Impulse! Records: How a classic jazz imprint is reinventing itself for new generations

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Randall Roberts
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Explore some of Impulse! Records’ latest releases ahead of our in-store listening party 5-7pm tonight.

Some logos hold a special kind of power. Even design elements – color schemes, fonts, punctuation – can exude artistic character.

With an orange and black template and exclamation-point-ending aesthetic that came to define the label in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s tempting to refer to Impulse! Records in the past tense, as if the 60-year-old jazz label hadn’t continued to pursue and release records by young players and composers that align with the mission and aesthetic laid out by founder Creed Taylor.

But while Impulse! is best known for its profound influence on music culture through releases by John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Albert Ayler and dozens more, across the past half-decade the imprint has issued revelatory work by shock-of-the-new players, many of them British. The composer-musicians have upended the sound of jazz as their predecessors at the label had decades earlier.

Before jumping into the present, though, let’s cleanse system with a meditation from Sanders’ second album, Tauhid (1967).

Spirit thus cleansed, fast-forward more than a half century. Now a subsidiary of the world’s largest record company, Impulse! has found itself in the position of being sibling-labels with former competitors Blue Note and Verve, among others. (Impulse! in fact, is officially a subsidiary of Verve).

For obvious reasons, the label’s driving force is its catalog, and Impulse! has been actively reissuing dozens of its essential records per year. In 2021 alone the label repressed on CD or LP records by Elvin Jones, J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Marion Brown — and, as always, many John Coltrane records.

But it’s important to note that nestled within those crucial moneymakers have been a string of new recordings generated by a posse of London players centered around saxophonist and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings. A driver of London jazz outfits Sons of Kemet and The Comet is Coming, Hutchings has helped ignite Impulse! for new generations.

The beauty of jazz, to paraphrase writer Greil Marcus’ notion regarding punk rock, is that it can be reinvented and reborn anew anywhere at anytime. Long claimed by New York City and New Orleans, over the decades jazz has been reborn in cities including Tokyo, Chicago, Los Angeles, Stockholm, and Berlin.

For the past decade, London has fueled a jazz renaissance, one that harnesses as its driving force rhythm, percussion and intricate precision. At its center is Sons of Kemet and its founder, Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet). Known for its blistering live sets, Sons of Kemet were signed by Impulse! not long after the below 2015 set in Istanbul. Like many jazz outfits, they’re a quartet. Unlike most, two of those four players are drummers.

(Players: Shabaka Hutchings – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Theon Cross –tuba; Tom Skinner – drums; Sebastian Rochford – drums.)

After signing to Impulse! in the States, Hutchings spread his wings further through The Comet is Coming, a trio that augments the rhythms with synthesized tones.

Here’s a 40-minute set that the Comet is Coming did for the Boiler Room from 2019:

Like Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby before her, recent Impulse! signee Brandee Younger chose as her primary instrument an object so unwieldy that it requires a station wagon or hatchback to tote to and from gigs: the harp. In 2021, after releasing the album Force Majeure for Chicago label International Anthem, she signed to Impulse! and released Somewhere Different. Along the way she has played on tracks for artists including Kanye West, Drake, BadBadNotGood, Moses Sumney and Makaya McCraven. Here’s Younger covering Alice Coltrane’s “Rama Rama.”

Sons of Kemet’s Hutchings has recently issued a solo album on Impulse! Called African Culture, it’s a mesmerizing ambient work that doesn’t hesitate to push into the foreground when a musical idea requires it.

Though signed to Nonesuch, guitarist Mary Halvorson embraced a challenge that Impulse! put forward in 2018: Interpret a song one of the most overplayed albums in rock history: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Halvorson chose “A Little Help from My Friends.” Impulse!’s Younger does a great version of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” Shabaka and His Ancestors tackle “Good Morning Good Morning.”

Join us tonight 5-7pm as we listen and celebrate Impulse! Records’ latest release from The Comet is Coming: https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/event/impulse-records-the-comet-is-coming/

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