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Impulse! Records Marks a 60th Anniversary, and a Creative Legacy, with Music Old and New

Chuck Stewart
Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
Saxophonists John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, with producer Bob Thiele and pianist McCoy Tyner, at a recording session for 'A Love Supreme' in Dec. 1964.

The first track on the first album released by Impulse! Records, 60 years ago, bears a prophetic title: "This Could Be the Start of Something Big."

That album, The Great Kai and J.J., reunited two leading jazz trombonists, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson, with an all-star rhythm team. Straight out of the gate, Impulse! had its orange-and-black color scheme; its sans-serif, exclamatory logo; and an audacious tagline, “The New Wave of Jazz is on Impulse.”

Producer and A&R man Creed Taylor had started the label as a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount. And if the glowing self-assurance of the Impulse! brand seemed premature at first, it must have felt warranted after the success of its second title, Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz, released in Feb. 1961. That same year saw the first Impulse! albums by the Gil Evans Orchestra, Oliver Nelson, Max Roach — and, auspiciously, John Coltrane.

Under the leadership of Bob Thiele, who took over from Taylor during the label’s first year, Impulse! would be a beacon and a bellwether, through the 1960s and into the late ‘70s. As Ashley Kahn put it in his 2006 book The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records: “The label’s devotion to the mostly African-American, mostly avant-garde players collectively responsible for the last significant leap forward in modern jazz ­— the point where most jazz histories and timelines tend to end — stands today as one of its most important accomplishments.”

That devotion, which now also extends to present-day Impulse! artists like the Black British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, will take center stage in a celebration of the label’s 60th anniversary — spanning new releases as well as deluxe reissue packages and strategic partnerships.

The yearlong campaign, announced today by Impulse! and UMe, includes a new “Deep Dive” video series (unrelated, we should note, to our Deep Dive at WBGO) about classic albums in the label catalog. Its first installment focuses on Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme, with a script by Kahn, narration by critic Greg Tate, and animation by the Mexico City-based studio BASA.

A centerpiece of the anniversary celebration will be a 4-LP boxed set, Impulse Records: Music, Message & The Moment, compiling music from the label catalog that connects with Black identity and protest. (It’s available for preorder here.) The Acoustic Sounds series, an audiophile vinyl program, will reissue Genius + Soul = Jazz along with Evans’ Out of the Cool, Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth, Sonny Rollins’ On Impulse! and more. And as a Record Store Day exclusive this June 12, the label will unveil a new version of their most talked-about release from 2020: Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto – Custodian’s Mix.

Impulse! is also preparing a new title by the late pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, who released a number of albums on the label after the death of her husband, John. Turiya Sings, a collection of devotional chants Alice recorded (and originally distributed on cassette) at her ashram in the early 1980s, has been produced for reissue by her son Ravi Coltrane — who removed overdubbed strings and synths to capture the intimate heart of the recording, with just vocals and organ.

Along with some other anniversary initiatives, including a relaunched website, Impulse! will roll out several new albums from its current roster. Notes With Attachments, a collaboration between electric bassist Pino Palladino and multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, will release on March 12. A lead single, “Just Wrong,” features Sam Gendel on poly sax, Larry Goldings on Mellotron, Rob Moose on violin and viola, and Chris Dave on drums.

Later in the spring, Hutchings’ band Sons of Kemet will issue its second Impulse! album, following the acclaimed 2018 release Your Queen is a Reptile. And harpist Brandee Younger will make her major-label debut sometime this summer.

To learn more about Impulse! 60, visit impulserecords.com.