Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase.

Label: Jazzman. 

In 1959, Anders Dyrup founded Jazzhus Montmartre, which was situated in Dahlerupsgade, in the Danish capital Copenhagen. On the opening night, American  clarinetist George Lewis had been booked to play and performed there for a fortnight. He was the first of many great jazz musicians who played at the Cafe Montmartre as the venue was sometimes known.

Two years later, in 1961, the Cafe Montmartre moved to Store Regnegade which was its home until 1976. 

Just a year later in 1962, Nils Winther arrived at  first the Cafe Montmartre for the first time to see Bud Powell. By then, it was the venue to see jazz and that remained the case over the next five years when the great and good of American jazz. He saw Dexter Gordon, Frank Foster, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins who were all booked to play three weeks at a time. The Cafe Montmartre was thriving.

Sadly, nothing lasts for ever and by the late sixties the venue was struggling and was the Cafe Montmartre had financial problems. It may have folded if it wasn’t for a group of jazz fans offering to help. This included Nils Winther.

He was part of the group who booked musicians and bands to play at the Cafe Montmartre. This included Danish jazz bands who they were unable to pay because of the venue’s financial predicament. However, it looked good having played at such a prestigious venue as the Cafe Montmartre. 

During the sixties, it had been used by Danish radio for broadcasts. The Cafe Montmartre was also a favourite venue for American jazz musicians touring Europe.They made their way to what was still regarded as Copenhagen’s top jazz venue. It was certainly a favourite of Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew who were living in Copenhagen, which was how Nils Winther became friends with them.

Through his friendship with Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew, Nils Winther was able to record sets by visiting soloists. This included alto saxophonist Jackie McLean who in 1972, asked Nils Winther if he would release an album of live recordings from August 1972?

At the time, Nils Winther was still a student at Copenhagen University, but decided to found a new record label, which he called SteepleChase Records. It would go on to release nearly 1,000 including seven albums by Jackie McLean. The first was Live At Montmartre, which was released later in 1972 and was the first album that the nascent SteepleChase Records’ released. 

This was followed by by Duo, a collaboration between Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen which was released by SteepleChase Records in 1973. Nils Winther’s label would release albums by Joe Albany, Johnny Griffin plus Paul Bley and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen during 1973.

During 1974, SteepleChase Records released eighteen albums by American and European jazz musicians. By then, Nils Winther was actively looking for new artists to sign to his label. 

He travelled to America and stayed with Jackie McLean while he started looking for artists to sign and record for SteepleChase Records. He recorded Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill and Billy Gault which were among the albums released during 1974 and 1975. By then, the label was expanding and growing in popularity across Europe.

Over the next few years, Nils Winther worked with Andrew Hill, Dexter Gordon, Duke Jordan, Horace Parlan, Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, Lee Konitz and Stan Getz. These giants of jazz had released groundbreaking albums for some of jazz’s premier labels including Atlantic, Blue Note Records, Pacific Jazz and Impulse! Many of these albums by the time they recorded for SteepleChase Records were now regarded as classics. Nils Winther had signed some of the greatest musicians of the last thirty years and continued to do so.  

Nils Winther was always looking to add SteepleChase Records’ burgeoning roster, and between 1974 and 1984 added a mixture of familiar faces and new names. This included Mary Lou Williams Trio, Billy Gault, Sam Jones Quintet, Jim McNeely Quintet, Ken McIntyre Sextet and Michael Carvin. They’re among the ten tracks that feature on Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase. It’s the latest instalment in Jazzman’s long-running, commercially successful and critically acclaimed Spiritual Jazz compilation series. 

Opening Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase is Ode To Saint Cecile, which was recorded by the Mary Lou Williams Trio during a session at CI Recording on July the ‘8th’ 1975. This lowkey but funky blues didn’t feature when the album Free Spirits was released in 1976. It wasn’t until the album that this hidden gem made its overdue debut. Ode To Saint Cecile returns for well deserved encore and is a potent reminder of the Mary Lou Williams Trio’s only recording for SteepleChase Records.

Billy Gault’s one and only album as bandleader was When Destiny Calls, which was released by SteepleChase Records in 1975. One of the highlights of the album was the impassioned and spiritual sounding The Time Of This World Is At Hand, which like the rest of the album has been inspired by his faith.

