Impulse Records is the legendary label that proudly delivered the "new thing" in jazz in the 1960s: avant-garde records from the likes of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. It also helped jazz cross over to a larger audience; quite a few flower children bought Impulse albums.
But over time, the new thing got old. Impulse went dormant for nearly a decade. When it was time for the label to come out of hibernation in 1986, New Orleans pianist Henry Butler sounded the wake-up call. In the 1990's Impulse went on hiatus a second time, and now, once again, Henry Butler has been called upon to help reboot the label.
Viper's Drag, out this month, is Butler's collaboration with arranger and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. The two joined NPR's Arun Rath to talk about the new record, and the importance of the Impulse name to jazz history. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read their edited conversation below.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Impulse! Records is the legendary label that proudly delivered the new thing in jazz in the 1960s. Avant-garde records from the likes of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. They also helped jazz cross over to a larger audience. Quite a few flower children bought Impulse! albums. But over time, the new thing got old. Impulse! went dormant for nearly a decade. In 1986, they came out of hibernation with a wake-up call from New Orleans pianist Henry Butler.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIPER'S DRAG")
RATH: In the 1990s, Impulse! went on hiatus a second time. But now, once again, Henry Butler has been called upon to help reboot the label.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIPER'S DRAG")
RATH: "Viper's Drag," out this month, is Mr. Butler's collaboration with arranger and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. The two musicians join us from our New York bureau. Welcome to you both.
HENRY BUTLER: Hi, Arun.
STEVEN BERNSTEIN: Good to be with you.
RATH: So there's a sense of deja vu here because the Impulse! label was re-launched once before involving you, Henry. What happened?
BUTLER: Well, I was on the Impulse! label in the 1980s, and boy that was back in the days when they released CDs on - in three formats. So we had the vinyl and the CD and cassettes, but this is my second time around and it's feeling good.
BERNSTEIN: And I'll have to say as a Henry Butler fan, I bought those releases but not on cassette.
RATH: For people who don't - like me - have 50 John Coltrane albums, can you explain the significance of the Impulse! label?
BERNSTEIN: I got to say at my bar mitzvah there was a very hip guy named Larry Levine (ph), a jazz lover with a big white beard. And for my bar mitzvah gift he gave me a record called Impulse! Energy Essentials.
>>BERSTEIN. And it had, you know, like little tracks from everybody. But it had a track from Mingus Mingus Mingus. And that kind of really was a mind-blower for me. And kind of was a beginning of my love affair with mass saxophones and plunger muted trumpets and trombones. It was like my first time my ears were open to that sound. So for many of us, Impulse! records was a real ear-opener.
RATH: So on your new album it sort of fits in with that because this album - obviously you're reaching back to the earliest music and jazz, but there are plenty of the newest sounds of the evolving music in there, as well.
BUTLER: Well, we're updating some of the trad stuff.
RATH: You mean the traditional meaning?
BUTLER: Yeah, the traditional jazz. Meaning the "Wolverine Blues," Jelly Roll Morton composition, that's got Steve's stamp all over it. And, you know, I make sure that I get something in there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOLVERINE BLUES")
BERNSTEIN: I think it shows how timeless this music is.
BERNSTEIN: And the more I dug into it, the more I realized how, you know, not only was Jelly Roll inventing jazz at the time, he also basically invented funk. Like a lot of the things that you hear Sly Stone play came from Jelly Roll.
RATH: Well, let's talk about, you know, while we're talking about Jelly Roll Morton, your take on "King Porter Stomp," it's epic. You know, it's another one where I feel like there's almost a tour through musical history, and the music's changing as you're playing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING PORTER STOMP")
RATH: How did you guys work together on these arrangements?
BERNSTEIN: I would just get in there first and say from the very beginning, I transcribed a lot of what Henry plays. And so what I wanted all of these arrangements to be was a personification of Henry's language. I call them Henry-isms. So a lot of the things you hear in this music are things that Henry would be playing on piano.
BUTLER: Which is great because it does force me - it forces me to focus in a different way. And it gets me out of thinking the same way that I might have thought about that tune say five, ten years ago. I like the idea of the new challenge. I like the idea of hearing some of what I was doing coming back at me so that I could do something else.
RATH: Steven, I was wondering if you could us an example of a Henry-ism.
BERNSTEIN: Well, a real good example of it is if you listen to "Henry's Boogie," every single horn part there comes from something that Henry had played, which is not normally what a horn would play in traditional New Orleans music. So it's putting the horns into a real different direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HENRY'S BOOGIE")
RATH: You know, Impulse! is back. We were talking about that. Blue Note has a new energy. I see, like, there are a bunch of labels. I see new releases coming out all the time. Is it just me or does the state of jazz recording feel pretty great right now?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I know every time we play it seems like jazz is alive.
BUTLER: Well, in my experience if people get exposed to this stuff, they generally will like it. And that's the challenge for record labels, it's not just putting the records out. It's not just recording the records, but actually getting them into the hands of people or getting them into the ears of people. Because that's the important thing.
RATH: Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein joined us from our New York bureau. Their new album with a Hot 9 is called Viper's Drag. Gentlemen, such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.
BUTLER: Thank you, Arun.
BERNSTEIN: Arun, thank you very much. Nice to virtually meet you.
RATH: Likewise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.