1970 Jazz: Impulse! Records

1970 was the 10th year anniversary for Impulse! Records, and it marked a major shift for the label on a number of fronts. Changes that started in 1969 now were in full effect. Bob Thiele, who was the label’s producer since 1961, left in 1969 to form Flying Dutchman Records. He was replaced by Ed Michel, who gained his experience producing albums at Pacific Jazz and Riverside Records. The label’s center of operations moved to the West Coast, and while many of the recording sessions still took place in New York, a number of albums mentioned in this article were recorded in Los Angeles.

We start this review with two spiritual jazz albums by the widow of the musician whose albums formed the backbone of the label.

In 1970 Alice Coltrane recorded two albums that demonstrated a major development in her composing style and an ability to create structured and highly emotional pieces of music. In a single session in January that year she recorded her third album for the label, Ptah, the El Daoud. It featured two tenor sax players, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe Henderson, and a rhythm section consisting of Ron Carter and Ben riley. Coltrane, who was deep into a period of spiritual awakening, wrote about the album name: “Ptah is the name of an Egyptian god – in fact, one of the highest aspects of god. ‘The El Daoud’ means ‘the Beloved.’ My meaning here was to express and bring out a feeling of purification. Sometimes on earth we don’t have to wait for death to go through a sort of purging, a purification.”

Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson

Jazz journalist Leonard Feather wrote in the album’s liner notes: “Aside from one track on which Pharoah Sanders played bass clarinet (‘Ohnedaruth’ in the Monastic Trio album), this is Alice Coltrane’s first album with horns. The spiritualism and mysticism, the legacy of John Coltrane’s guidance that informed her earlier works seem to have been communicated here to Sanders and to Joe Henderson. The oneness among the musicians is never more than in ‘Blue Nile’. With the saxophonists doubling on alto flutes and Mrs. Coltrane playing harp, a sense of serenity is achieved.”

Alice Coltrane, 1970

Indeed this is as soulful as jazz gets, or is it jazz? The harp glissandos transcend this music outside the boundaries of any one single genre. Given the musicians who worked with Alice Coltrane, all of them steeped in the free jazz movement of the time, you would expect a much more aggressive and somewhat less communicative style of playing, but this is quite the opposite. Bassist Cecil McBee, who would soon record with Alice Coltrane, commented: “Where we were trying to come from, as free jazz musicians, with the loudness and bombast of our music, she made these statements in a more delicate, graceful, articulate, and uniform way.”

Alice Coltrane — harp

Pharoah Sanders — alto flute

Joe Henderson — alto flute

Ron Carter — bass

Ben Riley — drums

Alice Coltrane was back in the studio in November of 1970 to record another album, one my favorite in her wonderful catalog of recordings she made with Impulse! Records. This time the spiritual connection to the music was more direct, after she found a spiritual guide. Coltrane wrote in the album’s liner notes: “Direct inspiration for Journey in Satchidananda comes from my meeting and association with someone who is near and dear to me. I am speaking of my own beloved spiritual preceptor, Swami Satchidananda. Swamiji is the first example I have seen in recent years of Universal Love or God in action. He expresses an impersonal love, which encompasses thousands of people. Anyone listening to this selection should try to envision himself floating on an ocean of Satchidanandaji’s love, which is literally carrying countless devotees across the vicissitudes and stormy blasts of life to the other shore.”

Quite a set up to get you curious about the music. You may not literally float on an ocean upon listening to the album, but this is as close as you get if stationary floating was a thing.

Alice Coltrane – piano, harp

Pharoah Sanders – soprano saxophone, percussion

Cecil McBee – double bass

Rashied Ali – drums

Tulsi – tanpura

Majid Shabazz – bells, tambourine

Alice Coltrane wrote the following about the musicians accompanying her: “Pharoah’s playing on this album sounds transcendental, reflecting the ancient, sacred sound. I believe that his music is one of the strongest forces of its kind being heard in the world today. I feel that Cecil McBee’s offering here is highly stimulating and selective in its entirety, and that his technical capabilities have reached the point that allow his music to transcend the limitations of standardized forms of bass playing.”

Cecil McBee

There is certainly an Indian vibe to the tune, mainly due to the use of the tamboura drone. Coltrane talked about the unusual selection of instruments for this album: “Two uncommon instruments can be heard on this album. Tulsi’s tamboura, a four-stringed Indian drone instrument, is played with as high a degree of sensitivity as any I have heard from any instrumentalist native to the East. The Oud, played by Vishnu, is basically a North African instrument played all along the Mediterranean, and can be heard in music from places as diverse as Morocco, Persia, Turkey and Egypt.”

Earlier in the year on July 4, Coltrane recorded a live track at The Village Gate in NYC called Isis and Osiris. The meditative track closes the album Journey in Satchidananda, exploring ethnic timbers with the inclusion of the oud. Bass player Vishnu Wood knew Alice Coltrane from the early days in her home town of Detroit, and they were both members of Terry Gibbs’ group in the early 1960s. He introduced Coltrane to Swami Satchidananda a year earlier, and plays the oud on this track. Wood talked about her use of the harp in a jazz context: “The harp is a very, very difficult instrument and if you are going to play it in the context of our [American black] music it’s a very challenging endeavor because the music has a lot of chord changes that come around very often.”

