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When Giants Walked the Earth
Reviewed: Aug. 4, 2007
Book Review by Jean TimmonsWhen Giants Walked the Earth Ashley Kahn is the consummate jazz book packager. He can reveal aspects of jazz that can enlighten even hardcore jazz fans. His latest production, The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records, is a behind-the-scene account of the relationship between the legendary John Coltrane and the Impulse! record company that captures a seminal period in the history of jazz-the tremendous outpouring of the music in the sixties and seventies. Those were the formative years of the Impulse! label, when jazz was actually popular, its reach extending beyond jazz fanatics to college campuses. Jazz is still essential to the well being of many people, but in the sixties the innovative music of Coltrane captured the revolutionary spirit of an age. Kahn set his sights on bringing it back and stirring up those feelings. As with other Kahn productions, the concept sells the book before the reader even opens it. Perhaps his concept books began with the 2000 publication of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. In 2002, he applied much of that approach to A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. And what is the concept? Select a jazz subject that is sure to strike a chord amongst a large group of people due to its iconic importance (and its sales history). Both A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue are notorious. Go behind the scenes by interviewing the musicians who were active in the period or who benefited from the music discussed, using their words to ground the narrative. For example, in House, Phil Woods recalls his encounter with Coleman Hawkins when he joined the great saxophonist, along with Benny Carter, Jo Jones and others, in the studio to record what became Further Definitions: ". . . that was some glorious history. That was when giants walked the earth, and I was happy to be amongst them, trying not to get my toes stepped on-or other appendages!" Next, include many photographs of musicians at work, historical events, music charts, and so forth to further submerge the reader in the creative process. In House, Kahn's use of thirty-six, two-page spreads to feature many of the well-known and classic albums accomplishes that task. Finally, tie it all together with graceful prose, providing insights that keep the reader engrossed.
From 1961 through 1976, Kahn writes that Impulse! "wore its signature colors proudly and raised its exclamation point high, producing albums with hinged, brightly hued covers that opened wide . . . ." According to John Sinclair, jazz promoter and "political gadfly" from the sixties, "[t]hose gatefolds were a wonderful development because they served as a deluxe rolling tray to manicure your marijuana. The best Impulses had the most seeds stuck in the middle." Again, the iconic subject. If you collected your old LPs, you know about those black and orange album covers with "IMPULSE!" on the spine, following the title. After the first chapter, you will probably check to see how many you have left.
Beyond the works, though, the book imparts much of jazz recording history. Impulse was part of the ABC-Paramount Record Corporation. Its creator, its first jazz producer, was Creed Taylor, who affixed his signature to his LP albums. He produced the classic Genius + Soul = Jazz, a Ray Charles album, Out of the Cool, a Gil Evans work, and Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth. The only Coltrane record he produced was Africa/Brass, and it is a classic. Then Bob Thiele took over. With Thiele, the partnership with John Coltrane began in earnest. According to Kahn, Coltrane was instrumental in the success of Thiele at Impulse because he introduced Thiele to the "new" music and consequently many other cutting edge musicians.
Coltrane's experiences with Impulse were widely known, and, unlike some of the experiences of older musicians with other record companies, they were not exploitative. With his lawyer, he worked out the kind of deal that was rarely extended to jazz musicians. Moreover, Thiele worked closely with Coltrane to make things happen, to give him the space to create. He was Coltrane's advocate or champion throughout the remainder of his career. Musician signed on with Thiele because of his work with Coltrane and his reputation for production excellence. Some musicians differed on the degree of his influence, for instance Freddie Hubbard felt free to create on The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard but Curtis Fuller, whom he disagreed with on Soul Trombone and the Jazz Clan, felt pressured on some selections. For sure, the hard core of Impulse jazz can be attributed to Thiele's work.
When Coltrane joined Impulse he was in the midst of a period of experimentation. (Kahn claims the Coltrane made a major shift in his music every four years and cites 1957, 1961, and 1965 for the record.) Bob Thiele was near forty when he first heard Trane and later said, "The best thing that happened to me was meeting Coltrane and working with him. That association lasted for about five years and we did an awful lot of work together." It ended when Trane died. The first album they did together was in 1961 and it was Live at the Village Vanguard. It's a classic, containing "Chasin' the Trane," a milestone in sixties avant-garde jazz. Kahn clearly weaves a jazz history rich in its insightful narrative of Coltrane's searching approach to music, centering on the diverse body of work recorded at Impulse-with his quartet, with larger bands, with Hartman, with Ellington. Trane's approach reflects on the diverse but searching production of other Impulse artists as well. The musicians and albums directly influenced or supported by Coltrane featured in those two-page illustrative spreads include McCoy Tyner's Inception; Archie Shepp's Four for Trane and Attica Blues (produced by Michel's); Albert Ayler's Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe; Elvin Jones and Richard Davis' Heavy Sounds; Sonny Rollins' Alfie (Rollins' first film score); and Alice Coltrane's Translinear Light (produced by Ravi Coltrane). There are thirty-six two-pagers that capture the tremendous creative output of Impulse, including one for each of John Coltrane's albums and such classics as Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Pee Wee Russell's Ask Me Now, and Pharoah Sanders' Karma. For those who fall under the spell of this historical record, the end matter contains a very useful Impulse Records discography, 1961-1977, listing all the productions.
After Coltrane's death in 1967, Thiele continued with Impulse until 1969, when his relations with top management became untenable. At that point, the acquisitions or production duties were handled by Ed Michel, a musician and "jazz producer," and Steve Backer, "a jazz enthusiast and rock promotion man." Inventive producers (the aforementioned Karma as well Howard Roberts' Antelope Freeway) but still harbingers of hard times for jazz in the age of Rock. One story on Thiele's departure is illustrative. For a publicity shoot, ABC-Paramount sales president Larry Newton came to the studio during a Louis Armstrong recording session. When Newton discovered the recording scheduled was a ballad instead of an upbeat number, he blew up. It ended with Thiele locking the president out of the studio so that they could record "What a Wonderful World" in peace. Thus, minimal sales support and little popularity until 1988, when the recording found its way onto the Good Morning, Vietnam movie soundtrack.
What happened to Impulse? A shift in the seventies toward more "funky" jazz and downright pop singers brought some surprisingly good press. But, after several regime changes, ABC-Paramount treated Impulse as an illegitimate offspring. Finally it was sold for little-almost a throwaway. Then followed a series of masters until one of them saw money in the vaults. Now a healthy business of reissues has sprang up, with Coltrane tapes still flourishing. Heady stuff. A strong reminder of how wonderful the world can be when jazz holds sway.
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