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Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman Records: Ten High Altitude Albums

Chris May By

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My style has always been to let the guys play and let them know when I feel they have it right. And that was it. I wasn’t thinking about the audience, the masses out there. I was making records that I could take home and enjoy. —Bob Thiele
Bob Thiele is best remembered for his years as the artistic director and house producer of Impulse!. He took over from founder producer Creed Taylor in 1961 and stayed with the label until 1969, when he left to run his own Flying Dutchman Records. Thiele's tenure at Impulse! was its most glorious period, when Thiele curated a body of work—daring and ambitious, catching the zeitgeist but also timeless—which has been matched by only a tiny number of other labels.

Flying Dutchman was a smaller affair, operating on a small fraction of the resources available to Impulse!, which during Thiele's time was bankrolled by the massive ABC-Paramount Record Corporation. Thiele sold up to RCA in 1976, but during Flying Dutchman's six years of independent existence, he built up a catalogue which, while it may not have been as large as that of Impulse!, equalled it in quality.

Thiele's name is synonymous with John Coltrane and new-wave musicians such as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders who followed him to Impulse! (not for nothing was the label's 2006 official biography titled The House That Trane Built). But Thiele's musical interests were broad. Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Pee Wee Russell and Earl Hines were among earlier stylists whom he recorded at Impulse!, and his paradigm for Flying Dutchman was just as inclusive.

Throughout his career, Thiele maintained a toehold in the world of pop, where he had cut his teeth in the music business. He was in 1966 the co-writer (under the pseudonym George Douglas) of the hit song "What A Wonderful World," first recorded by Louis Armstrong. Alice Coltrane remembered Thiele suggesting to her husband that he record it. Sadly for posterity, Coltrane did not take up the suggestion.

As Thiele was quick to acknowledge, Coltrane opened his ears to new musical horizons. Coltrane's circle of musicians also introduced him to the radical end of the African American liberation movement. Flying Dutchman released three spoken word albums addressing contemporary civil rights issues: Stanley Crouch's Ain't No Ambulances For No Nigguhs Tonight (1969), H. Rap Brown's SNCC's Rap (1970) and Angela Davis' Soul And Soledad (1971). Davis' disc still sounds relevant today, Brown's powerfully evokes its era and Crouch's is, frankly, risible. Regardless of their uneven quality, however, it took some nerve to release them and the prospects of recouping their costs were slim at best.

Here are ten albums from the Flying Dutchman catalogue. A few are well known, most are less so. All are recommended.

FLYING DUTCHMAN RECORDS: BOB THIELE REFUELS

Horace Tapscott Quintet
The Giant Is Awakened
1969

He may rank high in the AAJ hall of fame, but Horace Tapscott remains practically unknown beyond connoisseurs of spiritual jazz. One reason is Tapscott's abiding suspicion of record companies and the jazz business in general: after making The Giant Is Awakened, his debut, he did not make another studio album for a decade. Tapscott's preference was for grass-roots community work around Los Angeles, where he was the founder and organiser of the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA). The Giant Is Awakened, the first of several succes d'estime, contains the first recording of Tapscott's totemic "The Dark Tree."

Tapscott's quintet is fronted by Arthur Blythe, making his first appearance on record, his supremely soulful, retro-modernist style already in place. There are two bassists, David Bryant and Walter Savage, and drummer Everett Brown. Tapscott continued to perform "The Dark Tree" throughout his life; the best of the later versions is perhaps the twenty-one minute live one on The Dark Tree, recorded in Hollywood in 1989 and later released by HatOLOGY.

Blythe's contribution to The Giant Is Awakened is key and during the sessions he and Bob Thiele developed a strong working relationship. A decade down the line, Blythe's own-name masterpiece, Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia, 1979), was also produced by Thiele.

