Leon Thomas ‘Spirits Known and Unknown’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

Leon Thomas debut album ‘ Spirits Known and Unknown’ is an important part of history and became a catalyst for many future vocalists and musicians, inspired by his unique voice and spirit. He was the perfect partner for Pharaoh Sanders; two great innovators fusing voice and sound. Thanks to Pure Pleasure the album is once again available on vinyl, pressed to a high quality level on 180 gram vinyl.

‘Spirits Known and Unknown’ followed a successful collaboration with Pharoah Sanders on albums ‘Izipho Zam’ which featured the epic ‘Prince Of Peace’, and the ‘Karma’ album, where his lyrics accompany Pharoah Sanders’ composition ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’; a sonic avant-garde exploration lasting over 30 minutes. It’s on this debut as a leader that Leon Thomas delivers a condensed version which sold over 100,000 copies and was aired far beyond the usual listenership. The album reverberated through the states with timely messages about the loss of Malcolm X, the Vietnam war, the need for peace and reflection. It’s an important album that is both accessible and original with a far-reaching appeal.

Bob Thiele set up Flying Dutchman label in 1969, after an incredible career, recording many of the giants of jazz including John Coltrane, Max Roach, Oliver Nelson and Archie Shepp. Check out the book ‘What A Wonderful World’ on Oxford University Press, about his life. Flying Dutchman issued many important albums by artists including Gil Scott-Heron, Gato Barbieri, Oliver Nelson, Lonnie Liston Smith but this album made the first impact from a jazz perspective. As well as the leader on vocals, the album features James Spaulding on alto saxophone, Cecil McBee and Richard Davis on bass, Roy Haynes on drums, Lonnie Liston Smith on piano and Pharaoh Sanders on tenor saxophone under the alias of Little Rock. An unmistakable sound that is most apparent on the ‘Malcolm’s Gone’ tribute piece.

Leon Thomas has no doubt inspired many jazz vocalists over the years since those classic albums and performances in the 1970s and is somewhat reminiscent of a Roland Kirk figure, bringing many different sounds together as one whilst pushing at the boundaries from which previous singers within jazz had not ventured. Listen to Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin or Dwight Trible and you can hear the influence of Leon Thomas. It’s hard to compare him to other jazz vocalists of his time. In certain songs on this album Johnny Hartman, Nat King Cole, Gregory Porter, Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron and Eugene McDaniels spring to mind, although it’s not a comparative comment but recognition of the uniqueness and range of this prolific and important artist and his contribution and influence.

After the seminal opening track ‘ The Creator Has A Master Plan’, ‘Echoes’ paints a picture of tranquillity and peace, with the gliding flute and light percussion creating subtle textures for pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and Leon Thomas. It’s very much similar to ‘Prince Of Peace’. On ‘One’ the pace picks up and we hear that universal message and dynamic range from the vocalist with his idiosyncratic yodelling scat sound.

On Horace Silver’s definitive soul-jazz composition ‘A Song For My Father’, Leon Thomas adds poignant words to the music, which again carries resonance with its message. You can really hear the honesty in the words and the great understated musicianship makes this one of the best covers of this 1964 classic. It’s on this track that vocalist Dwight Trible springs to mind. He features on Babatunde Lea’s 2009 ‘Umbo Weti’ album; a tribute to Leon Thomas and on the album he also covers ‘A Song For My Father’. The album also features Patrice Rushen, Ernie Watts, Gary Brown and of course the drummer and percussionist leader Babatunde Lea. A fitting tribute.

Hearing the sentiment on tracks such ‘Damn Nam’ you catch the feelings of loss and regret although the message in the music is very much delivered with power and courage rather than resignation. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how much this may have impacted on many people but the feelings are conveyed with probing questions and buoyancy of hope.

‘Let The Rain Fall On Me’ is a soft sound reminiscent of a Johnny Hartman track on his collaboration with John Coltrane. The lyrics are again centre stage and the understated support perfectly rounds off this ballad. In 2006 the artist Kutmah sampled this track on his ‘Desert Rain’ EP along with Ronnie Laws’ classic jazz-funk track ‘Tidal Wave’, sampled by many, including Rob Swift on ‘Soulful Fruit’ and of course Black Moon on ‘Who Got Da Props’. Time travelling meetings and outer space adventures with contemporary creative minds adding respect and reinterpretation in context with an abstract electronic approach.

Bob Thiele produced the album, rightly allowing the artists full control showing his commitment towards the integrity of the artists involved. Leon Thomas recorded most of his albums for the Flying Dutchman label and this ranks as one of the best.

Mark Jones