Strata-East - Jazzmessengers blog
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Strata-East was founded by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell in Brooklyn in 1971. Operating on minimal finance and maximal passion, the label was a pivotal platform for the independent jazz movement that emerged from civil rights in the 1970s. An artist-led label that punched far above its weight and whose archive continues to inspire. By the end of the 70s, it 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.

Alongside similar outfits like Tribe in Detroit, Black Artists Group in St. Louis, and The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, Strata-East consolidated the previous advancements from all corners of jazz with a hard-edged militancy and community ethos that suited the times. Inspired by the empowering ideology of the Black Power movement, these collectives were fiercely independent.

Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver met for the first time at the first rehearsal to start the new Max Roach quintet in 1967. From that moment on they became close friends and confidents. Three years later they decided to record a big band and pitch it to the labels that existed at the time, including the major indies. They couldn’t find interest, so right then and there they decided to go the whole “9 yards” themselves. There was not yet the thought of a record label, just get the recording “Music Inc & Big Band” into the market.

Strata-East has its roots in the 1967 Detroit riots and the local community organizations that were started in the aftermath. One of those was Strata, founded in 1969 by Kenny Cox of the Contemporary Jazz Quintet (CJQ). Cox opened a studio in Detroit to record and broadcast jazz on the radio for the people who couldn’t afford to go to the shows. Most of those recordings were never pressed on vinyl – Cox’s Strata Records label released only six albums in the 1970s – but the concept lived on with Strata-East Records, launched under the Strata umbrella by Tolliver and Cowell in New York City. They decided to call their operation Strata East, meaning the eastern side of the USA for Strata. Two completely separate companies but ideologically linked : “musician owned”.

From the outset, presentation and quality became a central part of the creative vision. The label’s sharp black and white logo by graphic designer Ted Plair set the tone. Always pressed on the finest vinyl, Strata-East’s recordings were pressed in limited numbers, adding to their cultish status.

Jazz radio disc-jockeys at a radio station at the time, WLIB, started playing the LPs and the label slowly started getting small orders, as well as through the distribution via another musician run company, JCOA, headed by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler which lasted for several years. Other musicians, some known, some unknown, began asking how they did it and if they could also join. It was decided there would be no artist under contract. The artist would have to produce his own product just as Stanley and Charles had. Strata East, would serve as their conduit to the market place with 70/80 payback to them. A great deal at the time.

These albums selected here display all the essential qualities from the label. Post-bop, avant-garde, deep and spiritually intense jazz from a pioneering label more interested in an enduring legacy rather than commercial success. Time has proved it right.


Charles Brackeen – Rhythm X

Rhythm X is the debut album led by saxophonist Charles Brackeen recorded in 1968 but not released on the Strata-East label until 1973. A reunion of sorts as Brackeen interacted with Cherry, Haden, and Ed Blackwell on a collectively improvised set sounding like a unit that’s completely on fire. Brackeen is today a legendary hero among those who appreciate and respect the many and varied traditions of creatively improvised music that have developed as a continuum following courageous and trailblazing saxophonists and this album is another proof of the importance of the Strata-East label as a way of giving a strong showcase to so many new ideas that were bursting in jazz during the late 60s!


Stanley Cowell – Regeneration

Regeneration is a jazz-infused pop album with strong African roots. Cowell assembled an extremely strong cast of musicians for the purpose, including Marion Brown, Billy Higgins, and Ed Blackwell, as well as several African string and percussion masters and, by and large, succeeded conceptually if not commercially, but the latter was not Strata-East main objective and as years passed by we can congratulate ourselves for that vision. An amazing, deep album featuring the fantastic song ‘Travelin’ Man’ and the beautiful soul jazz gem ‘Trying To Find A Way’.


