• An introduction to Strata-East in 10 records

    By | May 28, 2018

    Operating on minimal finance and maximal passion, the Strata-East label was a pivotal platform for the independent jazz movement that emerged from civil rights in the 1970s. Chris May suggests 10 essential albums from an artist-led label that punched far above its weight and whose archive continues to inspire.

    Strata-East was founded by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell in Brooklyn in 1971. By the end of the decade, the label had released 58 albums of near-uniform artistic excellence, a remarkable achievement for an independent company run on a shoestring by two musicians with no previous business experience.

    In 1974, Strata-East’s balance sheet was boosted by the success of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s Winter In America – the album made Billboard’s top ten jazz albums chart and breakout single ‘The Bottle’ was a top twenty R&B hit. The discs did not make Strata-East rich — its contracts were weighted in favour of the artists — but it allowed the label to pay some debts and keep functioning for a few more years. Strata-East had become less active by the early 1980s and today its business is mainly confined to licensing items from its back catalogue for reissue by other labels. Its debut release, Tolliver and Cowell’s Music Inc., is scheduled to be reissued by Pure Pleasure this summer.

    Strata-East’s legacy still resonates in the work of musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings, Kamasi Washington, Idris Ackamoor and Pharoah Sanders, briefly a Strata-East artist and one of the movement’s founding fathers.

    Mtume Umoja Ensemble
    Alkebu-Lan: Land Of The Blacks
    (2xLP, 1972)

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    Percussionist James Mtume was a bankable songwriter and producer in the 1980s, crafting hits for Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman and other soul/jazz crossover artists with his collaborator, guitarist Reggie Lucas. In the early 1970s, however, Mtume trod a less glossy path in community-orientated spiritual jazz. This live album, recorded at Brooklyn’s East Club, features saxophonists Gary Bartz and Carlos Garnett (Mtume played with both in Miles Davis’s band) and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians’s Leroy Jenkins on violin. Its heady blend of free jazz, funk and radical performance-poetry vividly evokes the black-consciousness informed New York scene in which the music blossomed.

    Shamek Farrah
    First Impressions
    (LP, 1974)

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    First Impressions is the first of two masterpieces which alto saxophonist Shamek Farrah recorded for Strata-East before going off-radar in the early 1980s. The other is The World Of The Children, co-headlined with pianist Sonelius Smith, whose trippy piano playing is also featured here. First Impressions wins the cigar by a short neck, if only for the title track, which is powered by a bass ostinato that will not be denied. It was played by Milton Suggs, who in 1974 also worked with Byron Morris & Unity, contributing more killer bass to the band’s cult hit, ‘Kitty Bey’ (recently reimagined on Tokyo DJ Toshio Matsuura’s Loveplaydance: 8 Scenes From The Floor). The album was reissued on Pure Pleasure earlier this year.

    Pharoah Sanders
    Izipho Zam
    (LP, 1973)

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    Izipho Zam was recorded a year after the release of Sanders’ tour de force, Tauhid (Impulse!, 1967). Inexplicably, it stayed on the shelf until Strata-East picked it up, by which time Impulse! had released eight more Sanders discs. Tauhid was made with a sextet, Izipho Zam with a group twice that size. The most significant returnee is free-funk guitarist Sonny Sharrock. New faces include pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and vocalist Leon Thomas. Like Tauhid, Izipho Zam is a transitional album, between the unrelenting ferocity of Sanders’s work with John Coltrane and the more blissed-out albums he went to make with Smith, Thomas and Alice Coltrane. It has also been reissued in the last year.

    A Message From Mozambique
    (LP, 1973)

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    With track titles such as ‘Freedom Fighter’ and ‘Make Your Own Revolution Now’, the debut album from JuJu, a percussion-heavy sextet led by saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde, placed the band firmly on the explicitly politicised wing of spiritual jazz. The music sounds like an angrier version of Pharoah Sanders’s contemporaneous albums, though with one hand still activating the melodicism lever. Nkabinde later repositioned the group as a four-on-the-floor funk outfit, variously calling it Oneness Of JuJu and The Space Rangers. In the early 1980s, Oneness Of JuJu’s single ‘Every Way But Loose’ was a staple at UK events such as the Caister soul weekenders.