Charlie Haden, Rashied Ali

Bass player Charlie Haden and drummer Rashied Ali are also on board. Coltrane: “On Isis and Osiris I appreciate the contribution of Charlie Haden, the bassist who has been associated with Ornette Coleman for so many years. Rashied Ali here, as he does throughout the album, provides a continuous stream of pure sound energy.”

Alice Coltrane summarized the album in her closing remark to the liner notes: “I hope that this album will be a form of meditation and a spiritual awakening for those who listen with their inner ear.”

Alice Coltrane – harp

Pharoah Sanders – soprano saxophone, percussion

Rashied Ali – drums

Charlie Haden – bass

Vishnu Wood – oud

Producer Ed Michel recalls a funny but illuminating story that involved his work with Alice Coltrane: “She asked me to make an impossible edit in a free section of music and I said, ‘It’s beyond my musical capability to decide where the edit should be. So you’ve got to help me.’ She said, ‘I’ll go home and meditate on it.’ And she came back to the studio the next day and she said, ‘It’s very interesting,’ she said, ‘I meditated last night and I spoke with the Father,’ which is how she always referred to John Coltrane, ‘and Stravinsky, and they were very helpful. Here’s where you want to make the edit, right here.’ And I said, ‘It won’t work. I’ll do it, but it won’t work,’ and it worked. And that’s the only time I got assistance from John Coltrane and Stravinsky to make a tape edit.”

Ed Michel

We stay with Pharoah Sanders, who had a very productive year in 1970. In addition to his work with Alice Coltrane, he recorded two albums under his own name on Impulse! Records. This was a period when the label worked with many artists who were deep into a spiritual journey. In the case of Pharoah Sanders it was Islam and readings of the Qur’an. Sanders recorded his fourth album on the label in July 1970.

The album’s title, Summun Bukmun Umyun (Deaf Dumb Blind), is a reference to one of the chapters of the Quran. Sanders explains in the album’s liner notes that the title does not refer to a physical state, but instead, to the spiritually handicapped. In other words, Listen but do not hear, Around but not aware, Look but do not see.

Almost all the musicians in this ensemble play some form of an African percussion instrument on the album, heavily influenced by the music of John Coltrane.

Pharoah Sanders

Ed Michel talked about the magnificent ensemble assembled for this album: “It was just a good band and the only problem was that Pharoah’s tunes tended to run as long as they could run. I had to find a way to let him know when he had to bring it down and get out. We decided that just flashing the lights on and off would work fine, except that Pharoah frequently played with his eyes closed.”

Album credits:

Pharoah Sanders – soprano saxophone, cow horn, bells, tritone whistle, cowbells, wood flute, thumb piano, percussion

Woody Shaw – trumpet, maracas, yodeling, percussion

Gary Bartz – alto saxophone, bells, cowbell, shakers, percussion

Lonnie Liston Smith – piano, cowbell, thumb piano, percussion

Cecil McBee – bass

Clifford Jarvis – drums

Nathaniel Bettis – xylophone, yodeling, African percussion

Anthony Wiles – conga drum and African percussion

In November of 1970 Sanders was back in the studio to record another stellar album, Thembi. The album sleeve notes explain the meaning of the album name: This album is dedicated to, and named after Thembi Sanders (Pharoah’s then-wife). Thembi is an abbreviation of Nomathemba, which is an African Xhosa name, meaning hope, faith and love.

This time the album is divided into shorter pieces of music, six tracks in total. Ed Michel points out the reason: “I realized looking at the earlier albums Bob Thiele had produced, like Karma, that on the very long tunes Pharaoh was being paid a two-cent [mechanical royalty] rate for a track that ran the length of a side. So I said, ‘On these side-long tunes, would it be OK with you if I broke it into four or five pieces? You’ll at least get paid ten cents for the side instead of two cents.’ I felt my responsibility was to the artist. My responsibility to the record company was to deliver a master and, if they’re really lucky, a master they can sell. I didn’t want my artist crippling himself by not getting the money that he should get for his compositions.”

Pharoah Sanders

Astral Travelling, the opening track of the album, starts with a laid back atmospheric mood with lots of reverb and echo effects on the electric piano. It was a direct influence on Carlos Santana and his opening track to the album Caravanserai, Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation.

Keyboard player Lonnie Liston Smith talked about how the tune was created:

“I saw this instrument sitting in the corner and I asked the engineer, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano.’ I didn’t have anything to do, so I started messing with it, checking some of the buttons to see what I could do with different sounds. All of a sudden I started writing a song and everybody ran over and said, ‘What is that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just messing around.’ Pharoah said, ‘Man, we gotta record that. Whatcha gonna call it?’ I’d been studying astral projections and it sounded like we were floating through space so I said let’s call it ‘Astral Traveling’.”

