CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Various Artists: Black Jazz Records (Real Gone)

A review of the first releases in a reissue series from the seminal "spiritual jazz" label

Hear, Sense and Feel by The Awakening
The cover of Hear, Sense and Feel by The Awakening

Original LPs of Alice Coltrane’s magnificent ’70s-era Impulse! recordings have become collector’s items. Vinyl from Jazzman’s Spiritual Jazz Vols. 1-9 is equally rare. But the music branded “spiritual jazz” is now receiving some necessary love as one of its seminal labels, Black Jazz Records, is the subject of a reissue series from Real Gone Music.

Based in Oakland, originally directed by keyboardist Gene Russell, and funded by percussionist Dick Schory’s Ovation label, Black Jazz released 20 albums between 1971 and 1975, including such now sought-after LPs as keyboardist Doug Carn’s Revelation and Adam’s Apple; tenor saxophonist Rudolph Johnson’s The Second Coming; and guitarist Calvin Keys’ ShawnNeeq. Occasionally reflecting the social politics of the similarly Oakland-based Black Panther Party and the unique “East Bay Grease” grooves exemplified in the music of early Tower of Power, but with an Afrocentric message, Black Jazz created a brilliant body of in-the-moment, beautifully conceived and performed recordings, which have never been reissued on vinyl until now.

The first four albums in Real Gone’s reissue series include Russell’s New Direction (1971), keyboardist Walter Bishop Jr.’s Coral Keys (1971), Carn’s Spirit of the New Land (1972), and Chicago group the Awakening’s Hear, Sense and Feel (1972). All include new liner notes and come in audiophile-grade inner sleeves. As the original tapes were unavailable, vinyl was cut from “hi-res digital files made from analog disc dubs,” the label’s publicist said.

The Awakening, featuring Reggie Willis (bass) and Ari Brown (tenor sax and flute), had roots in the AACM. Of the first three Black Jazz albums I received, Hear, Sense and Feel was the most exhilarating, a concept album running moods from meditative to explosive with dense compositions, ambitious arrangements, and incisive solos all around.

I found my original copy of Doug Carn’s Spirit of the New Land in a punk-rock store in Philadelphia, and this music is punk, a ferocious blast of simmering yet excitable grooves, beautiful Fender Rhodes playing, and the dazzling, sky-stretching vocals of Jean Carn. Including heavyweights Charles Tolliver, Garnett Brown, Earl McIntyre, and Alphonse Mouzon, the album recalls Larry Young’s later Blue Note work (Contrasts, Heaven on Earth, Mother Ship), the musicians playing as one ferocious unit throughout. Carn’s lyrics to Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” and Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” give the songs new life and meaning.

Bishop’s Coral Keys is the oddest release of the set. Depending on where you drop the needle, it can sound like a Mainstream Records release circa 1975 or a pure avant-garde collision. Bishop and an outrageous Harold Vick on flute and sax are joined by bassist Reggie Johnson, drummers Alan Schwartz Benger and Idris Muhammad, and trumpeter Woody Shaw. One moment, it’s a swinging hard-bop session; the next, it’s a foray through time and space.

If the first releases from this series are any indication, Real Gone’s Black Jazz reissue campaign is essential listening of the greatest magnitude.

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.