    The Descendants Of Mike And Phoebe
    A Spirit Speaks
    (LP, 1974)

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    A curiosity with serious provenance. Film director Spike Lee’s composing and bass-playing father leads a family band through a funk-friendly jazz album dedicated to their slave ancestors, which brims with great musicianship and glowing tunes. Some of the wordless-vocal passages sound uncannily like those on Kamasi Washington’s discs. The line-up includes three of Lee’s children: flugelhornist Cliff, pianist Consuela and singer Grace, augmented by drummer Billy Higgins. Today, Bill Lee is best known for his soundtracks for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Do The Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It. Reissued on Pure Pleasure in 2017.

    (LP, 1973)

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    M’Boom was a nine-piece drums, percussion and marimba/vibraphone ensemble led by bop godfather Max Roach. The group’s lineage goes back to bands led by the Nigerian-born drummer Babatunde Olatunji in New York the late 1950s. Re:Percussion features two lesser known drummer-composers of stellar talent. One is Joe Chambers, who propelled bands led by Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus. The other is Roy Brooks. Brooks’ all-but-forgotten album The Free Slave (Muse, 1972) is among spiritual jazz’s most outstanding recordings.

    Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson
    Winter In America
    (LP, 1974)

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    Strata-East’s biggest-selling album came along midway through the label’s purple period and helped finance another few years of revolutionary recordings. Despite distribution problems – as an African American-owned independent, Strata East struggled for attention when up against the majors – popular demand ensured the single pull, ‘The Bottle’, became a top twenty R&B hit. Winter In America was a key progenitor of latter-day rap, and Brian Jackson’s stripped-down instrumental arrangements remain an object lesson in how to say more with less.

    Jayne Cortez
    Celebrations And Solitudes
    (LP, 1974)

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    Poet Jayne Cortez’s album covers subjects as harrowing as those on Winter In America and then some – including a real-life lynching in New York and the fatal shooting of ten year old African American Clifford Glover by a white undercover policeman in 1973, for which the policeman was acquitted on all charges. She performs in a duet with bassist Richard Davis, who recorded with Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk – and Van Morrison, on Astral Weeks. For ten years, incidentally, Cortez was married to Ornette Coleman, and was the mother of drummer Denardo Coleman.

    Billy Harper
    Capra Black
    (LP, 1973)

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    A tenor saxophonist of gospel-like fervour, Billy Harper is one of the best-kept secrets of post-John Coltrane jazz. After periods with Gil Evans and Art Blakey, both of whom kept his compositions in their books long after he had moved on, he made this own-name debut. He is accompanied by a septet which includes trombonists Julian Priester and Dick Griffin and drummers Billy Cobham and Warren Smith (augmented on occasion by Elvin Jones). The closing ‘Cry Of Hunger!’, dedicated to the black-consciousness movement’s demands for social change, is among the highlights. Reissued on Pure Pleasure earlier this year.

    Clifford Jordan
    Clifford Jordan In The World
    (LP, 1972)

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    One of Strata-East’s first releases, tenor saxophonist’s Clifford Jordan’s sublime In The World was the label’s most straight-ahead post-bop outing. Recorded in 1969, it has little overt connection with spiritual jazz. Trumpeters Don Cherry and Kenny Dorham share the frontline, and the rhythm section includes pianist Wynton Kelly, featured on Miles Davis’s early classic Kind Of Blue. Swinging hard from start to finish, In The World sounds – in a good way – like it could have been recorded anytime between the late 1960s and today.

    Illustration by Ben Connors

  • Pianist Stanley Cowell’s 1976 Regeneration LP reissued

    By | December 28, 2017

    A soul-filled, far out seventies jazz romp.

    Stanley Cowell’s Regeneration is being rereleased this January, via Pure Pleasure.

    Read next: How Roy DeCarava’s jazz photographs captured the soul of Harlem and influenced a generation

    The LP was originally released on Strata-East, a label Cowell co-founded with Charles Tolliver.

    Other notable records from Strata-East’s catalogue include Gil Scott Heron’s Winter in America and Pharoah Sanders’ Izipho Zam.

    Regeneration is Cowell’s seventh studio album as leader/pianist, and features Bill Lee on bass with Jimmy Heath on sax; it has been remastered by Ray Staff at Air Mastering, London for its reissue.

    Pre-order a copy of the LP here ahead of its January release, listen to ‘Trying To Find A Way’ and check out the track list below.


