In 1969, Leon Thomas released his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records. This eleven years after he released his “other” debut album. Confused? The story begins in 1958, when Leon Thomas, aged just nineteen years old, signed to RCA Records.

Now signed to RCA, Leon headed into the studio and recorded what should’ve been his debut album. Once the album was completed, RCA decided not to release the album. Disappointing as that must have been, it allow Leon Thomas evolve as a musician and find “his sound.” In the eleven intervening years, Leon Thomas’ was transformed totally. By 1969, when Leon Thomas released his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records, Leon was an innovative musician, who embraced free jazz and avant-garde music, producing music that was ground-breaking and genre-melting. Proof of that Spirits Known and Unknown, which was recently released by BGP Records. Before I tell you about Spirits Known and Unknown, 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. Bob realized that Leon had more to offer than just being a sideman. Now was the time to step out of other musician’s shadow. So work began on Leon’s Flying Dutchman Records’ debut, which was Spirits Known and Unknown.

For Spirits Known and Unknown, Leon penned three tracks, One, Echoes and Damn Nam (Ain’t Goin’ To Vietnam). Leon and Pharaoh Saunders penned Malcolm’s Gone and cover their classic track The Creator Has A Master Plan. The other two tracks were Ellen May Shashoyan and Horace Silver’s Song For My Father and Let The Rain Fall On Me which was written by Aaron Bell and Carl Huston. These seven tracks became Spirits Known and Unknown.

When recording of Spirits Known and Unknown began, a tight, talented band accompanied Leon. This included a rhythm section of drummer Roy Haynes and bassists Cecil McBee and Richard Davis. Richard Landrum added bongos and Lonnie Liston Smith played piano. Horns came courtesy of alto saxophonist James Spaulding and Pharaoh Saunders on tenor saxophone. Once the seven tracks were recorded, Spirits Known and Unknown was released in 1969.

Released in 1969 to critical acclaim, Spirits Known and Unknown critics heralded Leon as jazz’s future. 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. You’ll realise why, when I tell you about Spirits Known and Unknown.

Opening Spirits Known and Unknown is The Creator Has A Master Plan. A bass, flourishes of strings and wistful horn combine as this melancholy track meanders into being. Leon’s vocal is tender and wistful. No wonder.  The lyrics are idealistic, with “peace and happiness for every man, the creator has a master-plan.” There’s a spiritual quality to Leon’s vocal. Sincere, assured and heartfelt describes his vocal. He seems at peace as he scats, as if imagining this supposed nirvana. Around him percussion, flute and the rhythm section envelop Leon’s vocal. They provide the perfect accompaniment for Leon  on what’s a classic track and a song that’s become  synonymous with him.

One is a much more uptempo piano lead track. Driven along by the bass, drums add drama as Leon sings about unity and togetherness. Soon, he unleashes a scat and yodel. Delivered at breakneck pace, the band almost struggle to keep up. Somehow, they manage though. When Leon’s vocal drops out, the band take charge over. A blistering, blazing horn solo takes charge, while piano and percussion play below and around it. As soon as Leon returns, he launches himself into the track, his vocal becoming a breathtaking scat, where soul, jazz and free jazz melt into one. Throughout the song, the message remains the same, unity and togetherness, delivered with power, passion and sincerity by Leon.

Bells chime, a piano adds a melancholy twist and a flute floats above the arrangement to Echoes. Space is left within slow, thoughtful arrangement. It frames Leon’s vocal. Delivered tenderly and thoughtfully, Leon paints pictures, singing: “there is a place, where love is king, where Echoes shine and reflections ring.” Full of imagery, Leon uses his vocal like an artist uses his palette. Pictures form in your mind’s eye. Meanwhile the band accompany Leon, his vocal veering between soulful and heartfelt, to an impassioned scat. This brings his lyrics to life. They’re a poetic, hypnotic and mesmeric quality and win you over by their beauty and ethereal quality.

Song For My Father gradually unfolds, meandering and shuffling. A bass takes centre-stage, while a piano, percussion and drums provide the backdrop for Leon’s vocal. His vocal is deeper, slower and delivered tenderly, and with care. Soon, as the  drama builds, Leon unleashes a vampish scat. His voice becomes an instrument. He uses his voice like a horn, recreating the cry and bray of a horn, Soon, he’s improvising, his voice a cathartic outpouring of emotion. It’s moving and powerful, as if Leon’s opening the window to his soul. As he does, everything from soul, jazz, free jazz and soul jazz seamlessly become one and create one of the most moving moments of Leon’s time at Flying Dutchman Records.

