5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Strata-East Records

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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