    Side A

    1. Trying To Find A Way
    2. The Gembhre
    3. Shimmy Shewabble
    4. Parlour Blues

    Side B

    1. Thank You My People
    2. Travelin’ Man
    3. Lullabye

  • An introduction to the revolutionary black poets of the ’60s and ’70s

    By | May 12, 2015


    Following our look at the records of the Beat generation, we turn our attention to the emancipatory spoken word of black poets recording in the ’60s and ’70s, whose outspoken activism changed the conversation around Civil Rights in the USA and helped lay the foundations for hip hop in the process.

    Words: Chris May

    In the struggle for racial equality in the US, the mid 1960s were a turning point. The civil rights era, 1955 – 65, had produced legislation against segregation, but everyday and institutional racism continued to blight African American life, as did economic deprivation. The black nationalist era, 1965 – 75, was less pacific than the decade which it succeeded and as a result the soundtrack for the new movement was not the folk songs and gospel music of the civil rights marchers, but assertive soul, funk and free-jazz. At the movies, the complementary blaxploitation movement was ushered in by Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft, both released in 1971.

    The late 1960s and 1970s also produced an unprecedented amount of powerful, politically-driven poetry. Much of this revolutionary verse was written for live performance and this, together with the poets’ near-universal use of instrumental accompaniment, sometimes by a single conga drum, sometimes by a larger group, meant their work transferred well to disc. The demotic language the poets favoured also helped them reach a broader audience than poetry traditionally enjoyed. On the timeline of emancipatory expression, the revolutionary poets and their musicians are the precursors of hip hop and modern rap.

    The ten albums chosen here, a few of them well known, others more obscure, feature some of the most affecting and enduring poetry of the period. You can listen to all the records in this playlist as you read.

    But, first, an overture…

    langston hughes

    Langston Hughes
    The Dream Keeper
    (Folkways, 1955)

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    African American cultural resistance to oppression began with the blues. The literary fightback took off with the Harlem Renaissance which invigorated black artistic expression during the 1920s. Langston Hughes (1902 – 67) was prominent in the movement. While not overtly revolutionary – although it could be said that calling a collection of verse The Glory Of Negro History was revolutionary in itself – Hughes helped light the fuse for the poets who emerged four decades later. The Dream Keeper features some of his finest work, including ‘The Weary Blues.’ Written in 1925, the poem is set in a bar on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue, where a pianist is playing. Hughes’ observation of the musician’s demeanour and body language draws out a broader meaning about the impact of racism on African American life.

    amiri baraka

    New York Art Quartet & Imamu Amiri Baraka
    New York Art Quartet & Imamu Amiri Baraka
    (ESP Disk, 1965)

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    Fast-forward from The Dream Keeper through the murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi during the late 1950s, and a new wave of African American poets began to emerge, sounding a more impatient note than had the poets of Hughes’ generation. Amiri Baraka, whose influential cultural-history Blues People was published in 1963 (under his birth name, Leroi Jones), was among the first. This mainly-instrumental album, co-led by free-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, and released during the same year as the Watts uprising and the assassination of Malcolm X, includes a 12-minute track featuring Baraka reading his early tour de force, ‘Black Dada Nihilismus.’

    on the street in watts

    The Black Voices
    On The Street In Watts
    (ALA, 1969)

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    The Black Voices were Emmery Evans, Ed Bereal, Odie Hawkins and Anthony Hamilton, members of the Watts Writers Workshop founded by the left-leaning, Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd (On The Waterfront) Schulberg in 1966. Half of On The Street In Watts’ tracks were written and performed by Hamilton, who went on to form the Watts Prophets (see below), and use the drum-centric instrumental accompaniment which became the norm for African American performance poets in the 1970s. Standout tracks include ‘Response To A Bourgeois Nigger’ and ‘Funny How Things Can Change (A Prelude To The Constitution).’ The album was reissued on vinyl by ALA in 2011.

    seize the time

    Elaine Brown
    Seize The Time: Black Panther Party
    (Vault, 1969)