Pharoah Sanders (left) and Lonnie Liston Smith in France, 1977

Album credits:

Pharoah Sanders – tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute, koto, brass bells, balaphone, maracas, cow horn, fifes

Lonnie Liston Smith – piano, electric piano, claves, percussion, ring cymbal, shouts, balaphone

Michael White – violin, percussion

Cecil McBee – bass, finger cymbal, percussion

James Jordan – ring cymbal

We move to another disciple of the Islam, pianist Ahmad Jamal. Early in his career Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam backstage at the Apollo Theater. Suleiman talked to Jamal about what the pianist described as “a philosophical presentation.”

In February of 1970 Jamal recorded the album The Awakening with his trio. Ed Michel is again at the producer seat, and he remembers the session: “Jamal absolutely knew what he wanted to record. He picked the repertoire. It was his working trio. They’d been playing together for a few years. We were recording during Ramadan. He was fasting during the day, until sunset. The only real condition was, he said, ‘At six fifteen, we’ve got to take a break. You’ve got to tell us precisely. We’re all hungry.’” This was one of Jamal’s first sessions for the Impulse! Records label. He was all compliments to the label and its producer: “Impulse was the first time I worked with another producer. At Chess I did it all myself. Ed was the most pleasant producer I ever worked with—one of the reasons I could just sit back and write.”

A review of the album in the December 1970 issue of Downbeat magazine was favorable: “His work is uniformly excellent here. He captures the essence of a tune and bases his bravado runs, embroideries, and driving riff-like figures around it—sometimes weaving in and out of the melody, sometimes leaving space for the opinions of his accompanists.”

The highlight of the album for me is the original tune Patterns. Leonard Feather described the tune in the original sleeve notes: “The composition, like most Jamal originals, has a charm of both conception and interpretation that transcends the need to analyze structure or offer technical explanations. As one of his staunchest admirers, Cannonball Adderley, said some years ago, ‘Ahmad’s not like the average jazz musician who uses the pop tune as a vehicle. He approaches each number as a composition in itself, and tries to work out something particular for each tune that will fit it.”

Ahmad Jamal

Downbeat’s review adds: “Patterns, an excellent Jamal original, is notable for another Jamal trademark—the unpredictable flights and bursts in which he seems to be wringing the instrument’s neck.”

Ahmad Jamal – piano

Jamil Nasser – bass

Frank Gant – drums

One last album in this review, and we come to an oddball of a record, the brainchild of producers Ed Michel and Bill Szymczyk. Just a few years shy of working on successful rock albums by J. Giles Band, Joe Walsh and Eagles, Szymczyk was well-versed with modern studio technology. After parent company ABC moved the Impulse! operations to the West Coast, both producers found themselves in Los Angeles.  Szymczyk recalls: “I was stuck in a back office, where my next-door neighbor happened to be Ed Michel. We were the black sheep of the entire deal: he was the jazzbo weirdo and I was the New York rock ’n’ roll weirdo. So of course we immediately struck up a friendship. That Howard Roberts record? To me that’s the high point of our relationship.”

The album was unique enough to take hold in ABC Records exec Dennis Lavinthal’s memory: “My recollection of Impulse is a catalog company with Ed Michel making some quirky records and smoking some good weed. There were some fun experimental projects that took place—a Howard Roberts album called Antelope Freeway. At the same time, Impulse was this avant-garde, non-melody expression of strong emotion.”

By 1970 Howard Roberts was a veteran musician of twenty years. His recording career was rich with albums on Verve and Capitol Records and his extensive studio work saw him contribute electric and acoustic guitar on jazz, rock, country and pop albums plus TV and film sound tracks. In the early 1960s he was part of the famed Wrecking Crew cast of LA musicians.

Howard Roberts

Ed Michel found that working with Roberts was a very satisfying experience: “I loved Howard. He was such an experienced studio guy that I said, ‘The only way to make a surprising album with you would be to drop you and a microphone out of a plane and record what happens before the parachute opens up.’ He was a guy who had the ears and the chops to respond to whatever was going on around him. The more you gave him something he’d never heard before, the more he’d pull out something that you’d never heard before.”

A Downbeat review in 1971 was less complimentary: “If the quality of the music on this album were up to the level of the humor that went into its production, it would be one of the monsters of the year.”

Indeed the album is an odd experiment with sound effects, street recordings, voice overs and other studio wizardry. However there are sufficient moments when the musicians are given freedom to do what they do best.

Howard Roberts – guitar

Mike Deasy – guitar

Larry Knechtel, Pete Robinson, Mike Wofford – keyboards

Robby Bruce – violin

Max Bennett, Brian Garofalo – bass guitar

John Guerin, Bob Morin – drums

Recommended reading: Ashley Kahn’s excellent book The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.

Categories: A Year in Music

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3 replies »

  1. Enjoyed this very much Jack and for that matter everything else on your excellent blog. I met Ed Michel briefly when both of us were slipping away from a particularly ghastly music industry event in the late 80s. Over a quick drink he packed in so many fantastic stories that I was left devastated that I hadn’t asked him for a proper interview.

  2. When I started buying vinyl again (born in 1969, I ditched vinyl for CDs when they came out!)…..Satchidananda was one of the first albums I bought. I grew up with most o f these albums and love themto this day. Thank you.

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