Impulse! Records: 25 Essential Albums

Treble staff

When we think of jazz, there are a few notable labels that stand out as icons of the genre: Verve, Atlantic, Columbia and Blue Note, to name a few. But we also think of Impulse!, the iconic label established by legendary record producer Creed Taylor in 1960. Set up under the umbrella of ABC-Paramount Records (the same ABC that’s now part of Disney), Impulse! began life with a short list of legendary artists, including Ray Charles and swing veteran Benny Carter, as well as John Coltrane, who released more albums than any other performer on the label. As a result, the label became known as “The House That Trane Built.”

Impulse! had a run of two decades in the 1960s and ’70s that were unlike just about anything else, constantly at the forefront of innovations in jazz, and sometimes outside of jazz: Prog-rock outfit Genesis were the rare rock band to actually issue an album through the label. Impulse!’s branding extended beyond its amazing sounds; the orange, black and white design scheme of the albums made them stand out on any shelf, and each record’s cover was adorned with stunning photography. The list you see below isn’t just an introductory guide to the music but likewise a gallery of incredible design. And with Impulse! in headlines again for the release of a lost John Coltrane album, the outstanding new work by Mercury Prize-nominated Sons of Kemet (and a newly unearthed recording by alum Charles Mingus), we saw fit to compile a list of 25 of our favorite releases to be stamped with the iconic logo.

It should be noted that, like many of our other surveys of significant labels, we stuck to one release per artist (with one sort-of exception). With Impulse! that was a particularly tough decision, since some of these artists released so much amazing material. But that being said, albums such as Coltrane, Ascension, Africa Brass, Journey in Satchidananda, Ptah the El Daoud, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Tauhid, Deaf Dumb Blind, Thembi, Karma, The Magic of Ju-Ju, Fire Music and various other albums are, without question, essential. We simply made the decision to focus on certain albums for the sake of personal preferences or to highlight something unique that wasn’t represented in other albums. (We also didn’t include Impulse! reissues of Sun Ra’s catalog, since it wasn’t the original label of release—sorry!) Regardless, these essential Impulse! Records albums all merit repeat spins. We hope you enjoy the journey.

Buy these albums at Turntable Lab

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essential Impulse albums Gil EvansGil Evans Orchestra – Out of the Cool

(1960)

Recorded during a period in which he was collaborating on a number of all-time great albums with Miles Davis, Gil Evans’ debut album for Impulse! tends to be overshadowed by his other early ’60s recordings. But this stellar piece of progressive big band jazz set an entirely different tone, one that drifted from Davis’ conceptual, stylistic forays into an orchestral exercise in setting a mood. Part of a pair of thematic releases of sorts along with Into the Hot, Out of the Cool feels at times cinematic, its arrangements swinging widely between haunting, hushed ballads and boisterously lush standouts like opening track “La Nevada.” As an arranger, Evans more than held his own, but as a bandleader in his own right, he created an inimitable style. – JT


essential Impulse albums Ray CharlesRay Charles – Genius + Soul = Jazz

(1961)

The formula in the title doesn’t lie. While Impulse! broke jazz format on a number of occasions (a small number, but still) this wasn’t necessarily one of them. Though this lone Ray Charles release does feature a handful of tracks with his unmistakable vocals (unless you’re Jamie Foxx, I suppose), by and large Genius + Soul is Ray Charles fully immersed in a soulful jazz session. It’s bluesy and rich with Hammond organ licks, and Count Basie’s orchestra gives its arrangements a big, brassy swing. So while the pairing of Ray Charles and Impulse! might not necessarily seem like an obvious one on first glance, for how short lived it was, it indeed sounds like a natural one. – JT


essential Impulse albums Oliver NelsonOliver Nelson – Blues and the Abstract Truth

(1961)

