Impulse! Records: 25 Essential Albums

essential Impulse albums The SorcererGábor Szabó – The Sorcerer


Hungarian-born guitarist Gábor Szabó developed a name for himself as a sideman for bandleaders such as Charles Lloyd and Chico Hamilton (who also appears on this album guide), but throughout the ’60s he recorded a number of excellent albums as the marquee performer. None are quite as enchanting as The Sorcerer, a live set recorded at The Jazz Workshop in Massachusetts. There’s a mystical air about the performances, accessible throughout but with a sense of psychedelic atmosphere. Szabó’s playing is stunning throughout, and the immediacy of it makes the session endlessly fun. But on a more ambient, melancholy exploration like “Space,” it becomes something else entirely. You can practically smell the incense. – JT

genesis-trespassGenesis – Trespass


I can hear the brakes on your eyeballs bringing things to a screeching halt all the way over here, yo. When it was owned by ABC Records—yeah, the TV network, the Seventies were weird, man—Impulse! took a chance on releasing the then-young prog-rockers’ second album in the U.S. Peter Gabriel was still finding his voice; Phil Collins wasn’t even in the band yet. But the organ-fueled pop of “Visions of Angels” and early concert favorite “The Knife” held the DNA of the band’s fever-dream sonic fictions to come, not any appreciably weirder than their labelmates Alice Coltrane or Sun Ra. – AB

haden-liberationCharlie Haden – Liberation Music Orchestra


In the 1970s, it seemed as if everyone was making bigger musical statements. It was the age of both prog and fusion, for instance. And though Liberation Music Orchestra is neither of these, it is, in fact, a conceptual work of folk-inspired jazz that takes inspiration from the Spanish Civil War (and less obviously, Vietnam). As such, it’s a curiously political work, but one that’s brilliantly executed and comprises a wide range of sounds. Where the 20-minute centerpiece “El Quinto Regimiento/Los Cuatro Generales/Viva la Quince Brigada” finds the ensemble, which also features pianist Carla Bley and guitarist Sam Brown, going the distance in a suite of contrasting moods and arrangements, something like “Song of the United Front” is more concise, even quirky in its fairly straightforward march. There’s also an intensity and genuine fury to “Song for Che,” bringing the subtleties of the work to the surface. Liberation Music Orchestra is a massive work containing a lot of short sketches, but some truly huge ideas. – JT

Ahmad Jamal essential Impulse albumsAhmad Jamal – The Awakening


The colorful patterns beneath Ahmad Jamal’s face on the cover of The Awakening suggest a jazz record of a new era—an exploratory age that looked nothing like the landscape of jazz in the 1950s when Jamal made his debut. And yet, The Awakening itself is far from a work of radical fusion. It’s highly accessible, but by no means rote or ordinary. Jamal’s piano playing is lush and dynamic, and has been the source material for more than a few famous hip-hop breaks (see if you can spot the sample from Nas’ “The World Is Yours” in “I Love Music”). There are some lovely takes on Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” (another Impulse! hit) and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave,” but it’s less the source material than the actual performances that are truly important here. This is Jamal’s world.  – JT

alice-world-galaxyAlice Coltrane – World Galaxy


Nobody can do what Alice Coltrane does. On her 1972 jazz-fusion, psychedelic rock, radical symphonic document World Galaxy, we get a master class in composition and execution. Sure the floating bells, strings, and bass found on “Galaxy in Turyia” made Carlos Santana proclaim It as the song he would like played at his funeral. But let us not mince words. Her renditions of “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme,” both cultural signposts by her late husband John Coltrane, are otherworldly. With “Things” she writes the strings charts, which fluctuate from cheerful major to uncluttered minor, to act as an avatar of light. While on the mighty Wurlitzer she rips aggressive energy about like a wet towel, smacking up dense vibrations. On “A Love Supreme,” after her Guru Swami Satchidananda dispels the virtues of love in an engaging tone, she flips the construct. Alice Coltrane takes hold of that 1971 Wurlitzer 805 Centura Organ, with the pitch-bending ability, and moves the composition from funk to hip-hop through fusion by way of volcanic psychedelic punk. At one point her left and right hand are speaking in tongues with one another while drummer Ben Riley holds on for dear life. Once out of the shamanic trance, Coltrane gives the lead over to Frank Lowe on sax who quickly renders it to Leroy Jenkins on violin for some abstract blues meanderings. Call it a wrestling of emotions, a conjuring of spirits or just an intentional deconstruction of the version made famous by Mr. Coltrane. The fact remains. Nobody can do what Alice Coltrane does. – JPS

