By Ken Olende
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Impulse of an Era

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
Review of 'The House That Trane Built', Ashley Kahn, Granta £20
Issue 310

In the early 1960s a major shift was taking place in jazz. This was exemplified by the changes in the work of John Coltrane, where every one of his releases seemed to revolutionise the music.

Ashley Kahn takes a step back to look at the environment Coltrane was working in, through Impulse, the record label that released most of his revolutionary music.

Impulse was set up in 1961 as a jazz label for the ABC-Paramount group, who rightly believed that the sales of jazz albums like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue showed a large potential market for modern jazz.

Management were relatively content to appoint pop producers who were jazz fans to find artists and establish a direction. After first producer Creed Taylor scored a major success by signing Ray Charles and producing a hit album with Genius+Soul=Jazz, this strategy was seen to be working.

The label was able to build its own image, issuing its albums in distinctively designed gatefold sleeves. All of this was unusual and expensive. Impulse had the reserves to absorb a number of commercial failures, while waiting for a success like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

The label pioneered a new kind of contract, which gave far more rights to major signings. The acquisition of John Coltrane and his work with head producer Bob Thiele came to define the label. Some of Impulse’s more quirky early releases gave way to a more solidly jazz experimental sound, particularly built around people who worked with or were influenced by Coltrane, such as Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Charlie Haden and Alice Coltrane.

It was seen by artists as somewhere where producers would not try to stifle their vision overmuch. This was true to a point, but Kahn reproduces a letter from Coltrane to another label showing that for a while he was looking for somewhere else to record as he felt he was being unduly pressured during the lengthy preparations for A Love Supreme, which ironically went on to become Impulse’s bestseller.

Coltrane died in 1967. He didn’t hold everything together artistically, but his absence marked the beginning of a shift. The particular movement that Coltrane had been seen as heading had run out of steam.

The label continued to function until 1976, but though it continued to release a string of excellent albums it would never regain the creative zest of its mid-1960s heyday. The label’s character would change under the influence of the runaway success of West Coast rock. The label heads removed some of the creative freedom that had been allowed, replacing some of the jazz producers with rock producers.

A particular conjunction of artistic creativity with a capitalist company prepared to give a great deal of control to creative artists had passed. Management no longer believed that this musical niche was profitable enough to be worth the investment.

The 36-album profiles interspersed throughout the book make fascinating reading in themselves, through albums that should be more widely known such as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues to Howard Robert’s frankly bizarre Antelope Freeway. Wisely, a four CD set under the same title is also available showcasing the music discussed.

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