Food

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Strata-East Records

We’ve been asking writers, musicians and scholars to tell us what songs they’d play to get people into jazz. This month, we decided to highlight a record label: Strata-East Records, founded in 1971 by the trumpeter Charles Tolliver and the pianist Stanley Cowell.

An artist-driven label, Strata-East became a hub for the type of Afrocentric and psychedelic jazz that wasn’t accepted by the wider mainstream. With projects like Tolliver’s own Music Inc., alongside experimental acts like Brother Ah, the Descendants of Mike and Phoebe, and Jayne Cortez, the albums released on Strata-East spoke to the Civil Rights struggles of Black Americans at the time. In 1974, the label enjoyed a breakout hit with “Winter in America,” a collaborative album from Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson powered by the lead single “The Bottle.” But while that’s the most notable album in the catalog, Strata-East is full of excellent records that are widely celebrated, if not always easy to hear; original copies of some trade hands for hundreds of dollars, and none of the selections below are available on Spotify. The lack of a streaming playlist just makes this guided tour of the label from 10 writers and musicians more essential.

As you’ll see (and hear) below, Strata-East released some of the best jazz heard on any label, and shouldn’t be discounted because it wasn’t one of the majors. More than 50 years on, the work of Strata-East prevails. Be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.

◆ ◆ ◆

Nabil Ayers, author and record executive

“Alkebu-Lan” by Mtume Umoja Ensemble

The second LP of the 1972 Mtume Umoja Ensemble album, “Alkebu-Lan,” opens with an epic 16-minute journey into its title, which translates to “Land of the Blacks.” Over a patient backdrop of horns, voices and Stanley Cowell’s piano, James Mtume emphatically states the ensemble’s goals: Organizing and unifying! Unifying and organizing! Going back, back, back … to Africa!

As “Alkebu-Lan” builds, horns blast, cymbals crash, voices shout, and at times, everything hits the tape just a bit too hard. But the resulting distortion is where the energy lives on this album recorded live at The East, gaining momentum, until 12 minutes in, when a restless chorus of saxophones devolves into Ndugu Chancler’s drum solo. The excitement in the room is palpable, and the collision of celebration and conviction causes the band and the audience — it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the two — to sound like they might mutually erupt.

Some might consider this music challenging or niche, but it’s actually a distant and seminal precursor to some of the most popular music of a generation: Ten years later, its drummer played the first sounds we hear on Michael Jackson’s megahit “Billie Jean.” I like to think that Chancler brought some of the energy with him from that night at The East.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

MidnightRoba, vocalist and producer

“On the Nile” by Music Inc.

The Strata-East label’s debut recording, Music Inc., features the co-founders Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell with Cecil McBee, Jimmy Hopps and a supporting orchestra of brass, reeds and flutes. Although initially recorded by Tolliver’s quartet on Polydor’s “The Ringer,” the Strata-East version of “On the Nile” is the ultimate contemporary sonic celebration of the grandeur of ancient Nubia. Brass opens, drawing us in, in sequence, to bear witness; the flutes are the heka, or magic and mysticism of ancient Egypt; Cowell’s piano is at times a firm salute to the power of the ancient civilization and at others reflective of the deity-worshiping arched harp. Tolliver’s own solo is the falcon, Horus, the spirit of the Nile itself; McBee’s bass solo, the milk and honey of the land. This recording is a truly visual sonic experience. A sensorial and transportive joy.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Alisa L. Brock, writer

“First Impressions” by Shamek Farrah

Steady bass in the intro, then the keys take the lead, sticks make their way swiftly behind, and the horn drags in like a somber cry. What is a first impression, if not rhythms meeting with a willingness to be heard and felt? It’s almost impossible not to feel Shamek Farrah’s “First Impressions.” It’s the kind of sound that pulls you in, and invites you on a beautiful and exciting ride with the unfamiliar.