During his career, bassist Sam Jones was one of leading lights of hard bop and played on hundreds of sessions as a sideman. By 1978, the fifty-three year old was about to record his ninth album as bandleader with the Sam Jones Quintet. Their Visitation album was released later in 1978 and included Jean Marie a modal composition by pianist Ronnie Matthews. His piano plays its part in the sound and success as it breezes, sweeps and surges along before becoming mellow as Sam Jones takes centrestage on what’s one of the compilation’s highlights. 

By the time René McLean released his debut album Watch Out in 1975, he was already twenty-eight and a talented, versatile and experienced multi-instrumentalist. He had been taught by his father Jackie and Sonny Rollins and could play alto, tenor and soprano saxophones as well as flute, ney and shakuhachi. René McLean also wrote four of the tracks on the album including Aida which he wrote for his wife. It’s a beautiful, romantic sounding track that meanders along tugging at the heartstrings. 

Jim McNeely Quintet recorded what became their Rain’s Dance album between the ‘4th’ and ‘6th’ of October 1976. One of the tracks the Chicago born bandleader and pianist decided to record was Tipe Tizwe, which was inspired by an African folksong. His piano and later, the congas play a supporting role to Sam Jacobs’ Mbira as the band play with an urgency and offer a tantalising taste of Zimbabwean music. Nearly two years passed before the album was released in 1978 and sadly , Jim McNeely Quintet’s debut album was also their only release.

When Johnny Dyani with John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana released Witchdoctor’s Son in 1978, it featured a cover of the traditional African song Magwaza. It’s not so much a cover as a reinvention of the original which is transformed into a thirteen minute genre-melting opus thanks to Johnny Dyani bass, Afredo Do Nascimento’s peerless guitar playing, African influences and a myriad of percussion.

Drummer Michael Carvin features four times on Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase. This comes as no surprise as he played on many sessions for SteepleChase Records. He also recorded the album Antiquity with his friend Jackie McLean who played alto saxophone, percussion and added chants and invocations while Michael Carvin’s drums power and propel De I Comahlee Ah along. It’s ambitious and innovative track from an album that was inspired by history and is full of concepts. In an interview, Jackie McLean called it: “one of my favourite albums.” That’s quite a recommendation and makes it an album worth seeking out. 

After not entering a studio for eleven years, Ken McIntyre returned in 1977 with Hindsight which was released by SteepleChase Records. The same year, 1977, the Ken McIntyre Sextet released Introducing The Vibrations which included the percussive sounding Miss Priss. It features a breathtaking trumpet solo from Terumaso Hino who comes close to stealing the show from the returning bandleader.

By 1984, Khan Jamal was an experienced musician whose career spanned three decades and had just signed to . He part of the Philly underground scene in the late-sixties and had even collaborated with members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the Sounds Of Liberation. Then he led his own Creative Arts Ensemble and recorded the now famous Drum Dance To The Motherland. When the Khan Jamal Quartet released their Dark Warrior album in 1984, it was a new chapter in his career. The highlight of the album was the driving title-track where contrasts abound as vibes man and bandleader Khan Jamal isn’t afraid to let his band showcase their considerable talents on a captivating and timeless sounding offering.

Closing Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase is Michael Carvin’s cover of John Coltrane’s Naima. It featured on the drummers debut album The Camel which was recorded the same day and at the same studio as the Mary Lou Williams Trio’s album Free Spirits. Michael Carvin and his band are responsible for what’s a truly beautiful and almost understated homage to ‘Trane that invites reflection and is the perfect way to close the compilation. 

Usually, when a compilation series gets to volume eleven the quality starts to suffer. That isn’t the case with the latest instalment in Jazzman’s Spiritual Jazz compilation series. It’s still going strong after Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase, which is a welcome addition to this long-running and commercially successful series. 

In fact, there’s plenty more to musical treasure and hidden gems to unearth in the SteepleChase Records’ vaults. Maybe Jazzman should make a return visit for another volume in the series? It’s a label that is for too long has been overlooked by compilers.

That is why many jazz fans may not have heard of the SteepleChase Records. The perfect place to start is with Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase. However, it’s worth noting that the CD version only has ten of the twelve tracks on the 2 LP set. Regardless of which format you choose, Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase is the perfect introduction to Nils Winther’s label which is still going strong, and has released nearly 1,000 albums. Newcomers to the label have a lot of catching up to do, and the first step on this musical journey is  Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase.

Spiritual Jazz Volume 11: SteepleChase.

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