After Creed Taylor formed Impulse Records in the summer of 1960, his first move wasn't to record and release LPs. It was to develop a strategic marketing plan. First, Creed and Fran Scott, his art director (and Tony Scott's wife) designed a strong logo. Next, they chose orange and black for the label's color scheme. These colors have been used most effectively in a new four-CD set, First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary Collection (Universal).
Creed felt that black and orange would not only catch eyes in stores but also neatly leverage the jazz mystique that jazz buyers loved. Black felt like night and orange was akin to the neon signs outside jazz clubs that compelled the curious to go inside. He hoped the same strategy would work on curious jazz record buyers.
Then came plans for glossy laminated covers, a gatefold that would swing open and add import to releases, and wider spines created by the gatefolds. Fatter spines meant the records would stand out on store and record-buyers' shelves. Next Creed evaluated the radio market by talking to disc jockeys. His goal was to determine what worked best on different stations and at different times of the day and night.
Only then did Creed begin to think about whom to record. He knew that a mix of artists was essential. Creed intended to release four titles at once in February 1961 to create a big statement at the retail level. "The big record chains needed to know you were making a solid commitment," Creed told me. "Buyers soon began asking store clerks what was coming next from Impulse rather than individual artists."
All in all, Creed released six Impulse albums before he left the label to become chief producer at Verve in the summer of 1961. Now issued together, the six albums on four CDs are quite something on multiple levels. For one, most today remain classics. This is certainly true of Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth and John Coltrane's Africa/Brass.
And one could argue that Gil Evans Out of the Cool, Kai Winding's Incredible Kai Winding Trombones and Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson's The Great Kai and J.J. are hardly tripe. Each is potent and exudes instrumental charm.
In my iTunes library, I lined up all six albums in order. Today I went through them all, one after the next. I've heard these albums many times before, of course, but I've never really absorbed them both as a united set and as a business plan. The result was fascinating and revelatory. What you hear is both a creative vision for a new high-end label and a strategy for exacting sales from each segment of the jazz-buying demographic.
A word about the sound. Creed worked in the studio with Universal's Kevin Reeves to remaster all six recordings. What comes through are new aspects of these albums that were suppressed in the past. On Ray Charles' album, for example, the reeds are much more vivid, as is the thump of the bass and attack of Charles' organ. Roy Haynes' drumstick on the cymbal that opens This Could Be the Start of Something Big from The Great Kai and J.J. is crisp throughout, with the punch of trombones much more sonically distinct. Incidentally, this marks the first time the two trombone albums have been issued in the U.S. Other versions are imports.
Oliver Nelson's tenor sax on Stolen Moments and Freddie Hubbard's trumpet on Yearnin' are searing, while Bill Evans' piano is warm and crystal clear. The same goes for Africa/Brass. Coltrane's tenor sax sails over the orchestra, but the instruments are never lost. Reggie Workman's bass now forms a heart beat, as originally intended. It's as if a coating of film has been removed from the tracks on all of these albums, allowing much more information to be displayed.
Creed has always been notorious for sticking with the tracks he originally released and shunning alternate takes on reissues. This was evident in the Japanese King releases of his CTI material last year. But for this set, Creed and Reeves remastered seven bonus tracks: the mono single of Charles' One Mint Julep, Sister Sadie from Gil Evans' Out of the Cool and extra takes of Song of the Underground Railroad, Greensleeves, The Damned Don't Cry and two of Africa.
The album doesn't come in a traditional box. It's a 10 1/4-inch square, 80-page orange-and-black hardback book with separate sets of liner notes by Creed and author Ashley Kahn. Splashy color and black-and-white candid photos as well as images of original album covers and interiors pack the book.
Pretty amazing stuff. One guy had a vision for a record company. One guy figured out how to win over the marketplace. One guy brought together six different groups. One guy pushed for top execution. And one guy recorded albums that today are stellar examples of jazz in 1960 and 1961, ranging from the pop swing of Kai Winding and Ray Charles to the deeply personal work of Oliver Nelson [pictured] and John Coltrane.
This set isn't cheap. But the clear crisp sound and depth certainly is compelling.
JazzWax tracks: First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary Collection (Universal) is available at iTunes or here. The set's four CDs slip into slots at the back of an 80-page hardback book.
JazzWax clip: This is an upload from an earlier release of Ray Charles' One Mint Julep and not from the new set. Hear how fuzzy the organ and the reeds are? Or that the bass is all but lost? All of that has been cleaned up, replaced by distinct highs and midrange and a solid bass. Charles' version is still the funkiest Julep of them all...