There aren’t many artists who record two debut albums. Leon Thomas did. Having signed to RCA in 1958, Leon recorded what should’ve been his debut album. It was never released. Instead, another eleven years passed before Leon Thomas released his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records. During the eleven year period, Leon Thomas’ vocal style changed. 

When Leon was the vocalist with Count Basie’s band in the early-sixties, his bluesy style was influenced by blues’ greats like Big Joe Turner. As the sixties drew to a close, Leon had transformed his vocal style. This came after he embraced free jazz and pushed musical boundaries. For Leon Thomas, this proved inspirational and resulted in him changing direction musically. 

So, by the time he signed to Flying Dutchman Records, Leon had embraced free jazz. His vocal encompassed blues, Afrobeat and jazz, as he scatted and yodeled. This was truly unique. So, it’s no surprise that between 1969 and 1972, Leon Thomas released a quartet of groundbreaking albums for Flying Dutchman Records. A year after releasing his 1969 debut album Spirits Known and Unknown, Leon released his sophomore album The Leon Thomas Album, which was recently rereleased by BGP Records. Before I tell you about The Leon Thomas Album, I’ll tell you about Leon Thomas’ career.

Leon Thomas was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, in October 1937. From an early age, Leon’s life revolved around music. His parents were avid music lovers and his hometown had a thriving musical scene. Inspired by a blues’ shouters like Big Joe Turner, Leon was a familiar face on the local music circuit. Then when Miles Davis came to town, Leon had a musical awakening

The night Miles Davis played St. Louis, Miles’ band featured John Coltrane. That night, they embraced improvisation and pushed musical boundaries to their extremes. For Leon Thomas, this showed him what was possible musically. Here was musical that was inventive, innovative and influential. So much so, that it inspired Leon to study musical at Tennessee State University.

Having left Tennessee State University, Leon became a familiar face on the jazz circuit. Having signed to RCA in 1958, Leon recorded what should’ve been his debut album. It wasn’t released. After that, When Leon was the vocalist with Count Basie’s band in the early-sixties right through until the mid-sixties. During that time, Leon’s style is best described as traditional blues. However, his style changed when he headed to Los Angeles.

It was is Los Angeles that Leon Thomas embraced free jazz. Already an admirer of improvisation within jazz, free jazz took things further. Even better, Leon met musicians who not only shared similar musical philosophies, but political and social values. This included saxophonist Arthur Blythe, drummer Leroy Brooks and pianist Horace Tapscott. Together, they were the Underground Musicians and Artists Associations. Meeting these three musicians, resulted in Leon finding his real voice. With their help, Leon’s voice became like an instrument. He fused musical influences, with blues, jazz and Afro-beat combining with soul, as Leon’s vocal veered between a scat and yodel. This was unique, avant garde and groundbreaking. Leon Thomas was a pioneer, as he headed to New York, looking for fellow travelers.

By 1967, Leon Thomas had met saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. This was a perfect match for Leon. Here were two groundbreaking musicians. In Pharoah Sanders’ hands, the saxophone was transformed. He’d been a member of John Coltrane’s band, until his death in 1967. After that, he formed his own band. Comprising Leon, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and Pharoah, this was a band of musical pioneers recorded Pharoah Sanders 1969 album Karma, which was released on Impulse. It featured The Creator Has A Master Plan, which showcased Leon’s unique vocal style. A compelling, spiritual track where Leon yodels and scats his way through the track, it was truly groundbreaking. One man who realized Leon Thomas’ potential was Bob Thiele, founder of Flying Dutchman Records.

Having heard Leon Thomas feature on Pharoah Sanders’ Karma album, Bob Thiele signed Leon to Flying Dutchman Records. Leon’s Flying Dutchman Records’ debut was 1969s Spirits Known and Unknown. Released to critical acclaim, Spirits Known and Unknown featured a version of The Creator Has A Master Plan, which Leon and Pharoah cowrote. There was also a cover of Horace Silver’s Song For My Father. Hailed not just as innovative and groundbreaking, but soulful, spiritual and full of social comment, Spirits Known and Unknown launched the career of Leon Thomas. Following up such a critically acclaimed and innovative album wasn’t going to be easy. A year later, in 1970, he did. Leon released his sophomore album The Leon Thomas Album.

The Leon Thomas Album features just five songs. Leon penned I Am and Um, Um, Um. He cowrote Come Along with Neal Creque and Pharoah’s Tune (The Journey) with Pharoah Sanders and Lonnie Liston Smith. Milt Jackson’s Bag’s Groove was the other track on The Leon Thomas Album, which was produced by Bob Thiele.

As recording of The Leon Thomas Album began, the personnel differed from track to track. This all-star band included a rhythm section of drummers Billy Cobham and Roy Haynes, bassist Bob Cunningham and John Williams Jr, on electric bass. As for the horn section, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, alto saxophonist Jerome Richardson and baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson joined trumpeter Ernie Royal. Percussionists included Richie Pablo Landrum on congas, plus Gene Golden and Sonny Morgan who also played African oboe. Along with flautists Donald Smith and James Spaulding plus pianist Arthur Sterling this was the band that accompanied Leon, who played maracas, Thailand flute, Hindewe, freedom flute and bells on The Leon Thomas Album. It was released in 1970.

On the release of The Leon Thomas Album in 1970, the same critical acclaim accompanied the album’s release. Best described as breathtaking, roller coaster journey, The Leon Thomas Album featured an all-star band at the top of their game. Innovative and enthralling describe the groundbreaking music on The Leon Thomas Album, which I’ll tell you about.

