CULT CLASSIC: RUDOLPH JOHNSON-SPRING RAIN.

Cult Classic: Rudolph Johnson-Spring Rain.

When pianist Gene Russell and percussionist Dick Schory founded Black Jazz Records in Oakland, California, in 1969, the nascent label’s raison d’être was “to promote the talents of young African American jazz musicians and singers.” This was only part of their vision for their new label.

They were determined that Black Jazz Records would released an alternative to what they saw as the old school jazz that was popular at the time. They wanted to release an alternative to traditional jazz, and this included albums that featured political and spiritual influenced music. However, spiritual jazz was just part of the Black Jazz Records’ story and the label between 1971 and 1975 it released twenty albums that included everything from free jazz and funk to soul-jazz.

Black Jazz Records’ first release was Gene Russell’s sophomore album New Direction which was released in 1971. This was just the start of a prolific year for the label.

Later in 1971, Black Jazz Records released Walter Bishop Jr’s Coral Keys and then Doug Carn’s Infant Eyes. Other labels looked on enviously at the new label and artists were keen to sign to Black Jazz Records.

Cofounder Dick Schory had founded Chicago-based Ovation Records which was a successful country and western label. It was providing funding for Black Jazz Records and distributing its releases. This gave the label a much needed helping hand and meant it had an edge on its competitors.

The cofounders were determined that as wide an audience as possible hear the albums that the label was releasing so Gene Russell organised a promotional tour. In September 1971, Gene Russell and his Ray Lawrence who was his marketing consultant toured America giving interviews to newspaper journalists and featured on radio and newspaper where they showcased Black Jazz Records and its artists. This resulted in valuable publicity for the label.

By then, the label had released Rudolph Johnson’s Spring Rain which was the fourth of six albums that Black Jazz Records released during 1971 and would later he hailed as a genre classic. 

Rudolph Johnson was born in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid-forties and grew-up on the East Side and eventually made his name as a saxophonist. He also played flute and harmonica as well as tenor and soprano saxophone.  His introduction to music came in high school.

Growing up, Rudolph Johnson could hear organist Bobby Pierce who was a neighbour practising day in day out. However, it was saxophonist Gene Walker who taught Rudolph Johnson the scales when they were attending Champion Junior high school. Little did he realise this was how he was going to make a living.

Soon, Rudolph Johnson and Bobby Pierce were rehearsing together on the East Side. This wasn’t just a pastime for the pair. They wanted to make it their career and eventually decided to do that, they would have to head West. Their destination was California. 

By the sixties, Rudolph Johnson was living in San Francisco and could often be found playing in the clubs in the Filmore area of the city. He was a member of a trio that also featured organist Chester Thompson and Herschel Davis. However, when he wasn’t playing live Rudolph Johnson sometimes worked as a sideman.

He also toured in support of organist Jimmy McGriff and accompanied him on four albums released by Sue Records between 1963 and 1965. The most notable was Jimmy McGriff At The Apollo. However, during the sixties most of Rudolph Johnson’s time was spent playing live.

As the sixties gave way to the seventies there was no sign of Rudolph Johnson making the transition from sideman to solo artist. However, in 1971 he came to the attention of Black Jazz Records’ Gene Russell and Dick Schory. They signed Rudolph Johnson on a two album deal and later in 1971 he released his debut album Spring Rain and also played on Chester Thompson’s album Powerhouse. 

For Rudolph Johnson this was the break he was looking for and he began work on his debut album and the seven new compositions eventually became Spring Rain. 

It was a quartet recording that featured drummer Ray Pounds, bassist Reggie Johnson, pianist John Barns and tenor saxophonist Rudolph Johnson who also arranged the album. Spring Rain was produced by Gene Russell and became Black Jazz Records’ fourth release.

When Spring Rain was released it wasn’t a hugely successful album and didn’t sell in the same quantities as the label’s previous release which was Doug Carn’s Infant Eyes. However, the album was well received by critics who were starting to take notice of Black Jazz Records. Other labels didn’t have the same budget or access to the distribution network which  gave Black Jazz Records the edge. 

Spring Rain opened with Sylvia Ann and is a swinging slice of bebop that packs a punch. Ray Pounds literally pounds the kit as John Barns sonorous piano plays to Rudolph Johnson’s wailing, howling tenor saxophone. It’s reminiscent of John Coltrane in his prime and is a thing of beauty on a track that whets the listener’s appetite.  

The classic jazz sound continues on Fonda which has a  much more restrained sound. Here, the rhythm section is focusing much more on the groove. Their playing is tight while bandleader Rudolph Johnson’s playing is much more understated but also eloquent and emotive as he channels the spirit of ‘Trane.

It’s all change on Diswa where Rudolph Johnson and Co. head get funky on a track that’s been influenced by sixties soul-jazz. For just over six-and-a-half minutes Ray Pounds’ drums powers the arrangement along as he gives a musical masterclass.

Very different is the cinematic sounding Mr. TJ which wouldn’t sound out of place on an early sixties soundtrack.

Little Daphne is a laidback mid-tempo track where Ray Pounds’ drums and Reggie Johnson’s bass lock into a groove and provide the heartbeat. Rudolph Johnson’s playing is inventive especially later in the track where he twists the notes out of shape during a quite beautiful track.

On Devon Jean the rhythm section lock into a funky groove while pianist John Barns draws inspiration from Les McCann. There’s even a nod to Eddie Harris during an upbeat and memorable track that combines funk, jazz and pop. 

Spring Rain closes with the title-track which has a late-night, smokey, cinematic sound. It’s the type of track that those who have loved and lost will listen and appreciate. Especially when the bartender shouts last  call for alcohol and they wind their way along the boulevard of broken dreams to the place that they once called home.

After nearly a decade as a professional musician Rudolph Johnson released his debut album Spring Rain on Black Jazz Records in 1971. It was the label’s fourth release and although the album was well received upon its release it didn’t find the audience it deserved.  

Just like many albums, it wasn’t until much later when Spring Rain like the rest of the albums released by Black Jazz Records was rediscovered in the early nineties. This came after several of Doug Carn’s including Infant Eyes, Adam’s Apple and Spirit In A New Land found a new audience in the UK and Japan. By then, hip hop artists were sampling some of the tracks from the twenty albums Black Jazz Records released between 1971 and 1975. Suddenly, a new generation decided to dig deeper into the label’s back-catalogue. Since then, interest in Black Jazz Records has continued to grow and this includes the two albums that Rudolph Johnson released on the label.

This includes Spring Rain which was the long-awaited debut album from  multi-instrumentalist Rudolph Johnson. He leads a tight, talented and versatile quartet who seamlessly switch between genres and paint pictures with their music. They start off with bebop and classic jazz before getting funky and then drop the tempo as the music becomes laidback and filmic. It’s all change when funk, jazz and pop melt into one before saving the best on cinematic and smoky title-track which is moody and wistful. 

Spring Rain is a hidden gem of an album and one of the finest of the six albums that Black Jazz Records released in 1971. This was a decade after Rudolph Johnson decided to follow his dreams and headed west to pursue a career as a professional musician. He served his time playing in  clubs, touring and working as a session musician before signing for  Black Jazz Records and releasing Spring Rain. Sadly, Rudolph Johnson only recorded one more album for the label and that was The Second Coming which was released in 1973. Of the two albums, Spring Rain is regarded as his finest and is a reminder of a truly talented and versatile saxophonist who sadly passed away in 2007.

Cult Classic: Rudolph Johnson-Spring Rain.

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