It’s effortless to soak in the comfort of the bass strings that play the bottom. The consistency grounds me as the introduction of each instrument pulls us deeper into this encounter with sacred noise. Feel it. Let it make its way through you. Get well acquainted with the shifts in mood that offer up a demonstration of the impermanence of everything and the joy of difference. Surrender to the sounds of a first impression. It’s a vibe.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Jeff Parker, guitarist, composer and producer

“Hopscotch” by Charles Rouse

Back in 2001, Tortoise was performing at one of the early iterations of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. The festival was packed with folks — supposedly about a million people were in attendance throughout the course of the weekend. We were hanging after our show and I heard this insane music come over the gigantic P.A.: a hypnotic groove with an angular melody atop, and unconventional instrumentation of tenor saxophone, electric guitar, acoustic bass and drums. Someone made their way to the D.J. booth and found out that the track was “Hopscotch” by Charles (a.k.a. Charlie) Rouse from his album “Two Is One” on Strata-East Records. Serendipity found me in Peoples Records the following day, and lo and behold, there the album was in the jazz bins (the only time I’ve ever seen it in the wild). I discovered that the composition was written by one of my favorites — the drummer and composer Joe Chambers — and features Rouse on tenor, Paul Metzke on guitar, Stanley Clarke on bass, Airto Moreira on percussion, and the great New Orleans drummer David Lee. This album introduced me to Strata-East Records, and I’ve been performing this tune, following the label and collecting the records ever since.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Greg Bryant, musician and broadcaster

“Wilpan’s” by Music Inc.

Inspired by the saunter of a former love interest, the bassist Cecil McBee’s composition “Wilpan’s” spotlights the post-bop quartet Music Inc. live at the legendary New York City nightclub Slugs’ Saloon. As few recordings of the music made in Slugs’ survive, “Wilpan’s” provides essential documentation of an ethos and an era that has inspired subsequent generations of forward-thinking improvisers grounded in swing.

From the beginning, McBee’s catchy ostinato bass figure ignites the ensemble immediately. The trumpeter Charles Tolliver takes the first solo and navigates McBee’s tune with the confidence and cunning of a prizefighter. Listen for that same zeal in the pianist Stanley Cowell’s improvisation that emphasizes the tune’s harmony alongside powerful right-hand declarations. Next, McBee takes a solo that is one of his most explosive on record. He taps into the vocabulary of a shredding guitarist at times, and somehow, he never overplays. After the band states the final melody, they ride the lock-step groove set by the drummer Jimmy Hopps and McBee. As the tune’s pinnacle, it is an infectious, bouncy swing that will make you want to get involved.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Cosmo Baker, D.J.

“Prince of Peace” by Pharoah Sanders

When I was 16 years old, while going through a crate of used records in the back of an old pet-supply store in Philly, I pulled out a well-worn (well loved) copy of Pharoah Sanders’s “Izipho Zam (My Gifts)” — a copy I still own to this day, and my world was never the same.

This record was my introduction to Pharoah, setting off a personal journey that is still going. It was an intro to many of his collaborators — Sonny Sharrock! Cecil McBee! Leon Thomas! Mostly it was an intro to both the Strata-East label and the philosophy, ethos and sound that it exemplifies: the intersection of spiritual jazz, Black consciousness and identity, avant-garde pioneering, among so many more intangibles, and that’s for both this album and Strata-East in general. As for Pharoah, the album is a glimpse into his soul-baring relinquishment to something larger than all of us. Written words don’t do this masterpiece any justice, but “Prince of Peace” is a universal mantra the world could use right now, and always.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

V.C.R, recording artist, violinist and composer

“Winter in America” by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson

Growing up, gospel, classical, jazz and folk music was the soundtrack to my life. This soundtrack has shaped how I dissect, digest and compose music. But no seed that was sown grew stronger roots than when my mother introduced me to Gil Scott-Heron. She would always tell me stories about her time at Harvard during her undergraduate years where she would follow his work, hoping to catch one of his live shows. For a lover of poetry and jazz, you didn’t get any more authentic than Boston in the late ’70s.

