The House That Trane Built: The Story Of Impulse Records

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The House That Trane Built: The Story Of Impulse Records
Ashley Kahn
Hardcover; 338 pages
ISBN: 978-0-393-05879-6
W.W. Norton & Company

Collectors are a curious lot. Be it baseball cards or jazz records, those who dabble in amassing artifacts related to a particular infatuation will always have a story to tell about a favorite or rarity worthy of inclusion in any respectable collection. Making its debut during the early '60s, a fervent and productive period in jazz, the Impulse! label developed quite a reputation among collectors during its heyday, documenting a wide variety of styles.

Impulse! possessed the passion of an independent but also benefited from parent company ABC-Paramount's promo machine. The label's albums made a splash with deluxe gatefold sleeves adorned by prominent orange and black spines, and fans soon discovered that the details made a difference. The label's strong design identity helped maintain its prominence for the better part of 15 years.

Coinciding with the 45th anniversary of Impulse! and the 80th birthday of iconic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Ashley Kahn's The House That Trane Built:The Story Of Impulse Records is the first effort to detail the birth and development of a legendary jazz label, one that was also home to Coltrane's forward-thinking innovations during the mid to late '60s. But while the saxophonist figures prominently in the history of the label, the true protagonists here are two eminent producers, one who would forge the initial sound and look of the label, and one who would then build a catalog that embraced a disparate range of styles from dixieland to the avant-garde.

Kahn does an excellent job of introducing us to Creed Taylor, the gentleman responsible for the look and sound of Impulse! at its onset, and includes many illuminating quotes from his own interviews with Taylor. As the story goes, after producing less than a half dozen of the label's first releases, Taylor jumped ship to Verve, with Bob Thiele taking over production duties for the remainder of Impulse!'s peak years. The antithesis of Taylor's refined and determined approach, Thiele's style allowed musicians a great deal of artistic freedom. This was a great benefit to Coltrane, who during the course of his later years was given carte blanche to record as often as he wished, thanks primarily to the largesse of Thiele.

The Impulse! story is told not only through the imparting of Kahn's obvious knowledge on the subject, but also through the words of many of the key individuals who contributed to the label's history. Furthermore, Kahn adds interest by profiling in depth 36 key albums from the catalog, and scattering these throughout the book. So while prominent names like Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and Duke Ellington are easily found here, also part of the mix are tidbits about such esoteric items as Chico O'Farrill's Nine Flags or Al Collins' A Lovely Bunch Of Al "Jazzbo Collins And his Bandidos.

By the time of Thiele's departure in late 1969, Impulse! was moving in a new direction. The sound, look and feel of the label would be quite different under the leadership of a new stream of producers. While some would argue that new music by the likes of Keith Jarrett, Sam Rivers and Pharoah Sanders kept the label on the cutting edge, the overall impact of its output would be considerably less as the '70s progressed and jazz saw its fortunes rapidly declining. Nonetheless, Kahn manages to bring the story to a satisfying close by including pertinent information about present activities and reissue projects.

To coincide with the release of his book, Impulse! has also relied on Kahn to select the 38 tracks that make up the four-disc set The House That Trane Built:The Story Of Impulse Records, an ambitious introduction to the label presented in chronological order and spanning the years 1960 to 2004. Of course, all the obvious choices are here—Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments and Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has A Master Plan —but so too are hidden gems by Pee Wee Russell, Earl Hines, Yusef Lateef and Roy Haynes. It should come as no surprise too that there are no less than six tracks featuring John Coltrane.

The only minor point of contention might be that it could have been worthwhile to include an additional disc of what Khan calls "the odds and trends." Inclusion of tracks from the likes of Gary McFarland, George Wein, Jackie Paris, Dannie Richmond or Bill Plummer might have given the novice a better picture of the rich tapestry of sounds Impulse! sported during its healthy run.


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