CULT CLASSIC: CHESTER THOMPSON-POWERHOUSE.
Cult Classic: Chester Thompson-Powerhouse.
During the late-sixties and early seventies, many small independent jazz labels were founded in towns and cities across America. Sadly, many were short-lived affairs with some releasing just one album and others closing their doors having released just a couple of albums. However, Black Jazz Records released twenty albums 1971 and 1975.
The story began in Oakland, California, in 1969, when pianist Gene Russell and percussionist Dick Schory founded Black Jazz Records. Its raison d’être was “to promote the talents of young African American jazz musicians and singers.” This was only part of the cofounders vision for their new label.
They were determined that Black Jazz Records would released an alternative to what they saw as the old school and traditional jazz that was popular at the time. Their new label would release albums that featured music that was influenced by politics and was also spiritual. However, spiritual jazz was just part of the Black Jazz Records’ story.
The nascent label would release everything from free jazz and funk to soul-jazz over the next five years. Black Jazz Records released six albums during 1971 and plans were in place that jazz fans across America could buy the albums.
Cofounder Dick Schory had founded Chicago-based Ovation Records, which was a successful country and western label which was providing funding for Black Jazz Records and was distributing its releases. This gave the label a helping hand and meant it had an edge on its competitors.
Record shops across America could stock Black Jazz Records’ releases. This included its first release which was Gene Russell’s sophomore album New Direction. Five more albums were released during 1971
This includes Walter Bishop Jr’s Coral Keys, Doug Carn’s Infant Eyes, Rudolph Johnson’s Spring Rain and Powerhouse the debut album from twenty-two year organist Chester Thompson.
Chester Thompson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on the ‘11th’ of December 1948 and began playing the piano at the age of five. Whilst at elementary school he learned to play the flute and read music. However, aged eleven Chester Thompson decided that he wanted to learn to play the drums.
To learn the basics, Chester Thompson took lessons and his teacher was professional jazz drummer, James Harrison. Having learnt the basics, he practised along with albums by the jazz greats. Initially, this was Miles Davis as well as two drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey. Later, he discovered Elvin Jones who along with Tony Williams were the drummers that would influence him and his playing style.
By the time he was in high school, Chester Thompson was receiving private lessons with Tony Ames of the National Symphony Orchestra. This lasted a semester and during this period, the young drummer was determined to master the rudiments of a book published by the National Association of Rudimental Drummers.
His practise paid off and two years later, Chester Thompson played his first live gigs. However, there was a problem. He was still underage and this worried the club owners. To make himself look older, he took to drawing a moustache on his upper lip with an eyebrow pencil.
Soon, Chester Thompson was playing up to three jam sessions in local clubs. This was good practice for him and was part of his musical apprenticeship. He was putting in the musical equivalent of hard yards.
Having turned professional, one of his first gigs was touring Canada with soul singer Ben E. King. Then in 1970, Chester Thompson toured with Jack McDuff and played in various local groups. He also spent time in Boston where he worked keyboardist Webster Lewis. However, the following year, 1971 was a big year for Chester Thompson as he released
Having signed to Black Jazz Records the twenty-two year organist began work on his debut album Powerhouse. He wrote the four tracks Mr. T, Trip One, Weird Harold and Power House and recorded them with a quartet.
Joining bandleader and organist Chester Thompson were drummer Raymond Pounds, saxophonist Rudolph Johnson and trombonist Al Hall. Producing the album was label cofounder Gene Russell. Just like all of the Black Jazz Records’ sessions the album was recorded quickly and released late in 1971.
By then, the cofounders had already organised a promotional tour to introduce Black Jazz Records’ releases to a wider audience.
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.
Despite this, Powerhouse wasn’t a hugely successful album. It was well received by critics upon its release but sadly, Chester Thompson’s debut album wasn’t the most successful album that Black Jazz Records released.
Powerhouse was one of the most underrated albums that Black Jazz Records released during the five years it was in business. It’s a mixture of bebop, funk, hard bop, jazz-funk and soul-jazz.
The album opens with Mr. T which swings from the get-go as the band play as one. Meanwhile, Chester Thompson’s Hammond organ takes the track in the direction of soul-jazz. Playing a starring role is saxophonist Rudolph Johnson. His playing is emotive before he passes the baton to trombonist Al Hall. He also plays his part in the sound and success of the track. As if inspired, the young bandleader who unleashes a breathtaking solo his fingers dancing across the keyboard during this marriage of soul-jazz and what’s best described as Nu Bebop
Classic jazz is reinvented for an early seventies’ audience on The Trip. Again, saxophonist Rudolph Johnson plays a leading role as it bobs and weaves above the arrangement as it’s is played with power, passion and control. Meanwhile, the rest of the band play supporting role. Later, trombonist Al Hall takes centrestage before it’s the turn of Chester Thompson as he plays with speed and confidence. Each member of the band seems to inspire the next who raises their game. However, it’s the saxophone and then the bandleader’s Big Burner that steal the show on this trip as it swings towards a crescendo.
It’s all change on Weird Harold which is much funkier than previous tracks. The band locks into a groove and saxophonist Rudolph Johnson plays with a power and ferocity that’s reminiscent of Eddie Harris. He unleashes blistering bursts before Chester Thompson jabs and stabs at his keyboard as drums pound and drive this fusion of soul-jazz, funk and jazz-funk. It’s the highlight of the album.
Powerhouse closes with the title-track. It’s a mid-tempo track with the sultriest of grooves. Black Jazz Records had high hopes for the track when they released it as a single. Sadly, it was the one that got away for Chester Thompson.
When Chester Thompson released Powerhouse it was the sixth release that Black Jazz Records had released during 1971. Just like the title-track, the album wasn’t a commercial success. Despite having a distribution network and a budget to promote the album it failed to find the audience it deserved.
This left the cofounders of Black Jazz Records and Chester Thompson wondering what went wrong? The young bandleader had led a band that combined bebop, funk, hard bop, jazz-funk and soul-jazz. It was album that combined the music of the past and the present. Chester Thompson was looking to the future. However, the future of jazz was fusion which he would soon embrace.
Maybe Powerhouse had been released on a label like Blue Note Records it might have been more successful and reached a wider audience? It was maybe a case of the wrong label for Chester Thompson’s debut album?
Fifty years year later, and Powerhouse which was once an underrated album is belatedly starting to find the new and wider audience that it deserves.
Cult Classic: Chester Thompson-Powerhouse.