essential Impulse albums Black UnityPharaoh Sanders – Black Unity


Little Rock-born Farrell Sanders earned his nickname “Pharoah” from Sun Ra and some early clocked hours performing with John Coltrane, so it’s no coincidence that he quickly became a powerhouse on a comparable level to these two avant garde jazz titans. Within a half-dozen years, Sanders would release one groundbreaking work after another for the Impulse! label, starting with Tauhid and closing his tenure there with 1974’s Love In Us All. Black Unity, however, is a singular recording—an album-length piece of music (split in two halves to fit on vinyl) that pairs the far-out spiritualism embodied in his passionate playing along with a space-age groove pulsing through its hypnotic rhythms, koto strums and beams of synthesizer light. It’s 46 years old, but it feels like the future. – JT

post-modern gospel songs Attica BluesArchie Shepp – Attica Blues


Archie Shepp’s debut for Impulse!, Four for Trane, paid tribute to one of its flagship artists, where its follow-up, Fire Music, coined a nickname for the free-jazz growing in prominence at the time. But Shepp never stopped evolving throughout his decade on the label. His penultimate release on Impulse!, Attica Blues almost bears no resemblance to the smaller ensemble records of earlier in his career. As the title of the LP indicates, it’s a protest record that’s both a celebration of all forms of Black music and an impassioned cry for human rights. It’s a diverse work, more vocally-oriented than much of Shepp’s previous albums, and yet it remains true to his continued creative progression, balancing the two-part ballad “Steam” with more direct big-band grooves on “Blues for Brother George Jackson.” Yet nothing here is quite as powerful as the title opener, a blazing gospel funk whose message resonates decades later: “If I had the chance to make a decision/Everyone would walk this earth in equal condition.” – JT

Impulse records best albums Gato BarbieriGato Barbieri – Chapter One: Latin America


Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri had a signature look as much as he did a sound—his fashion sense, with trademark tinted glasses and hat, actually inspired the sax-playing Muppet Zoot. Yet Barbieri brought a rich series of Latin jazz sounds to Impulse!, his four “Chapter” albums essentials that bridged popular Latin music like salsa with jazz both fiery and funky. “India” leans heavier on the latter, its bassline deep and frankly badass, while “La China Leoncia…” is closer to the former, underscoring an explosive free jazz stretch with Latin jazz rhythms and some gorgeous folk movements. Latin America was just the first chapter of Gato’s Impulse! tenure, but no doubt the most significant.  – JT

Impulse records best albums Keith JarrettKeith Jarrett – Treasure Island


Pianist Keith Jarrett is regarded as a legend primarily for his masterpieces released through the ECM label such as The Koln Concert or The Survivors’ Suite, atmospheric, epic works that reveal him as both a visionary and a master musician. That only tells part of the story, however, and during the same period, he released a long list of albums through Impulse!, including this dynamic fusion recording that stands among his most accessible and soulful works. Treasure Island puts a heavy emphasis on melody, and the players in the session (including Paul Motian and Charlie Haden), have no difficulty cooking up some outstanding grooves. While Jarrett could create lengthy works of great beauty and pin-drop tension, Treasure Island shows just how much fun he seemed to be having as well. – JT

Impulse records best albums Sam RiversSam Rivers – Crystals


Eight years after John Coltrane created a massive, spiritual free-jazz epiphany with Ascension, saxophonist Sam Rivers took on a similarly ambitious work of his own with Crystals. Less chaotic and recorded as various pieces rather than as one continuous flow of music, Crystals is a work notable as much for its density as the freedom of its performances. As a big band recording, it’s pretty wild, with more than 14 musicians in a single track creating psychedelic spirals of sound akin to the kaleidoscopic cover art. Yet there’s funk within the fire, as on standout track “Tranquility,” and cinematic intensity, as on “Orb.” This is free jazz, and it’s also a progressive big band album, but perhaps it’s something else entirely. – JT

Diana Krall Impulse records best albumsDiana Krall – Love Scenes


The 1990s saw their fair share of jazz revivalism, with the rise of new young lions including Terence Blanchard, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Joshua Redman. Diana Krall’s ice-smooth piano and contralto vocals made enough beautiful noise on niche labels that Impulse brought her into the fold in 1996. The magic of this fourth album is encapsulated early on, as her drumless trio (McBride on bass, Russell Malone on guitar) mesh together playfulness and tension in their take on Dave Frishberg’s humorously detached “Peel Me a Grape.” A platinum album’s worth of fans can’t be wrong. – AB

Sons of Kemet Your Queen Is A Reptile Impulse records best albums Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile


Impulse! underwent a period of dormancy in the 1980s and early ’90s, having been purchased by MCA and eventually relaunched, with a re-introductory box set in 1991 (which was my own personal introduction to a lot of the artists on the label). But in recent years Impulse! has been more active than ever, exemplified by the signing of British outfit Sons of Kemet, featuring saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who has grown into one of the most prominent and innovative musicians in contemporary jazz. Your Queen Is A Reptile is true to Impulse!’s legacy in that it pairs a focus on socio-political concepts while backing them in innovative, progressive sounds. Hutchings and company craft a fiery sound influenced by African and Caribbean music and the end result is simultaneously haunting, fun and intense.   – JT

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