As Damn Nam (Ain’t Goin’ To Vietnam) opens, it’s like an old-fashioned slice of slinky jazz. The horn rasps and dances above the rhythm section. It’s more like something you’d expect from the late-fifties. It’s the bluesy horn and piano that lead to this comparison. Inspired by blues shouter Big Joe Turner, delivers lyrics full of social comment. His voice is full of anger and frustration. It’s almost as if Leon is affronted by being asked to go to Vietnam? What follows, is an eloquent protest song. Leon defiantly sings: “you can throw me in jail, but I’m not going to Vietnam,” against an arrangement that swings. This results in a hugely underrated and often overlooked protest song.

Drama builds and builds as Malcolm’s Gone unfolds. Horns bray and blaze, the flute protests, while drums add rolls of drama and flourishes of flamboyant piano set the scene. Then as if spent at the loss of Martin Luther King, the band pass the baton to Leon. His vocal is full of sadness and hurt as he sings: “I know he’s gone, but he’s not forgotten.” Disbelief fills voice. It’s as if he’s asking why, how and who. Behind him, the band stir and with a vocal that’s full of emotion and grief I know he died, just to set me free.” Then as Leon sings: “”yes, Malcolm’s gone, but he’s not forgotten, he died to save me, to gave me my dignity,” a heartfelt homage to Malcolm Luther King unfolds. With one of his trademark vocals, Leon gives thanks to the life of a man who fought for justice, equality and equity. Quite simply, what follows, is a truly moving outpouring of gratitude, grief and thanks.

Let The Rain Fall On Me closes Spirits Known and Unknown. It has a melancholy, understated sound. Leon’s tender, wistful vocal is accompanied by a flitting flute, pensive bass and piano. They provide the perfect backdrop for Leon’s vocal as he rolls back the years, becoming an old style jazz singer. Similarly, his band roll back the years, enjoying creating an old school jazzy sound. Lead by the meandering piano the band take centre-stage, before passing the baton to Leon who delivers one of his finest vocals on Spirits Known and Unknown, where we hear another side to his music.

Innovative, influential and way ahead of the musical curve, describes Leon Thomas. As the music on Spirits Known and Unknown shows, Leon Thomas was way ahead of his time. Here was a musician determined to reinvent the musical wheel. Maybe that was his problem, and why his music wasn’t the huge success it deserved to be. Leon embraced free jazz and avant garde music, pushing musical boundaries to their limits and beyond. Despite enjoying critical acclaim, Leon Thomas never enjoyed the commercial success enjoyed by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who influenced Leon’s career.

Back when Leon Thomas was growing up, he saw Miles Davis’ band. That night he was lucky enough to see the classic lineup, which featured John Coltrane. After that,  Leon’s approach to music changed. Before that, blues shouters like Big Joe Turner influenced him. After seeing Miles live, Leon Thomas embraced improvisation. His route to jazz pioneer wasn’t straightforward. Far from it.

Having established himself on the jazz circuit, he then recorded what should’ve been his debut album for RCA. It was never released though. 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 Afro-beat, 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, Spirits Known and Unknown is a truly genre-melting album. Everything from Afro-beat, avant-garde, blues, free jazz, jazz, soul and soul jazz  was combined by Leon Thomas and his tight and multitalented band. The result was Spirits Known and Unknown, which was recently released by BGP Records, a subsidiary of Ace Records. Spirits Known and Unknown was the album that launched the career of a true innovator and jazz pioneer Leon Thomas to music lovers music lovers worldwide. 

Sadly, as is often the case, Leon Thomas didn’t enjoy the commercial success his inconsiderable talent deserved. His time at Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records saw Leon released the best music of his career. He released five albums between 1969 and 1973. From Spirits Known and Unknown in 1969 right through to 1973s Full Circle, Leon released truly groundbreaking, genre-melting albums. Sadly, commercial success didn’t come his way. Despite not enjoying the commercial success his music enjoyed, Leon Thomas influenced several generations of music. Forty-four years after the release of Spirits Known and Unknown, it’s still a timeless reminder of Leon Thomas an inspirational, innovative and influential jazz pioneers who pushed musical boundaries to their limits and beyond. Standout Tracks: The Creator Has A Master Plan, Damn Nam (Ain’t Goin’ To Vietnam), Malcolm’s Gone and Let The Rain Fall On Me.


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