Monday, July 17, 2006

Ashley Kahn - The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (W. W. Norton, 2006)

Ashley Kahn laid the foundation for this book length retrospective with his last book which told the story of the recording of John Coltrane's monumental album A Love Supreme. This book aims to tell the whole story of Impulse Records, for which Coltrane recorded as did other avant-garde luminaries like Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. On the positive side, Kahn writes well and there are some wonderful photos of the musicians that have passed through the Impulse ranks over the years. The problem I found with the narrative however, was that much of the book too often on the producers and record men (i.e. the "head white men in charge") rather than the musicians involved and the music they produced. It's a novel angle, but as important as men like Bob Thiele were, at the end of the day, it's the music and the men and women who made it that will be remembered, with the producers and administrators a mere footnote.

Since these were turbulent times in America and many of the musicians involved in Impulse were active in the civil rights movement and in spiritual concerns (especially Albert Ayler - what really happened to him?), I would have liked to read a little more about that as well, there must be some great tales to tell. This is something of a missed opportunity for readers, but not for Verve Records (current owners of the Impulse catalog) who have raided the vaults yet again to promote compilations of dubious value in conjunction with the book. One wonders if that crass marketing plan is the reason for the somewhat sanitized account of the label. This book would have made a solid feature article in a magazine, but as a monograph there is too much left out to recommend it.

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