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The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records by Ashley Kahn

Having delved into the makings of two iconic albums in previous books about Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Ashley Kahn is casting his net wider. His subject here is an iconic record label, Impulse!, which in its short-lived original form was a model musical enterprise, balancing cutting-edge work with imaginative mainstream projects.

With a cast of characters ranging from the urbane producer Creed Taylor to the streetwise “record man” Bob Thiele to musical giants including Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Gil Evans and, the focal point of the label, John Coltrane, Kahn has a host of captivating personalities to build a compelling narrative around. Firsthand recollections from Coltrane and Thiele may be the absent voices in the center of the book, but Kahn has spoken to many of the major protagonists, letting their still sharp recollections guide the tale. Wisely, he takes a cue from his previous books, breaking up the chronological account with individual features on such landmark albums as Carter’s Further Definitions, Ray Charles’ Genius+Soul=Jazz and Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth; intriguing projects like Sonny Rollins’ Alfie, Earl Hines’ Once Upon a Time and Pharoah Sanders’ Karma; as well as a few off-the-wall discs (Howard Robert’s Antelope Freeway and Albert Ayler’s Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe).

The history of a record label is a story of art and commerce, and Kahn knows how to strike a readable balance in taking account of both. Names like Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and Johnny Hartman may be as synonymous with Impulse! as the orange-and-black spines of their classic album covers, but such behind-the-scenes businessmen as Taylor, Thiele, Ed Michel and Steve Backer played an equal part in the company’s lifecycle. If the label’s golden era (1963-1969) naturally holds the most interest, the decline, fall and current resurrection of Impulse! also vividly illustrates how social climate and business affairs can drastically morph a great enterprise. A daring and inclusive jazz label like Impulse! has become a thing of the past. Kahn reminds us how regrettable that situation is.

Originally Published