal Richard Abrams plays piano, electric piano and organ — usually alongside Paul Bley sharing the same battery of keyboards. Brown was a friend of Ornette Coleman, but his alto (and soprano) sound is grainier, less whooping if just as blues-saturated.

In the mid ’70s, Impulse was also home to pianist Keith Jarrett’s “American quartet” — his old trio with plush-sounding bassist Charlie Haden and tasty drummer Paul Motian, plus throaty Texas tenor saxist and musette squawker Dewey Redman, like Haden an Ornette vet. The Jarrett’s quartet recorded two LPs for Impulse, Mysteries & Shades, in three days late in 1975. (Actually it’s a quintet here, with Guilherme Franco’s rustling percussion at the fringes.) Pianist Ethan Iverson told Jarrett, “My generation of musicians regard it as one of the greatest bands in history,” and the quartet’s rolling momentum with little overt swing — try “Southern Smiles” — has been hugely influential on many later piano combos including Brad Mehldau’s, and Jarrett’s own replacement “European quartet.” Dewey shouting through his horn while improvising, as on “Diatribe,” was one of the most arresting sounds in jazz back then.

As noted above, Impulse put out some frivolous records, too. Arranger and composer Oliver Nelson recorded one of the label’s early classics, Blues and the Abstract Truth. Subsequently he moved toHollywood, where scoring TV action shows left little time for jazz projects. Some of his later sessions could get a little lightweight, not always in a bad way. The disc billed to Oliver Nelson & Friends conjoins late-’60s sessions by pianists Hank Jones and TV fixture Steve Allen; each of them also plays a fair amount of electric harpsichord, an axe then in momentary vogue. The ensemble voicings are often rich and lively. Jones gets tangled up in baroque counterpoint on “Fugue Tune”; Clark Terry drops by to sing the faddish “Winchester Cathedral” a la Satchmo. Allen’s pop covers include Mr. Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” and the Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine.” It’s adorably silly, a little like the hinky music Hollywood composers had coming out of teenagers’ radios in ’60s movies.

We could go on: about ’60s Clark Terry dates, one where he’s flanked by Phil Woods and Ben Webster, one where he hooks his trumpet up to the electronic Varitone, and does some sketch comedy; about Sonny Stitt, fronting a Hank Jones trio on two sessions, and sparring on one with Ellington’s star tenor Paul Gonsalves; about Alice Coltrane, swirling like a dervish on harp, and bringing a North Indian sense of ornamentation to electric organ. If consumers bite, this series could go on a while.