“Winter in America,” like all of Scott-Heron’s repertoire, was timely and prophetic. The lyrics describe the ice-cold state of the nation in 1974, eerily echoing the cold front we are experiencing presently. Over a haunting, repetitive piano riff in C minor, Gil preached, “We have been taken over by the season of ice. Very few people recognize it for what it is. Although they feel uncomfortable very few people recognize the fact that somehow the seasons don’t change.” (A live performance of the song was released on the CD version of the “Winter in America” album in 1998.)

Right now people are still so overwhelmed by the reality of how dark the state of the world is. My favorite line of the song is when he sang, “The truth is there ain’t nobody fighting because, well, nobody knows what to save. Brother, save your soul.” That statement alone hits home for me as I look around wondering how can I truly make a difference. I wish I could share this song with everyone in this country, especially now. Thank God my mother shared Gil with me.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Richard Scheinin, music writer

“Cry of Hunger!” by Billy Harper

No one composes like Billy Harper. His tunes are noble, soulful, and questing. This epic track — from his debut album, “Capra Black” — begins with a call to attention. Wake up! We are instantly spun into some mysterious dimension by the sextet, which seems to move in slow motion as Harper makes one of his patented, monolithic entrances on tenor saxophone. He moans. He ascends. You hear the blues. You hear the ecstatic power of the Black church. We are held in suspense; there are moments of literal silence that take your breath away. Then the chorus enters, singing one of Harper’s most memorable themes: “There’ll be e-nough some day!” Over and over. A soprano sings an ethereal line in counterpoint to Harper’s next solo. With each beseeching note, he imparts a message: of joy, sorrow, yearning, beauty. He is singing; he is praying. The band (featuring the likes of George Cables, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Owens) moves at a majestic lope, cycling back to the wake-up call before the chorus (which includes the great Gene McDaniels) returns for the finale. Taken in another direction, this song of hope might have been a hit for someone like Curtis Mayfield. I’ve been listening to it for 50 years and it still brings me to my knees.

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Angel Bat Dawid, musician

“Baba Hengates” by Mtume Umoja Ensemble

Mtume’s “Alkebu-Lan” is my favorite Strata-East album. It’s hard to say which one song hits me with “Alkebu-Lan,” because it is in my opinion not an album to be compartmentalized in that way; it is a living, breathing creature, and one must commit to the sonic instructions of invocation to the end of this powerful incantation. But for reference purposes, the “Invocation” going into “Baba Hengates” resonates to my core. “Alkebu-Lan” is one of those holy grail albums I’m still searching for, waiting for my bank account to have the funds to afford an original, as most Strata-East O.G.s are pretty pricey. So if anyone out there wanna give a creative musician a present, holla at ya girl!

Listen on YouTube

◆ ◆ ◆

Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer

“Malika” by the Ensemble Al-Salaam

One day about 10 years ago, I was listening to the producer Madlib’s “Medicine Show #8: Advanced Jazz” when this piercing soprano came barreling through the speakers. I had just finished laughing at the album’s fake 1970s Blaxploitation film promo when the singer Beatrice Parker snapped me back into place. The song was “Malika” from the Ensemble Al-Salaam, a New York-based spiritual jazz septet who counted Bill Lee (a fellow Strata-East artist and the film director Spike Lee’s father) as inspiration. Between Parker’s rolling vocals and the band’s frenetic arrangement, “Malika” sounded like a car-chase scene in a crime saga. I liked free and spiritual jazz anyway, so I already had a palate for avant-garde music. But I’d never heard that. The song was something else, something I didn’t know I needed. To that end, I also give credit to Madlib for shaping my taste in jazz. I knew the classics, but albums like “Advanced Jazz” and “Shades of Blue” introduced me to psychedelic underground jazz, and labels like Strata-East Records.

Listen on YouTube

Related Articles

Back to top button