The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe  – A Spirit Speaks

One of the most unique albums on the Strata East label and that’s saying a heck of a lot, given the creative energies flowing through that legendary label! Descendants Of Mike & Phoebe is a righteous little project put together by Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, and his brothers and sisters Cliff Lee, Grace Lee Mims, and Consuela Lee Moorhead, working here in a group named after their slave ancestors, who are paid tribute in a beautifully flowing batch of tunes! The album is a prime example of an early fusion record combining elements from jazz, gospel, soul and blues as well as a great sign of the times, the early seventies when musical experimentation and coalition was all abound.


Shamek Farrah – First Impressions

This album is the standard spiritually intense new jazz one learns to expect from the Strata-East, soaked in some Eastern influences but always with its ear to the street. Musicians took their roles as leaders and spokesmen very seriously back at the time. One of the hardest to find records on the label as well as one of the best it is a darkly-crafted session of pure beauty that lives up to what Strata-East meant as a label. Shamek Farrah’s legendary composition “First Impressions” continues today to fascinate listeners around the world many years after its inception.


John Gordon – Step by Step

A deep jazz classic on the legendary Strata-East label as well as one of the most obscure sessions featuring two of the founders of the label, Charles Tolliver on trumpet and Stanley Cowell on piano. The trombone is a difficult instrument but in the hands of an artist like John Gordon it can create vivid images and conjure up beautiful music. The sound on Step By Step is easily the equal of that from Music Inc.. The instruments have a full-bodied yet delicate sound that one hears more from a live performance than a recorded one. As an example of how realistic this album sounds, listen to Cowell’s piano on “P & G Incorporated.” The resolution is high enough to convey what both Cowell’s right and left hands are doing, even when playing at the same time.


Billy Harper – Capra Black

Capra Black is the debut album by American jazz saxophonist Billy Harper on the Strata-East label. It remains one of the seminal recordings of jazz’s black consciousness movement. A profoundly spiritual effort that channels both the intellectual complexity of the avant-garde as well as the emotional potency of gospel. Harper’s tenor summons the brute force and mystical resolve of John Coltrane but transcends its influences to communicate thoughts and feelings both idiosyncratic and universal with a sense of righteousness and focus that’s simply astounding, especially considering that the album was Billy’s first as a leader! This is music of remarkable corporeal substance that somehow expresses the pure language of the soul.


John Hicks – Hells Bells

John Hicks’s amazing jazz trio album ‘Hells Bells’ showcases his personal style which harmoniously blended a melodious romanticism with buoyant, inventive, dramatic flair incorporating elements of swing, bop and avant-garde. Part of the strength of the record is bassist Clint Houston who’s completely sublime throughout, and has a way of shaping his notes with this depth that seems to set Hicks free to fly across the keys of the piano on these very long original tunes which would test the mettle of any pianist. Hicks and his cohorts are undaunted, and approach the compositions filled with fascination and motivation.


Clifford Jordan – Glass Bead Games

Glass Bead Games is arguably the crown jewel of the ‘Strata East movement’, an amorphous genre that treads an unusual path between post-bop, 70’s avant-garde and spiritual jazz, with a groove. This is one of those few records where every element is perfect, and all players rise together to a new level of expression. Glass Bead Games is full of revelations at many levels. First, the decade of the 1970s did produce genuinely creative, “human” new music flowing from the jazz mainstream; second, Bill Lee was more than Spike’s dad: he was a superlative bassist, a team player of the first order, a powerful catalyst who, if anything, deserves to be better known than his son; third, Billy Higgins was, as so many musicians insist, a once-in-a-lifetime drummer, the bellows inspiriting the collective flame.


Cecil McBee – Mutima

A landmark recording in early creative improvised modern music, bassist Cecil McBee’s work for the Strata East label is an important document introducing him as a leader from the international jazz-based scene in New York City via his native Tulsa, and following a brief mid-’60s stint in Detroit. McBee as a pure musician has staggering technique, rich harmonic ideas, and an indefatigable swing, but it is as a composer that he is set apart from other musicians of this mid-’70s era.



