Egon’s exceptional Now-Again Records consolidates the release of four extremely rare albums by jazz drummer Bubbha Thomas from 1970 to 1975 into a comprehensive box set with a total of 61 tracks (I counted them). Hailing from Houston, Texas – not the bedrock of spiritual jazz and jazz fusion in the US, but nonetheless, this remarkable set showcases another missing link in the evolution of jazz during its extremely fertile early to mid-1970s epoch. As the vinyl box set for practical purposes is split into four pressings representing each of the four albums, I will also separate them individually to examine each album at a time chronologically.
‘Free As You Wanna Be’ (1970) the debut is definitely a development record. Not as ‘free’ as the title suggests but its influences range from accessible free jazz to fusion, but the title track is explicitly early 70s spiritual jazz, even with its loose guitar chords which are reminiscent of some of Pharoah Sanders’ Impulse material. ‘Talk Visit’ with its swirling horns and heavy shuffle rhythm is particularly memorable. This record and ‘Country Fried Chicken’ also includes a pre-Blue Note Ronnie Laws playing alto sax, soprano sax and flute.
The follow up album ‘Fancy Pants’ (1971), again contains spiritual elements as well as heavier fusion moments. ‘Sorrow, Bitterness And Revolution (Now He’s Gone)’ sees some excellent guitar work by Kenny Abair, who features heavily on the first two albums. ‘Ashie’ at 2’45” is a perfect DJ tool and was also originally pressed as a 7” circa 1971 (it fetches £500) and is a downbeat funky jazz number. As a bonus, an alternative version labelled ‘Synth Version’ is also presented which features an additional Mini Moog playing the main melody line (this track is on a different disc).
‘Energy Control Center’ (1972) is the most in demand of these albums and drifts between post-bop tendencies, fusion with some slightly free-ish elements to more resounding spiritual jazz moments with ‘Leo’ especially strong here. As memorable is the funky ‘The Phantom’ (nothing to do with the Duke Pearson piece). Also included is the non-LP track ‘All Praise Due To Allah’ which appeared on 7” in 1972, which one assumes to be both parts 1 and 2 combined with an extraordinary unreleased alternative 9-minute version – which could well be the track of the box set. A bold statement indeed.
The final album, ‘Country Fried Chicken’ (1975), jumps from post-Headhunters fusion including the breakbeat intro of ‘Country Fried Chicken’ to the 10-minute journey that is ‘Sweet Ray’. The Rhodes driven ‘Famous Last Words’ is the most jazz-based track of this album, but I would state that this album is probably my least favourite, but that’s like having a least favourite Leroy Hutson album.
Furthermore with each of the CD and vinyl versions, all albums are presented as double releases, with Fancy Pants and Free As You Wanna Be having both stereo and mono versions presented. Energy Control Center’s second disc includes additional or alternate tracks as well as four tracks by Thomas Meloncon, a one time member of The Lightmen who released two singles on Judnell, the original label for the first two albums. And finally, Country Fried Chicken also contains some bonus tracks including alternative versions and non-album releases.
In reality, many jazz groups on tiny labels in the 1970s only had very brief recording careers, maybe releasing one or two albums within their catalogue. Remarkably, Bubbha Thomas recorded four complete albums, a best of compilation and seven singles, including quite a nice boogie 45 in 1980, which is also included, which highlights his sheer single-mindedness and determination to release music that he believed in. And it’s here that Now-Again have to be acknowledged for bringing these rare pieces to a wider audiences especially considering how well they have been presented.
There are so many tracks included within the box set that it’s initially easy to miss many of its highlights and it demands a certain amount of time to fully absorb the large track count and its various nuances. But it’s worth noting that each of the four original albums have been issued separately on double vinyl and CD editions and with the bonus material included. You could argue that reissues of this nature are also investment pieces, with the four original albums alone fetching well over £1000 on the second hand market and even these reissues won’t be around forever and will increase in value. But that’s being very cynical as this is, first and foremost, just great music.