If Oliver Nelson released nothing else, he’d still have “Stolen Moments,” one of the greatest jazz tracks ever captured on tape. The album on which it’s featured on, Blues and the Abstract Truth, just happens to add quite a bit to his column of achievements, recorded in a session that featured the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans and Eric Dolphy—a super-team of players if hard-bop ever saw one. It’s a fun and animated set of jazz, as strong on melodies as it is on improvisations, with more than its share of swing in tracks like “Hoe Down.” Still, “Stolen Moments,” eh, steals the show, its central hook and ultra-cool mood making it an instant classic. – JT


essential Impulse albums Benny CarterBenny Carter and His Orchestra – Further Definitions

(1962)

By the 1960s, swing was mostly out of fashion, though bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie had adapted to the changing face of jazz. Benny Carter, likewise transitioned into the ’60s and ’70s, but not without delivering one unusually anachronistic and phenomenal sounding swing record for Impulse!: Further Definitions.  The upbeat pace of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Crazy Rhythm” are charmingly fun, while a ballad like “That Midnight Sun Will Never Set” is romantic and gorgeous. Further Definitions is an old-fashioned sort of record, almost atypically so for a label known for housing some of the most innovative players in jazz. But that doesn’t make it any less of a joyous listening experience. – JT


essential Impulse albums Max RoachMax Roach – It’s Time

(1962)

Max Roach had an eventful 1963, having collaborated with two fellow giants, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, on the tense yet vibrant sessions for Money Jungle. And in 1961, Roach crafted an impassioned work of protest jazz with We Insist! So it’s easy to see why It’s Time sometimes gets overlooked, sandwiched between these two titanic releases. It’s no less significant, however, and arguably pushed more boundaries than the all-star act that followed. The album found the bandleader and drummer recording with a choir, and the layers of voices add an otherworldliness to the sound that sets the album apart from the hard bop standard of the early ’60s. It’s a wild ride, balancing some of the most explosive drumming in jazz with a complex rhythmic sensibility, intricate arrangements and what sounds like the voices of gods guiding the way. – JT


Duke Ellington and John ColtraneDuke Ellington and John Coltrane – Duke Ellington and John Coltrane

(1963)

The general idea behind this list was that we weren’t going to repeat artists (if we did, it’d be hard to know where to stop with Sanders or the two Coltranes, for instance). But this is an exception for one notable reason: Duke. Throughout Duke Ellington’s career he worked with countless other musicians who became legends in their own right, and 1963 in particular saw him team up with various other heavyweights. Though his sole marquee collaboration with John Coltrane is a special one. From the delicate opening melody of “In A Sentimental Mood,” the feel of the record is enchanting, as that track in particular stands as one of the most beautiful jazz pieces ever recorded. But the duo cover a wide spread of moods and approaches, from the playful “Take the Coltrane” and “Big Nick” to the swing of “Stevie” and romantic balladry of “My Little Brown Book.” While the idea of supergroups often produces disappointing results, hearing these two team up resulted in an expression of pure joy. – JT


essential Impulse albums Charles MingusCharles Mingus – Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus

(1964)

The LA bandleader’s time on the Impulse label was brief—just three albums all recorded in 1963—but memorable. We’d be justified in filling this slot with his magnum opus ballet The Saint and the Sinner Lady, but that’s some 300-level calculus material right there. Instead we go a little more populist, with the last ensemble studio album he would release until the 1970s. It’s mostly a revisitation of prior works, but one shot through with power, passion, pain, and some of the players (Eric Dolphy, pianist Jaki Byard) who would soon join him on the road. – AB


best songs of the 60s ColtraneJohn Coltrane – A Love Supreme

(1965)

