Born fifty-five years ago, Impulse! Records changed the face of jazz music for ever.
And when it came to the design of their record sleeves it was the faces behind the music that were given centre stage too. Started by Creed Taylor in 1960 as a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount, Impulse! Records defined jazz in the ’60s more than any other label, releasing some of the most respected jazz records of all time. With their first major signing John Coltrane at the vanguard, Impulse! grew quickly into one a powerhouse imprint at the fore-front of the push towards the avant-garde, with the Coltranes (John & Alice), Pharoah Sanders, Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp leading the way. And like the heavyweights behind the music, Impulse! championed a design aesthetic that was equally uncompromising.
However, as far as celebrated album sleeve design from the jazz world goes, people often don’t look much further than Reid Miles and the instantly recognisable typographical modernism of his most iconic Blue Note covers. Developing by its side with a focus instead on photography, the clean, bold colours used on Impulse! have become equally iconic, the orange and black back cover indent and spine synonymous with quality and collectibility (Judging from our interview last week, even Benji B is sold: “I do like that when I look at my record collection all the Impulse! spines look the same.”)
Complete with deluxe gatefold covers and high quality mastering from seismic engineer Rudy Van Gelder, Impulse! record sleeves exude the power of the music and the charisma of their artists, profiled in over-sized portraits by some of the best photographers of the era. Working with designs Robert Flynn and Fran Attaway, Taylor championed the use of striking colour combinations and cutting edge photography, employing Peter Turner, Roy DeCarava, Charles Stewart, Arnold Newman among others to capture the essence of the music in the expressions of its creators. It’s hard to imagine A Love Supreme (itself a break from the bright colours and the only Impulse! release to trade the orange spine for black and white) without immediately recalling the furrowed, monochrome profile of Coltrane on the sleeve.
Having established Impulse! as a musical and visual force, Taylor was subsequently replaced by Bob Thiele, the producer behind most of the label’s 300 odd releases. With so many milestone recordings to take in, we’ve chosen thirty classic sleeves from the Impulse! catalogue to begin to tell the story of the label during its most prominent years, from Kai Winding & J.J. Johnson’s Impulse A-01 through to Archie Shepp’s funk manifesto Attica Blues in 1972, and from straight up portraiture to psychedelic expression.
As part of this we’ve collected tracks from all 30 records in a playlist which you can listen to here or individually as you scroll.
J. J. Johnson & Kai Winding The Great J.J. & Kai