The Esoteric Circle
The Esoteric Circle
1969

On the face of it, the Jan Garbarek led, Norwegian band Esoteric Circle is a curious choice for a label which became closely associated with African American spiritual jazz. But at this stage of his career, Garbarek's clearest influences were John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Garbarek's soprano saxophone-infused, so-called "ECM sound" was still some way off and the album foregrounds tenor saxophone and abrasive multiphonics. Garbarek is accompanied by three future ECM stalwarts, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen. The album has a similar vibe to the better known Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1970), which was made by the same band but released under Garbarek's name.

On The Esoteric Circle, Bob Thiele ceded the producer's chair to George Russell, whose production, it has to be said, lacks focus. But there is great playing all round and the album fills out the picture of Garbarek before Officium (ECM, 1994) made him a mainstream superstar.

Leon Thomas
The Leon Thomas Album
1970

After touring with the Count Basie orchestra for three years, Leon Thomas worked with Horace Tapscott's UGMAA for four months in 1967. The experience changed his outlook on life and his approach to singing. "We were like a big Sun Ra family," said Thomas. "I learnt to stretch in all directions." The next year, he moved to New York, where he teamed up with Pharoah Sanders and perfected his signal blend of vocalese, scat and yodelling. One of the last albums Thiele produced at Impulse! was Sanders' 1969 hit Karma, which included the break-out track "The Creator Has A Master Plan," co-written with and sung by Thomas.

On The Leon Thomas Album, Thomas' second release on Flying Dutchman, he is accompanied by a stellar lineup of new wave musicians. Billy Harper and Howard Johnson are among the saxophonists and Flying Dutchman regular Oliver Nelson arranged four of the five tracks, including the eighteen-minute opus "Pharoah's Tune," co-written with Sanders.

Oliver Nelson
Black, Brown And Beautiful
1970

Black, Brown And Beautiful, conceived as a tribute to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King, finds Nelson leading a big band and sounding at times distinctly Duke Ellingtonian. Nelson's 1961 Impulse! album, The Blues And The Abstract Truth (produced by Creed Taylor), is hard to beat, but Black, Brown And Beautiful, a nine-track suite, is up there among the top contenders. Nelson uses passages of dissonance and neo-free jazz to reflect on America's troubled present, and intense lyricism to indicate a brighter future.

The music's focus is orchestral, but Nelson solos on piano and soprano and alto saxophones. His alto solo on the title track is exquisite. Later in 1970, Johnny Hodges recorded the tune on his Flying Dutchman album, 3 Shades Of Blue, which was arranged by Nelson. Hodges' solo is lovely, but no more so than Nelson's on Black, Brown And Beautiful. Nelson released five more albums albums on Flying Dutchman and worked as an arranger / conductor / sideman on several others.

Eddie Cleanhead Vinson
The Original Cleanhead
1971

Originally released on the Flying Dutchman subsidiary Blues Time, The Original Cleanhead presents swing-era veteran Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson enjoying his second wind as a high-voltage rhythm 'n' blues bandleader. As an alto saxophonist, Vinson had something in common with Louis Jordan, but his playing was altogether more raucous than Jordan's polished approach, and his singing ditto.

Vinson leads a hard-driving guitar / organ sextet which includes tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson, organist Artie Butler and, outside his usual comfort zone, guitarist Joe Pass. Good time music par excellence, which made the evergreen Vinson a festival favourite during the 1970s and 1980s.

Gil Scott-Heron
Pieces Of A Man
1971

Gil Scott-Heron released his first three albums on Flying Dutchman. The first was the all-poetry Small Talk At 125th And Lenox (1970), which included two landmark lyrics, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Whitey On The Moon." Another track, the homophobic "The Subject Was Faggots," is best forgotten.

Scott-Heron revisited "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" on Pieces Of A Man, which is undoubtedly his best Flying Dutchman release (and might be his best-ever album) and which also includes "Lady Day And John Coltrane" and "Home Is Where The Hatred Is." Importantly, Pieces Of A Man is the album which marked the start of Scott-Heron's relationship with keyboard player and musical director Brian Jackson.

