Jazz music, news and views

Friday, June 09, 2006

The House That Trane Built

Check out the NPR Morning Edition interview with musical journalist Ashley Kahn whose new book, The House That Trane Built: the Story of Impulse Records, tells the story of the record label that was seen as an oasis for experimental, wild jazz sounds in the '60s and '70s. While this is true to a degree, Impulse was still part of a major label functioning in a musical climate that was more conformist and pop-focused (note the single that Kahn mentions as an example). He discusses Creed Taylor's entrepreneurial prowess and knack for "sneaking" jazz into the musical universe at the time; jazz, as always, was part of an artistic revolution when compared to mainstream music of that era. And while the anchor of the label was John Coltrane, who sought to push the boundaries of jazz (particularly in his later years with Eric Dolphy or Pharoah Sanders), it was also notable that so many different sounds were under the Impulse umbrella. Jazz was not only a "challenge" to the popular sounds of the day, but it was also expanding and being challenged from within. Considering the Impulse catalog, it seems the label was successful in negotiating both these musical microcosms.

In the interview, Kahn notes, "The signature sound of Impulse, I think, in many people's minds, is that it's angry, it's black and it's a tenor saxophone! And Archie Shepp is the perfect example." He qualifies this by pointing out how diverse and wide-ranging Impulse's sound actually was. While Coltrane was the label's centerpiece (under an exclusive contract), other sounds found a home there: Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Count Basie, Keith Jarrett, Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal and Benny Carter all led fabulous sessions that bore the Impulse stamp.

I'll definitely be picking up Kahn's new book, having enjoyed Kind of Blue: the Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Given the revolutionary overtones jazz discourse tends to adopt in times when conformity reigns, I think a lot of us get lost in the music's mystique of rebellion, myself included. It has a way of pushing our cerebral, political and emotional hot buttons, and even though longtime fans are peeved when the mainstream world seems to have forgotten even the most accessible of jazz sounds, the oversight seems more egregious than ever when the "outer reaches" of jazz become neglected. Speaking for myself, jazz scholarship helps me take a step back and recalibrate -- not because it's devoid of passion but because it tends to have the perspective that fans like me lack on occasion.

So, check out The House That Trane Built and the companion CD box set, and don't forget to browse the Impulse catalog!


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