The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records is a four-disc set, compiled and annotated by author Ashley Kahn who wrote the book of the same name being published concurrently with its release. Impulse's great run was between 1961 and 1976 -- a period of 15 years that ushered in more changes in jazz than at any other point in the music's history. Impulse began recording in the last weeks of 1960, with Ray Charles, Kai Windig /J.J. Johnson, and Gil Evans. While Impulse experimented with 45s 33 1/3 EPs, cassettes, and reel to reel tapes later in its existence, it was--and this set focuses on-- it was the music on its LPs (with distinct orange and black packaging in gatefold sleeves containing copious notes) that helped to set them apart. Impulse was dedicated to ushering in the new and controversial, but also sought to showcase established artists from the tradition (maintaining the jazz lineage) who continued to work and develop. While the label is certainly associated more closely with John Coltrane than any other of its artists (Coltrane also acted as an ad hoc A&R man), it nonetheless established and forwarded the careers of dozens of jazzers.
The discs are arranged chronologically. Disc one begins with Gil Evans and his reading of "Where Flamingos Fly" from Out of the Cool, issued in 1961. Other big-band moments on this disc include Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" from Blues and the Abstract Truth, and Coltrane's reading of "Greensleeves" from his Africa Brass issue. These three albums alone present very different large band approaches to jazz, and the number of established and up-and-coming names who played on them is staggering: Budd Johnson, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, Charlie Persip, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Freddie Hubbard, Paul Chambers, Julius Watkins, Julian Priester, Booker Little, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and more. Bob Thiele, the label's house producer and A&R man, is equally responsible. He was a visionary, open to any and all changes in the music; also in his favor was a healthy ambivalence toward the music business itself. Other headline acts in those early years included Art Blakey, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Johnny Hartman, and Charles Mingus, just to name a few. The first two discs highlight these tracks, along with music by Chico Hamilton, Freddie Hubbard, Paul Gonsalves, Haynes, and Yusef Lateef very well. Disc two moves through the issue of Coltrane's A Love Supreme--the label's defining moment-- and one of its early vanguard signings in Archie Shepp. Shirley Scott and Pee Wee Russell are also represented with tracks from 1963 and 1964. But here is also where the problems begin for those who wish to quibble (we all have our wishes for what should have made the cut). Sun Ra is nowhere in sight. His Space Is The Place is a crowning moment for him--it should be stated, that this album is a reissue of material that originally appeared on his own El Saturn label in various forms, but its best, and most complete presentation was on Impulse. Likewise, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, and Quincy Jones are not represented here.
Organizationally, the presentation is wonderful but difficult too--and to be fair, who wouldn't run into problems trying to assemble something definitive like this--is that while the box includes four discs, there are ten single-disc overviews of the label's major artists. And most of them have multiple cuts on the box, creating a great deal of repetition. Coltrane would be the noteworthy exception to this, but it's difficult to reason why anyone else should have multiple selections in this collection If they hadn't, obviously, there would have been room for other artists that recorded for the label as well. (Realistically, one can almost bet that budgetary and licensing issues prevailed). Discs three and four focus deeply on the new and vanguard jazz with offerings by Trane, Alice Coltrane, Shepp, Albert Ayler, Chico O'Farrill, Charlie Haden, Keith Jarrett, Gato Barbieri, and Pharoah Sanders -- represented here by his 32-minute classic "The Creator Has a Master Plan"that also appears on his signature volume. While it can successfully be argued that Sanders' selection could have been chosen differently to make room for other Impulse artists, the fact that Kahn picked the one tune most closely associated with him is commendable. There is great balance on the latter two discs, with cuts from albums by Ahmad Jamal, John Handy, Gabor Szabo, Sonny Rollins, and Clark Terry showcased in the mix. Still, one wonders how Ornette Coleman, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Scott, Mal Waldron, and Gary McFarland could not be included? That list of personal quibbles and questions goes on and on. But the hardest thing for a fan to bear is not having a single track by Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, or Marion Brown included. All three men did most important work as leaders for the label. (Arguably, Rivers should have had his own volume in the signature series as well.) Again, admittedly, it was a tough call making cuts in a roster as varied and important as Impulse's was. Including tracks by a number of lesser-known acts who have never had material issued on CD would have been a nice touch as well, like the Brotherhood, Clifford Coulter, Sonny Criss, or the American Quartet. Some of these, of course, are quibbles, others are puzzling, while still a few others seem inexcusable. But there are only four discs here. Hopefully Mr. Khan and Verve might agree in the future that a second, multi-volume box should be released. All of that said, the inclusion of Walk With Me from Alice Coltrane's magnificent comeback, Translinear Light is here. The track was released in 2004 on Impulse. It appears that Verve does indeed reserve the right to release music on the label that fits the post-John Coltrane aesthetic. The House That Trane Built is a solid overview of a label that was simply mystifying in tis vision and spot-on in its choices for documenting the many changes in jazz history. Kahn's project--both the music and his fine book, are worthwhile for any jazz listener to investigate.