Billy Parker – Freedom of Speech

One of the greatest, most desirable and most elusive albums ever on the legendary Strata East label and that is no small feat considering its catalogue! Drummer Billy Parker is a player that we don’t know much. As recorded legacies go, Parker’s is brief in the extreme but he’ll always be well-remembered for this album’s sublime blend of spiritual jazz styles leading a very hip quintet! with Ron Bridgewater on tenor and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet, Donald Smith on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Parker on drums.


Cecil Payne – Zodiac

A hard to find recording by the great baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, Zodiac is an outstanding quintet date featuring Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Wilbur Ware on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Albert Heath on drums. From the beginning it’s clear that the recording process was actually a lot of fun for everybody, as their enthusiasm and energy jumps right out of the speakers. The album is actually dedicated to two members of the band, Wynton Kelly and Kenny Dorham, who died in between the recording sessions and its release.


Pharoah Sanders – Izipho Zam

Back in the day knowledgeable jazz collectors flipping through bins would always pause when a release from Strata-East, invariably adventuresome, appeared. Izipho Zam is a clear example. Recorded in January of 1969 with Clifford Jordan as producer, and eventually released by Strata-East in 1973, reflects Sanders’ Afro rhythms and spiritual influences, if not in full flower, then in full development. This was only the second album Sanders recorded as a leader, but its delayed release put it on record-store shelves next to recordings made several years later for Impulse. A stellar group of musicians joined Pharoah Sanders: Sonny Fortune on the saxophone, vocalist Leon Thomas, Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Billy Hart and Majeed Shabazz on drums as well as Chief Bey on African drums, bassists Cecil McBee and Sirone, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, Howard Johnson on tuba and percussionists Nat Bettis and Tony Wylie, who are also joined by the ensemble adding extra textures and colour with the array of percussion instruments.


Charles Tolliver Charles Tolliver All Stars

At the time of this recording, Charles was part of a whole new generation of hardboppers who were coming up in a world of new ideas. Here he is surrounded in quartet and quintet formats with a truly stellar cast of the leading players on the New York jazz scene that features Gary Bartz on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. This was Charles Tolliver’s first album as a leader. The setting is unique only because his second album “The Ringer” and all of his subsequent albums on Strata-East featured his quartet Music Inc.


Charles Tolliver – Live at Loosdrecht Jazz Festival

This album is jazz of high energy and high sincerity. Jazz at its best. One of Tolliver’s (and jazz’s) masterpieces and recorded in 1972. Tolliver, one of the few talents who could take his instrument into the kind of long-blown, beautifully open territory,  is really making magic here in a quartet that includes John Hicks on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and Alvin Queen on drums. This particular Music inc. Big Band makes remarkable music and reaffirms the apotheosis of the Music Inc. album of trumpeter Charles Tolliver’s singular creative vision. Titles are all nice and long and include “Grand Max”, “Truth”, “Prayer For Peace”, “Our Second Father” and “Repetition”.


Charles Tolliver – Music Inc.

This is the first LP by Charles Tolliver’s legendary group on Strata East. Rarely, if ever, has a big band exhibited so much freedom or finesse, while at the same time never overwhelming the virtuoso soloists on whom the performances pivot. This forward-thinking group built around the core of Tolliver’s environment at the time with pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Jimmy Hopps, boasts the kind of music of give-and-take born equally of talent and telepathy where each player seems to communicate with his colleagues on a higher plane, delivering performances to rival any in their careers while navigating hard-hitting, harmonically advanced and sophisticated arrangements.


Harold Vick – Don’t look Back

Recorded following his recovery from a heart attack, Harold Vick emerges here as an incredibly sensitive soul jazz player, capable of turning out some incredibly sophisticated and emotional compositions. His playing has a tougher edge, whilst retaining all the subtlety that graced earlier recordings. Originally released by Strata East in 1974, Don’t Look Back features Vick on tenor saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet, with George Davis on alto flute, Sam Jones on bass, Billy Hart on drums, and Virgil Jones on trumpet. A lineup that sounds even greater on the record than it does on paper.