Come Along which opens The Leon Thomas Album, bursts into life. A myriad of punchy, rasping horns, pulsating bass and proliferation join soaring, impassioned, harmonies. They set the scene for Leon’s equally impassioned, bluesy vocal. Sung in a call and response style, backing vocals and horns respond to his call. As for the lyrics, they’re full of social comment. It’s a call for togetherness and revolution. Leon’s determined to bring about change by fusing jazz, soul, funk, gospel and show tunes passionately.

I Am is another track full of social comment. He sings from the perspective of a black man addressing his wife. This he does against a backdrop of horns that march the arrangement along. Leon warns: “the times were going to get tougher.” This proved to the case. The American involvement in Vietnam continued, racism was rife, unemployment and poverty was rising. Against a jazzy backdrop where blazing horns and piano march the arrangement along, Leon unleashes a vocal masterclass. As he struts his way through the lyrics, his style is variously theatrical, jazzy, dramatic, soulful and confident. Later, embracing improvisation, he scats and yodels at breakneck speed. His band match him every step of the way. Veering between straight ahead, free jazz and blues, the track swings along. Here, Leon is at his innovative best, reinventing and rewriting the rulebooks on this spellbinding track.

The Milt Jackson penned Bag’s Groove, is a familiar track, that straight away, Leon ensures swings. Accompanied by sharp bursts of braying, blazing, rasping horns and piano, the bass drives the arrangement along. Leon’s style is a much more traditional. That’s until he decides to revisit his innovative scat and yodel of the previous track. His delivery is unlike no other jazz vocalist of that time. Listen to his phrasing, it’s unique. Leon it seems, rewrote the rulebook. It’s as if this spurs the band on. They kick loose and play with freedom and aplomb. Rasping horns flit across the arrangement, matching the bass and fleeting cocktail jazz piano. The only thing wrong with this track is its brevity. At just three-minutes, it’s a tantalizing taste of what Leon and his all-star band were capable of.

Anyone familiar with Leon Thomas’ work, will know he recorded several versions of Um, Um, Um. Here, Leon demonstrates his versatility, playing a number of instruments. This includes the bells, maracas and various types flute. They can be heard amidst the myriad of bongos, congas, piano and basses. The arrangement has an almost understated sound, as if allowing Leon’s vocal to take centre-stage.  At first his frustrated, angry vocal sings of: “holding on to what you got” and “look out for yourself.” From their, Leon improvises. As he scats and yodels, it’s akin to a cathartic cleansing. All his frustration, ire and anger leaves him. When his vocal drops out, his band get the opportunity to showcase their inconsiderable skill. They provide a pulsating backdrop as Leon’s vocal returns. A further outpouring of emotion and frustration follows, before later, Leon returns to his impassioned, soulful side on this opus.

Talking of opus’, Pharoah’s Tune (The Journey) which closes The Leon Thomas Album is a seventeen-minute Magnus opus recorded in front of a live audience. It’s best described as musical journey cum adventure. Its raison d-etre, is the search for the spiritual jazz that Pharoah Sanders pioneered. Musical boundaries are pushed as the track heads in the direction of free jazz. A frantic, frenzied sound replicates the sound that could be heard within the boat. From there, the almost discordant sound is replaced by a much more melodic and traditional sound. Then Leon’s yodel heads in the direction of a chant or meditation. Soul-searching and spiritual, the band provide a backdrop of piano, flute, rhythm section and percussion. When they get the chance, they prove just how multitalented they are. They replicate this search for this musical nirvana. Dramatic, with Eastern sounds and influences blazing horns, pounding drums, flutes, sound-effects and percussion all play their part in what’s one of the most ambitious and adventurous tracks Leon Thomas ever recorded. Innovative, way ahead of the musical curve, it’s a track that epitomizes everything Leon Thomas’ music stands for. 

The night that Leon Thomas saw Miles Davis’ band, which featured John Coltrane, his approach to music changed. Before that, blues shouters like Big Joe Turner influenced him. After that fateful concert, Leon Thomas embraced improvisation. His route to jazz pioneer wasn’t straightforward. Having established himself on the jazz circuit, he then recorded what should’ve been his debut album for RCA. It was never released. Following that disappointment, Leon spent several years as the vocalist in Count Basie’s band. It was only when he left Count Basie’s employ, and headed to Los Angeles, Leon Thomas career began in earnest.

Meeting likeminded musicians, resulted in Leon Thomas becoming a jazz pioneer. He embraced free jazz and found his own, unique vocal style. Combining blues, jazz and African music, Leon’s style veered between a soulful and jazz-tinged, to a scat and then yodel. This resulted in Leon’s vocal being transformed into an instrument. In Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone, Leon found a musical soulmate. With Pharoah Sanders, Leon recorded Karma, which featured the classic The Creator Has A Master Plan. It was following the release of Karma, that Bob Thiele signed Leon to Flying Dutchman Records.

Spirits Known and Unknown was Leon’s debut for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records. Released to critical acclaim, it was surpassed by the followup The Leon Thomas Album, which was recently released by BGP Records. Pioneering, groundbreaking, enthralling, spiritual and genre-melting, describes the music on The Leon Thomas Album. That’s why The Leon Thomas Album is a fitting followup to Spirits Known and Unknown, which introduced jazz pioneer Leon Thomas to music lovers music lovers worldwide. 

Sadly, Leon Thomas didn’t enjoy the commercial success his inconsiderable talent deserved. Despite being one of Bob Thiele’s best signings for Flying Dutchman Records, and releasing groundbreaking, genre-melting albums, commercial success didn’t come his way. That’s despite releasing critically acclaimed albums, including 1969s Spirits Known and Unknown and 1970s The Leon Thomas Album. These two albums include the best music Leon Thomas recorded. His best album was The Leon Thomas Album, which features inspirational, innovative and influential music from Leon Thomas, one of jazz music’s true pioneers.


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