None of Scott-Heron's Flying Dutchman albums did much in the way of sales and it was not until he and Jackson moved to Strata-East and released Winter In America (1974), which included hit single "The Bottle," that the pair's commercial success began to match their talent.

Larry Coryell
Barefoot Boy
1971

In 1968, following spells with Chico Hamilton and Gary Burton, Larry Coryell was hailed by The New Yorker's erudite and hard-to-please critic Whitney Balliett as "without question the most inventive and original guitarist to appear since Charlie Christian." High praise, but Coryell's own-name debut, Lady Coryell (Vanguard, 1969), which featured Jimmy Garrison on one track and Elvin Jones on two, went some way to confirming that.

Coryell was certainly the most exciting of first-generation jazz-rock guitarists, and his band Eleventh House, formed in 1972 with Randy Brecker, Mike Mandel and Alphonse Mouzon, was a giant of the genre. Mandel was already on board for Barefoot Boy, whose three lengthy jams feature Roy Haynes rather than Mouzon and which was recorded at New York's recently opened Electric Ladyland studio. Reminders of Jimi Hendrix can be heard in Coryell's virtuosic and impassioned playing, too.

Gato Barbieri
El Pampero
1972

Several of Thiele's artists on Flying Dutchman were musicians he had previously worked with at Impulse!. The transfer worked in reverse with Gato Barbieri, who began recording for Impulse! after three releases on Flying Dutchman and his Grammy Award winning soundtrack album Last Tango In Paris (UA, 1972). But because Impulse! generally signed artists for no more than one album at a time (a policy which had been initiated by Thiele), Barbieri was able to record three more discs for Flying Dutchman. The incendiary El Pampero, the third of these, is perhaps his best for the label.

El Pampero was recorded live at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival. Barbieri leads a superb band which comprises guitarist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie and percussionists Sonny Morgan and Nana. On piano was Lonnie Liston Smith, soon to become a mainstay of Flying Dutchman and its biggest hit-maker.

Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes
Astral Traveling
1973

Jazz funk divided the jazz world in the mid 1970s as much as free jazz had done a decade earlier. Lonnie Liston Smith, a standard bearer of the style (which he preferred to call cosmic funk), released five albums for Flying Dutchman from 1973—1976. The first three—Astral Traveling (1973), Cosmic Funk (1974) and Expansions (1975)—sound as fresh and life affirming in 2020 as they did on release. But the jazz police of the time looked down on ostinatos, vamps and backbeats.

The credentials Smith brought to cosmic funk were impeccable. He began the 1960s playing in Betty Carter's band, followed that with lengthy spells with Roland Kirk and in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and from 1968— 1971 toured and recorded with Pharoah Sanders. Much of 1972 was spent on the road and in the studio with Miles Davis.

Smith's 1973—1975 Flying Dutchman albums remain among his finest work, recorded with ex-Sanders and Davis colleagues including Cecil McBee, whose bass ostinatos are key to the success of Astral Traveling and Expansions, and percussionists Badal Roy, James Mtume and Lawrence Killian. Recent Cecil Taylor alumnus Andrew Cyrille also figures. Astral Traveling is instrumental; on Cosmic Funk and Expansions, Smith's brother Donald joins the band on flute and vocals.

Bucky Pizzarelli With Joe Venuti
Nightwings
1975

Thiele's jazz horizons were broadened immeasurably during his years as John Coltrane's producer, but he never lost touch with the styles which had first attracted him to the music. This solo set from Bucky Pizzarelli, who is joined on half of its dozen tracks by Joe Venuti, will appeal to anyone who loves a good tune. Classics written by Great American Songbook composers such as Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael sit alongside Erroll Garner's "Misty," Django Reinhardt's "Nuages" and three Pizzarelli / Venuti originals.

Photo: Chuck Stewart (l-r: McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Bob Thiele).

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