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    In 2015, as one terrorist outrage follows another, the Black Panther Party’s love of assault-rifle imagery may seem a step too far. But though the Panthers meant business, their graphics were designed to shock, not incite murder – the party was originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and more Panthers were assassinated by the police than were ever shot at by Panthers. From 1974 – 77, poet Elaine Brown chaired the Panthers, the only woman ever to do so. Title poem ‘Seize The Time’ was also the title of Panther Bobby Seale’s history of the party, published a year later. Also memorable: ‘The End Of Silence’ and ‘Assassination.’ The album fuses poetry with jazz, arranged by hard-bop pianist Horace Tapscott.

    gil scott heron

    Gil Scott-Heron
    Small Talk At 125th & Lenox
    (Flying Dutchman, 1970)

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    Gil Scott-Heron’s debut album includes two of his most well-aimed poems, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ a call for political engagement, and ‘Whitey On The Moon,’ which contrasts the amount of money spent by the US on its space programme with that spent on alleviating poverty in its inner cities. It also includes one of Scott-Heron’s least attractive poems, the homophobic ‘The Subject Was Faggots.’ The album was produced by Bob Thiele, John Coltrane’s producer at Impulse!, who founded Flying Dutchman following Coltrane’s passing in 1967.


    The Last Poets
    The Last Poets
    (Douglas, 1970)

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    Probably the best-known album of revolutionary black poetry of its period, The Last Poets – recorded by Abiodun Oyewole, Alafia Pudim (later known as Jalal Nuriddin) and Omar Ben Hassen, accompanied by conga drummer Nilaja – spends as much time berating African Americans for not resisting white racism more effectively, as it does on attacking white racism itself. Poems such as ‘Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution,’ ‘Wake Up, Niggers’ and the heroin nightmare ‘Jones Comin’ Down’ are rightly considered classics.

    rappin black

    The Watts Prophets
    Rappin’ Black In A White World
    (ALA, 1971)

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    After recording On The Street In Watts, Anthony Hamilton formed the Watts Prophets with Michael Dedeaux and Otis O’Solomon. Conservative commentators, black and white, were enraged by Rappin’ Black In A White World. They particularly objected to “Amerikkka,” which took John F. Kennedy’s exhortation in his 1961 inauguration speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country,” and recast it as, “Ask not what you can do for your country / ‘Cause what the fuck has it done for you?” The production features piano and bass accompaniment, the piano played by Motown songwriter Dee-Dee McNeil (The Four Tops, Edwin Starr, Diana Ross).

    black spirits

    Various Artists
    Black Spirits: Festival Of New Black Poets In America
    (Black Forum, 1972)


    The Motown connection continues. Black Forum was a shortlived (1971 – 73) Motown subsidiary set up to release spoken-word records. Black Spirits was recorded live at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, with an introductory speech by Amiri Baraka. The album is important for featuring poets under-represented on disc, notably David Henderson (‘Boppin’’), Larry Neal (‘Holy Days’) and Norman Jordan (‘Brothers, The Struggle Must Go On’). Also featured, two tracks by the so-called Original Last Poets, comprising Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain and David Nelson.

    archie shepp

    Archie Shepp
    Attica Blues
    (Impulse!, 1972)

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    Saxophonist Archie Shepp is also a poet and playwright. Side one of his 1969 album Poem For Malcolm, on BYG Records, had Shepp reciting a eulogy for Malcolm X. It’s a decent poem, but the Attica Blues suite is Shepp’s poetic masterpiece, although it’s stretching a point, maybe, to call an oratorio a poem. Performed with a large band featuring the cream of the contemporary New Thing jazz-movement, the piece was inspired by the 1971 prisoners’ rebellion at the State Correctional Facility in Attica, New York State, during which guards and state troopers shot dead 39 people, most of them African Americans. Lyrically and musically, Attica Blues contains some of Shepp’s fiercest work, as well as some of his most tender.

    jayne cortez

    Jayne Cortez
    Celebrations And Solitudes
    (Strata-East, 1974)

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    Jayne Cortez is relatively well-represented on vinyl, thanks in part to setting up her own label, Bola Press, in 1980. Her Strata-East debut covers subjects including police harassment (‘Lexington Street Stop’), a lynching in New York (‘Lynch Fragment’), and the fatal shooting of ten year old African American Clifford Glover by a white undercover policeman in New York in 1973, for which the policeman was acquitted on all charges (‘Homicide’). The poems are performed in duet with bassist Richard Davis (Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jaki Byard….and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks). For ten years, Cortez was married to Ornette Coleman, and was the mother of drummer Denardo Coleman.

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