Few artists in the ’60s were as productive as John Coltrane; he shows up on this list twice (though it could have been 10, easily) and the recent release of lost album Both Directions At Once proved that even the music that never made it to listeners’ ears at the time was still pretty outstanding. Still, one release towers above the rest and for good reason. A Love Supreme is mythical—it’s immortal. An album of passion and spiritual fervor that speaks to something well beyond musicianship, rhythm or composition. It’s jazz that reaches a higher plane, that speaks to the soul. Of course, it’s an utter delight to listen to, but it’s also intense and powerful. It began a brief but highly concentrated period of increasingly more experimental and explosive material from Coltrane (his free-jazz masterpiece Ascension arrived just one year later), the sheer volume of it so large that Impulse! wasn’t able to release it all during his short lifetime. Yet A Love Supreme still stands as his highest peak, a work that finds Coltrane the master composer and Coltrane the conjuror becoming one. – JT


essential Impulse albums John Lee hookerJohn Lee Hooker – It Serves You Right to Suffer

(1966)

For a brief period, Impulse! had a folk music division, declaring “the new wave of folk music is on Impulse!” That included this sole recording for the label by blues legend John Lee Hooker, though jazz is still in its DNA. The album was recorded with session musicians, all of whom had a background in jazz. So while Hooker guides this set of originals, covers and traditional numbers, there’s at once a looseness and a deep pocket that makes these blues classics groove just a little bit harder. John Lee Hooker would never end up back on Impulse!, and given that just a few years later he’d release a song as powerful as “The Motor City Is Burning,” that wasn’t necessarily to his detriment. But this rare moment of synergy is an inspired one. – JT


sonny-alfieSonny Rollins – Alfie

(1966)

Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, released only three albums on Impulse! (much like Charles Mingus), though they’re pretty much all worthy of inclusion here, particularly the more avant garde East Broadway Run Down. Yet Alfie’s an interesting one. The soundtrack of a romantic comedy starring Michael Caine, it’s an album written specifically for the screen, though it still largely feels like a jazz album rather than a proper film score. The compositions are animated, the performances lively, and “Alife’s Theme” itself is the rare jazz recording with a hook seemingly bigger than the whole. Though it’s not the only album of its kind (Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis have their share of stunning scores), it’s the odd Impulse! essential that doubles as a soundtrack.  – JT


Shirley Scott essential Impulse albumsShirley Scott & Clark Terry – Soul Duo

(1966)

An instant way to make a jazz recording sound more soulful is to add some Hammond organ. Naturally, just about everything Shirley Scott touched was dripping with soul. Married to fellow jazz icon Stanley Turrentine and a prolific artist who released dozens of records in just the ’60s alone, Shirley Scott was an underrated star of Impulse! in its first half-decade, one of her greatest moments arriving with this collaboration with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Clark Terry. It’s a laid-back and highly enjoyable set of soul-jazz that’s overflowing with groove, always refreshing and never overwhelming.  – JT


essential Impulse albums Albert AylerAlbert Ayler – In Greenwich Village

(1967)

Before making the move to Impulse!, saxophonist Albert Ayler made a series of intense, fiery free jazz records for the ESP-Disk label. Yet making the move to a more prominent jazz imprint didn’t change that—at least not right away (at the time, his accessible “pop” record New Grass did not go over well). In Greenwich Village, however, is a masterful session of passionate avant garde music that’s as much modern classical as it is free jazz. “For John Coltrane” is a haunting piece that finds Ayler’s horn navigating through ghostly strings, while “Truth Is Marching In” is vibrant and triumphant, as joyous as free jazz has ever sounded. – JT


essential Impulse albums Chico HamiltonChico Hamilton – The Dealer

(1967)

The Dealer oozes cool. I mean, the front cover even looks cool—Hamilton taking a drag from a cigarette while squinting into the distance. But the music is something else entirely, a peculiar mix of soul-jazz, post-bop and even a touch of avant garde courtesy of guitarist Larry Coryell, in his debut performance. Coryell’s sort of the secret weapon on this album, his strange mix of traditional licks, rock ‘n’ roll riffs and artier phrasings combining for something odd and invigorating here. Yet driving the pieces is Hamilton’s own percussion, giving the title track a soulful strut, “Jim-Jeannie” a more frantic polyrhythmic interplay and “A Trip” more of a samba feel. It’s a strange and fascinating blend of sounds, all of which manage to combine together brilliantly into something both eclectic and electric. – JT

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