Finding Coltrane on my CD shelves is easy — just look for the long row of orange and black. Those are the distinctive colors of Impulse Records album spines. They signify not only Trane — who called Impulse home from 1961 until his death in '67, and was largely responsible for the label's ascendancy — but an array of high-quality jazz that's marked by chance-taking and restless freedom.
In celebration of the fabled label's 45th birthday comes a two-pronged treat: a hardcover book by veteran jazz writer Ashley Kahn chronicling the label's 1961-1976 tenure, and a four-CD boxed set compiling much of the finest music from its vaults. They're both titled The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records, and they each serve a distinct purpose.
The CD compilation gathers some of the finest talents in jazz, including marquee names like Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and, of course, John Coltrane, sharing space with Trane's spawn: avant-gardistas Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. Nineteen-sixties cult figures are also included — Gabor Szabo, Chico Hamilton, Shirley Scott — as are sage pre-boppers like Earl Hines, Pee Wee Russell and Benny Carter. Collectively, these four discs offer a valuable jazz primer from a variety of styles and perspectives.
The book, on the other hand, is for hardcore jazzbos hungering for inside stories and historical minutiae. In clear, unfussy prose, Kahn lays out the history of the influential label from its inception by producer Creed Taylor, through its heyday under Bob Thiele and into its declining years of the '70s, when its parent company, ABC, lost interest. Kahn establishes Impulse as that rare jazz entity that respected the musicians, blazed trails and managed to turn a respectable profit. He also shows how Coltrane's vast influence and imposing aura could cause a major-label subsidiary to be the most high-profile outlet of polarizing '60s free jazz.
But in order to truly appreciate the book you have to care that:
• Oliver Nelson voiced the baritone sax above the tenor sax, and the tenor above the alto, on his classic tune "Stolen Moments."
• A backmasked bagpipe solo shows up on Ayler's Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.
• Sanders was upset that he shared a channel with the bass player on his epic drone "The Creator Has a Master Plan."
• Thiele accidentally issued the wrong take of Coltrane's avant-opus Ascension, and then snuck in Trane's chosen version on the second pressing, thus creating an instant collectors item.
Don't care that much?
The actual music has broader appeal. With slightly more than 300 full-lengths from which to cull the four discs, choosing just 38 tunes was a heavy lift. Six are by John Coltrane: a large-ensemble treatment of the traditional "Greensleeves;" the tender ballad "Too Young to Go Steady;" the burner "Impressions;" "My One and Only Love" from his collaboration with singer Johnny Hartman (I'd have picked "Lush Life"); the first section of his definitive work A Love Supreme; and the contemplative then cacophonous "Offering" from 1967's Expression. This constitutes a winning overview of Trane's work at the label, although it gives his more out-there efforts short shrift.
As a guy who owns enough Impulse material to fill a couple of hefty shelves, I still found a few delights that I'd not previously been aware of. Rollins' extended tenor excursion on 1966's "Alfie's Theme" is stunning, a font of ideas full of jagged turns and odd rhythmic curlicues, with a handful of well-placed smears and blurts. Szabo's "Gypsy Queen" — which Santana later copped for the big finish after "Black Magic Woman" — is a delightfully open-ended, raga-inspired journey. Swing-era clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, a former Bix Beiderbecke cohort, plays the Monk ballad "Ask Me Now" with a stately, chamber-like grace. Shepp's "Mama Too Tight" combines a James Brown funk groove with a wild, avant horn workout (tuba included), capped off by the tenor man's manic squalls.
While know-it-all scribes like me will always find omissions (and consequently material we would discard) in compendiums like this, The House That Trane Built is a stimulating and remarkably diverse overview.
Start with the music; you may find yourself so sucked into the world of Impulse that you will even want to read the book.