In 1960, record producer Creed Taylor birthed Impulse! Records. The small jazz division of ABC-Paramount set a precedent when it signed groundbreaking jazz giant John Coltrane. With producer Bob Thiele taking over for Taylor, the label became one of the standard bearers of the avant-garde.
It is only appropriate that we begin with the man himself, John Coltrane. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, released in 1965, was a love letter to God. The liner notes are filled to brim with religious language, though it is more or less universalist. Trane wasn’t addressing any particular God, just a nebulous life force. Still, his belief in this entity is strong and he conveys his faith, abstract as it may be, with dogmatic conviction. The opening cut, “Acknowledgement,” is about as beautiful as music gets.
Bassist Charles Mingus recorded his masterpiece Black Saint and the Sinner Lady for Impulse! in 1963. The genre-destroying suite cans elements of big band, bop and flamenco.
Yusef Lateef played oboe, saxophone, flute and even theremin. This 1966 track showcases his skills as a flautist.
Archie Shepp‘s wild track “Fiesta” opens with an incendiary drum solo from Roy Haynes. It shifts into a spastic outpouring of free jazz before settling into an eerie, off-kilter groove around the 3:30 mark. Not for the faint of heart.
Sax king Pharoah Sanders made heavy use of wide-variety of indigenous percussion instruments to create a joyful noise. His sax sometimes sounds like a wild animal. The sounds he chokes from the instrument are nothing short of fascinating. This clip from “Upper and Lower Egypt” captures the spirit of Afro-centrism with an evocative world music sound.
Harp and piano player Alice Coltrane recorded A Monastic Trio as a tribute to her late husband, John Coltrane. The harp-driven cuts are an audiophile’s dream, psychedelic and beautiful in headphones. Coltrane wrote sophisticated and spiritual jazz music. This 1970 track, “Journey in Satchindananda,” from the album of the same name. The heavily Indian-influenced track opens with a gorgeous bass, soon joined by the angelic strains of Coltrane’s harp and soprano sax from Pharoah Sanders.
Guitarist Sonny Sharrock never recorded as a lead man for Impulse! but deserves an honorable mention for his contribution to recordings by Sanders. Sharrock was a brilliant innovator, pounding horn-like melodies out of his overdrive-soaked electric guitar. To top it off, some of his final recording work was doing the soundtrack for Space Ghost Coast to Coast. This 1992 cut, “Little Rock,” from his final album, showcases Sharrock’s raucous shredding and some smooth sax playing from Pharoah Sanders.
Multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman didn’t do much recording for Impulse! either, but was certainly of the same spirit. Adept at saxophone, trumpet and violin, Coleman was a founding father of free jazz. Ornette at 12 brought him briefly into the Impulse! family for a stellar outing. In 2007, Coleman received a Pullitzer Prize for his album, Sound Grammar.
Sam Rivers, also a gifted multi-instrumentalist, started his career with legendary Blue Note Records. Sam and Bea Rivers ran Studio Rivbea, a jazz loft venue that hosted a number of avant-garde performances. Rivers worked as a sideman for heavy hitters like Miles Davis and proved that he had a voice all his own with his second album, Contours. The following track is called “Point of Many Returns.”