One of the most memorable live performances I ever saw was at the Jazz Café in 1998. I had heard all sorts of rumours about Leon Thomas’ health and ability to perform that when I left a dark, damp Camden Parkway to enter the club that night, I’m not sure I was expecting anything much at all, yet for just over an hour the tall man with the dextrous voice blew me and a crowd of several hundred others away. I was reminded of him last year at another small London venue when the latest jazz vocal sensation, Gregory Porter, took the stage. He has an equally large voice and is also steeped in the blues, and when asked was only too happy to admit his love of Leon Thomas’s work.
Born in St Louis, in 1938 Leon emerged from a vibrant local scene including saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and guitarist Grant Green. By the time he became successful, in 1969, he had been in New York for over ten years. After some sides for RCA in 1958, never released, he became the featured vocalist in the Count Basie Orchestra between 1964-1966. After a short stint on the West Coast he hooked up with former John Coltrane sideman Pharoah Sanders and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith. Fronted by Sanders they recorded for Bob Thiele at ABC’s Impulse label. One side was taken up by the chant/ song ‘The Creator Has A Masterplan’ which became a hit on FM radio, selling over 100,000 copies, an extraordinary amount for a jazz album by an ostensibly “free” player.
Thiele was leaving Impulse to form his own label, Flying Dutchman, and Leon Thomas became one of the key early signings. His debut “Spirits Known & Unknown”, a classic vocal jazz album contained a new version of ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and the sublime ‘Let The Rain Fall On Me’; it established him as an artist in his own right. Thiele made several live recordings with him the next year, as well as arranging for him to play on Louis Armstrong’s final album. Leon’s second studio album “Leon Thomas” was a joyous affair with Leon fronting a big band. “Blue & The Soulful Truth”, his next LP linked him with arranger Pee Wee Ellis, and it served up a more soulful concoction also carried through to his final album, “Full Circle”. By this time Leon had joined Santana and he recorded rarely under his own name afterwards.
Our compilation gathers together a cross section of the great recordings that Leon Thomas made for Flying Dutchman. It covers the relatively straight-ahead pieces from his first two albums and the soul jazz fusions of later output for the label. His last two albums have become increasingly in-demand in recent years in particular the eclectic experimentalism of ‘Shape Your Mind To Die’ and ‘It’s My Life I’m Fighting For’. We have also included some live tracks and a previously unreleased version of ‘Um Um Um’. It is a worthy tribute to one of the greatest live performers I have ever seen.
By Dean Rudland