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Leon Thomas: Spirits Known And Unknown

Chris May By

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Spiritual-jazz fans in London have had a good 2019. The music looms large in several of the most prominent bands on the city's happening woke jazz scene. On top of that, London's Gearbox Records released Mothership, an on-point album by singer Dwight Trible, who also played a memorable one-nighter at Ronnie Scott's club.

Trible is a stylistic descendant of spiritual-jazz auteur Leon Thomas, who created the genre's vocal strand while studying and performing with pianist Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Trible debuted on disc in 2001 on the Elephant label with Horace, a posthumous tribute to Tapscott.

Thomas came to international attention as a member of the band which recorded Pharoah Sanders's breakout album Karma (Impulse, 1969), most of which was taken up with the extended opus "The Creator Has A Master Plan," co-written by Thomas and Sanders. The album was produced by Bob Thiele. Shortly after recording it, Thiele left Impulse and set up Flying Dutchman Records. One of the label's first releases, in late 1969, was Thomas' own-name debut, Spirits Known And Unknown, which has been released by London's Ace Records as part of its Flying Dutchman reissue series.

Recorded eight months after Karma, the lineup on Spirits Known And Unknown features several of the same musicians, including Sanders, who had in the interim signed an exclusive recording contract with Impulse and appears under the pseudonym Little Rock. Other holdovers are pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, saxophonist and flautist James Spaulding and bassist Richard Davis.

Sanders is heard on the album's centrepiece, "Malcolm's Gone," a tribute to Malcolm X which he co-wrote with Thomas. Another track with a politically charged lyric is "Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' To Vietnam)." The album opens with "The Creator Has A Master Plan," with Spaulding's mellilfluous flute replacing the ferocious tenor saxophone Sanders played on Karma. These are the highlights of a consistently impressive debut, and they are closely followed by a hard-swinging version of Horace Silver's "Song For My Father," with lyrics by Ellen May Shashoyan, and Aaron Bell and Clara Huston's lovely ballad "Let The Rain Fall On M2."

Ace's edition includes three bonus tracks. There is an energetic version of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," with lyrics by Frank Paparelli. The track's provenance has not been ascertained although some observers believe it was recorded at the same session as "Malcolm's Gone." It sounds like Spaulding on alto and it might be Sanders on tenor, but it does not sound like Smith on piano, and the drums and bass are not readily unidentiable. So the jury is out. The disc closes with fierce, live versions of "Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' To Vietnam)" and (a brief) "Um Um Um," both recorded at the Fillmore East in March 1970. Personnel is known and shown below. The two tracks were originally included on Flying Dutchman's SNCC's Rap (1970), a compilation of Fillmore performances by Thomas and extracts from a speech made by black-rights activist H. Rap Brown at Long Island University on October 22, 1969. That was, coincidentally, the same date as the second of the two sessions at which Spirits Known And Unknown was recorded.

All this synchronicity and parallelism came full circle during Dwight Trible's performance at Ronnie Scott's, which closed, fittingly, with "The Creator Has A Master Plan."

Track Listing

The Creator Has A Master Plan; One; Echoes; Song For My Father; Damn Nam (Ain’t Goin’ To Vietnam); Malcolm’s Gone; Let The Rain Fall On Me; A Night In Tunisia; Damn Nam (Ain’t Goin’ To Vietnam) (live); Um Um Um (live).

Personnel

Leon Thomas: vocals, percussion; James Spaulding: alto saxophone, flute (1-7); Little Rock (Pharoah Sanders): tenor saxophone (6); Harold Alexander: soprano saxophone, flute (9, 10); Lonnie Liston Smith: piano; Richard Davis: bass (1-5, 7); Cecil McBee: bass (6); Jimmy Phillips: bass (9, 10); Roy Haynes: drums (1-7) ; Alvin Queen: drums (9, 10); Richard Landrum: percussion; Sonny Morgan: percussion (9, 10).

Album information

Title: Spirits Known And Unknown | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Ace Records UK

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