"THIS YEAR MARKS THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF IMPULSE RECORDS, one of the most significant, influential, and visually memorable record labels of the modern era," writes author Ashley Kahn in The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. "When it exploded onto the American scene in 1961, Impulse's black and orange design, full-color covers, and edgy, modern jazz literally flew off the racks. It looked and sounded hip: the perfect music for the age of Mad Men and James Bond: with an appeal that would cross generations, enduring well into the psychedelic era of the late 1960s and 1970s. The label, brainchild of legendary producer Creed Taylor, debuted with six albums that are now all considered classics, including Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, Gil Evans's Out of the Cool, Ray Charles's Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding's The Great J and K, and John Coltrane's Africa/Brass."
"It is this last title: Coltrane's memorable first big band project: that will be celebrated in style and spirit by a large group led by Reggie Workman, the bassist who performed on that historic album," Kahn says.
When Impulse Records was established, it was one of the most innovative and dynamic labels for musicians and jazz listeners during the turbulent 1960s, and John Coltrane was its most important artist. Bassist Reggie Workman joined the John Coltrane Quartet in 1960 and was the bassist for the historic Coltrane Africa/Brass album. From 1960 to 1961, Workman performed in Coltrane's five-piece working band which frequently expanded to a sextet including an additional bassist, Art Davis (Ol_ Coltrane) and Jimmy Garrison (Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard). For Africa/Brass, the quintet was backed by a 15-piece brass band that included trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little, bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, and pianist McCoy Tyner. Workman now honors "Trane" with his own African-American Legacy Project (AALP), conducted by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and featuring pianist Stanley Cowell, in a recreation of Africa/Brass, complete with full jazz orchestra and choir on October 28 and 29 in Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In the 1980s, Impulse sprang back to life in the "The Young Lions" days, and helped revive jazz during what is often referred to as its neo-classicist period. An important young artist of that new Impulse era was pianist Eric Reed, whose expressive playing and deep lyricism has piloted his career to the present. The October concerts will open with Reed and his ensemble, Surge, which includes bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Willie Jones III, tenor saxophonists Seamus Blake and Stacy Dillard, trombonists Andre Hayward and Danny Kirkhum, trumpeter Jim Rotundi, and vocalist Andy Bey. Reed says he will feature the music of various Impulse artists including Oliver Nelson, Freddie Hubbard, Duke Ellington, Johnny Hartman, Coltrane, as well as his own compositions. However, Reed admits that since Impulse was "the house that Trane built," a major focus will be on Coltrane.
Both Reed and Workman share respect for the jazz giant. A close friend of Coltrane, Workman recalls the genesis of the Africa/Brass sessions of April and May 1961: "During that time, John was doing a lot of experimental work and wanted to do a big-band project. He was always involved with various cultures and studied them all the time; he wanted to make his music large. There was a whole syndrome where bands were highly amplified. What he wanted to do was take the smallband concept with the large sound that people were becoming accustomed to." Africa/Brass includes the provocative and groundbreaking tracks "Song of the Underground Railroad" and "Africa."
Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Workman also performed with Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, James Moody, Pharoah Sanders, and Herbie Mann, and is the driving force behind classics such as "Night Dreamer" (Wayne Shorter), "Hub-Tones" (Freddie Hubbard), "Caravan" (Art Blakey), and the seminal recordings of Coltrane's widow, Alice, with whom Workman collaborated until her death in 2007.
Workman noted that his latest pursuit, the African-American Legacy Project, is a vehicle "for the music to continue to move forward." Workman and company brought in younger musicians "to work with older musicians, like myself, mentor them, and teach them this music. We have Matthew Garrison, bassist Jimmy Garrison's son in this project. In the past we've had Ravi Coltrane with his mother, Alice Coltrane, do this music I've had Roy Haynes' son, too. We're continuing the legacy: keeping the flame, so to speak," he says with a smile.
On this particular show in Rose Theater, you can expect a big sound. "We have 18 musicians and a 17-person choir. This is something special, something that hasn't happened at this magnitude before. We feel very strongly about this. I think what's important to me is my own composition and arrangement of 'The Martyrs Hymn,' a tribute to John Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King," says Workman.
Come see and hear music directors Reggie Workman and Eric Reed celebrate Impulse Records at 50. "What people should expect is an hour's worth of music that has been a part of what we grew up with," says Workman of his contribution. "It is tied to today's times and will be tinged with younger musicians and new ideas." For more information, visit jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Special thanks to author Ashley Kahn for his contribution.