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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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Spirits Known and Unknown

BGP Records



1. The Creator Has a Master Plan
2. One
3. Echoes
4. Song for My Father
5. Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' to Vietnam)
6. Malcolm's Gone
7. Let the Rain Fall on Me
8. A Night in Tunisia
9. Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' to Vietnam)
10. Um Um Um
Leon Thomas - Vocals, percussion
Lonnie L. Smith Jr. - Piano
Richard Davis, Cecil McBee - Bass
Roy Haynes - Drums
Richard Landrum- Bongoes
James Spaulding - Alto sax, flute
Little Rock - Tenor sax

Leon Thomas is one of those near-mythical artists who are often mentioned for their influence on other performers but whose work is not always easy to find. So we can be grateful for this release of tracks recorded in October 1969 and March 1970, giving a picture of Thomas and his special talents.

Leon had the valuable experience of singing with Count Basie's band in the early 1960s. Later he sang with Pharoah Sanders' group, and this reissue of Leon's first album under his own name, Spirits Known and Unkown, includes Pharoah playing under the pseudonym of Little Rock.

Leon Thomas was best known for his individual style of scatting and his habit of breaking into yodelling in the middle of songs. His best-known song opens this album. The Creator Has a Master Plan optimistically encourages "happiness for every man", which typifies Leon's humane attitude. Some listeners might sneer at such views, but it makes a pleasant change to have songs which promote positive values. The hopeful mood is assisted by tasteful flute from James Spaulding and rhythmic bongoes from Richard Landrum.

This positive mood continues with One, suggesting that everybody "could be as one". The song is up-tempo, with an exciting sax solo from James Spaulding. In Echoes, James Spaulding's flute explores a wide range of sounds which match the unexpected vocal tricks played by Leon Thomas.

Leon wrote the first three tracks (the first one in collabration with Pharoah Sanders) but Song For My Father is Horace Silver's famous composition, with lyrics added by Ellen May Shashoyan. James Spaulding shines again with a lyrical flute solo. Leon's radical views are evident in Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' to Vietnam), expressing a widespread feeling among young Americans during the Vietnam war ("it's a dirty, mean war"). It is a powerful anti-war song, with Leon's heartfelt cries underlined by Pharoah Sanders' forceful tenor sax.

Malcolm's Gone is an elegy to Malcolm X, who died in 1965. It makes Malcolm seem like a messiah, with Thomas's words backed by vigorous tenor sax and flute improvising freely and noisily. Let the Rain Fall on Me is much more melodious and placid, with a gliding piano solo from Lonnie Liston Smith.

There are three bonus tracks on the CD, which may have a different personnel from the first seven tracks. The second Damn Nam and Um Um Uum come from the live 1970 album SNCC's Rap, while A Night in Tunisia probably comes from the same session as Malcolm's Gone. The two saxophones introduce Tunisia with screeches but things calm down slightly when Leon starts singing the lyrics which Frank Paparelli supplied to Dizzy Gillespie's composition. Then there are red-hot solos from saxes and piano before Leon returns with wild lyrics. It's the most blistering track on the CD.

The version of Damn Nam differs from the previous cut in several respects, so it makes an interesting comparison. This and Um Um Um were recorded at Fillmore East in March 1970, and they both illustrate how stimulating Leon Thomas could be in a live concert situation.

This album is exciting as well as thought-provoking, and a valuable reminder of the vocal originality of Leon Thomas.

Tony Augarde

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