Launched by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell in New York in 1971, the Strata-East label became synonymous with the black-consciousness informed spiritual-jazz movement which was perhaps the crowning glory of African American music during the 1970s. By the close of the decade, the label had released just shy of 60 albums, an impressive catalogue for a company founded on a shoestring and run for love rather than profit by two musicians, neither of whom had any previous business experience. Cash flow was boosted, of course, by the success of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's Winter In America in 1974. The disc made Billboard's top ten jazz albums chart. Better still, the break-out single, "The Bottle," was a top twenty R&B hit. This success did not make Strata-East richits contracts were weighted in favour of the artistsbut it paid some debts and allowed the label to keep functioning.
Alongside Tolliver and Cowell, forward-looking musicians who recorded for Strata-East, attracted by its laissez-faire artistic policy and radical socio-cultural outlook, included Pharoah Sanders, Charles Brackeen, Clifford Jordan, the poet Jayne Cortez (for 10 years the wife of Ornette Coleman), Sonny Fortune, Plunky Nkabinde's Juju, Bill Lee (father of Spike Lee), Max Roach's M'Boom and James Mtume's Umoja.
All these artists recorded tours de force for Strata-East, but one of the label's most magnificent releases has been one of the most overlooked. It is the spiritual-jazz masterpiece First Impressions by alto saxophonist Shamek Farrah. Originally released in 1974, it has in spring 2018 been reissued in a 180-gram vinyl remastered-edition by Pure Pleasure.
First Impression's relative obscurity is probably explained by the fact that most of the musicians involved, great artists though the disc reveals them to be, went on to record little and retire early from active music making. At least two of them fell foul of heroin addiction. Farrah himself recorded one more album for Strata-East, 1977's The World Of The Children, another blinder, before going off radar in the early 1980s. The only participant subsequently to enjoy a reasonably productive recording career was bassist Milton Suggs, who went to record with Elvin Jones, Roland Kirk, Byron Morris & Unity and Famadou Don Moye, but even Suggs had faded from view by the end of 1980s. Suggs's biggest contribution to First Impressions is the killer ostinato which, in harness with a three-strong drum and percussion section, drives the title track forward. (Suggs's work continues to inspire muscians in 2018. His bass line for Byron Morris & Unity's "Kitty Bey," from the 1974 E.P.I. album Blow Thru' Your Mind, is celebrated on the previously reviewed Toshio Matsuura album, Loveplaydance: 8 Scenes From The Floor, on Brownswood Recordings).
"First Impressions" is one of both spiritual jazz and funk jazz's great treasures, up there with Pharoah Sanders's "Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt" from Tauhid (Impulse, 1967) and Donald Byrd's "The Emperor" from Ethiopian Knights (Blue Note, 1972). Alongside Farrah and Suggs's input, the track is further lifted by the almost-literally magical piano playing of Sonelius Smith (who co-headlined The World Of The Children). The entire album is outstanding. But the title track alone qualifies it for a five-star rating.
Side One: Meterologicly Tuned; Watch What Happens Now. Side Two: Umoja Suite; First Impressions.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.