Leon Thomas

Many vocalists of the early 1970s found themselves in the world of spiritual, roots-oriented, consciousness jazz: DeeDee Bridgewater, Jean Carn, Jeanne Lee, Sherry Scott, Andy Bey, and others. But none exemplified the creativity of the music like singer/percussionist Leon Thomas. The vocalist and co-author with Pharoah Sanders of "The Creator Has A Master Plan", Thomas married his understandings of jazz and blues with an exploration of different African vocal traditions. While Thomas had a lyrical side, his voice became an instrument unto itself.

In the liner notes for one early Leon Thomas album it is reported, "Of Leon Thomas' singing on Pharoah Sanders' KARMA, Will Smith in Jazz & Pop Magazine observed: 'The voice projection of the lyrics is good and full, and leads to a wordless yodel sounding not unlike an American Indian call--the moaning of spirits known and unknown.'"

In 1997, Ian had the pleasure of meeting Leon.

Recording as a Leader

Flying Dutchman 1969. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule info: The version of "The Creator Has A Masterplan" is more vocally and lyrically developed (and much shorter) than the version sung with Pharoah Sanders, and much more mellow. Pharoah, credited here as "Little Rock" is featured on several cuts.

Flying Dutchman 1970. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule info: Diverse as always Leon Thomas adds a soul-jazz vein to his Africanisms and consciousness jazz. More horn harmonies than on other of his albums. "Um Um Um" has a political rap not unlike Gil Scott-Heron. ("Um Um Um" was also recorded by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles on their LIVE album as "Freeform Funkafide Filth"). "The Journey" cowritten by but not featuring Pharoah Sanders, is a side-long extended workout.

H. Rap Brown and Leon Thomas: SNCC's RAP
Flying Dutchman 1970. Produced by SNCC and Eddie Kramer.

Capsule Info: This must sound awesome: political rap (before there was such a thing) music from a singer and an activist. Leon Thomas' portion of this album was recorded live at the Fillmore East in 1970. (incomplete info; I haven't seen this).

Various Artists: SUPER BLACK BLUES Vol. II
Bluestime BTS-9009 1970. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Recorded live at Carnegie Hall, May 1970. I haven't heard this.

Leon Thomas: IN BERLIN WITH OLIVER NELSON: Recorded Live At Berlin Philaharmonic Hall
Flying Dutchman 1971. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule info: With sax legend Oliver Nelson as a featured soloist, Leon gives an exuberant display of his powers in a concert program featuring some of his best-known songs, and runs from the straight ahead "Straight No Chaser" to his wonderful "Umbo Weti," joyously full of percussion and vocal magic.

Mega/Flying Dutchman 1971. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Recorded live at Montreux in 1971, at the same concert of Gato Barbieri's EL PAMPERO. Side one is Leon Thomas shouting the blues and a Coltrane tune; side two is a joyous exploration of rhythm and Thomas's awesome vocal pyrotechnics: a yodelfest to African and Brazilian percussion.

Flying Dutchman 1973. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule info: Fine Thomas album heavy on blues and veering to pop a bit, but the 10-minute plus cover of Gabor Szabo's "Gypsy Queen" is incredible and worth tracking down.

Leon Thomas: FULL CIRCLE
Flying Dutchman 1973. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: In covering some then-contemporary soul tunes and a Santana song, Thomas attempts a wider audience. The standout cuts on this varied album are the 10-minute "It's My Life I'm Fighting For" and 7-minute "Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind)". The string-backed tunes are a bit sweet for my taste, but on these two extended numbers he is awesome.

Flying Dutchman 1973. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: A best-of featuring Leon Thomas' Flying Dutchman label work. Par for the course the material is split between his avant-garde yodelling and percussion, smooth singing, and straight-forward swinging blues. The album is an interesting slice of early 1970s consciousness, including the mystical-optimistic ("Creator"), period politics (defending rent control in "Welcome To New York"), shocking racial stereotyping oddly combined with a peace-and-love vibe ("China Doll") and more. Somebody really should put all his Flying Dutchman label albums out on CD. (Some of the blues cuts are or were, anyway) included on the Oliver Nelson CD anthology cited above).

P-Vine 1973/1996. Produced by John Sinclair for Big Chief Productions.

Capsule Info: Recorded live in September 1973, Leon gives a spirited rendering of "Love Each Other" with a suitable peace/love vibe for the same early 70s festival that also features Sun Ra, the Revolutionary Ensemble, Infinite Sound, and a host of blues luminaries.

Leone Thomas: THANK YOU BABY
1975 Don King/New Sounds Records. Produced by Leone Thomas and Jesse Baseman.

Capsule Info: A 7-inch single, I've only heard about this. Anybody have a copy? Was it part of an album? Does that exist?.

Leon Thomas featuring Freddie Hubbard: A PIECE OF CAKE
Palcoscenico 1979/80?. Produced by Augusto Brivic.

Capsule Info: Recorded live in Nov. 1979. (incomplete info; I haven't seen this).

Sony/Portrait 1988. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Very straight ahead blues session; a bit bouncy for my taste. Leon only sings on three tracks.

Gary Bartz & Leon Thomas: PRECIOUS ENERGY
Mapleshade 1993. Produced by Pierre M. Sprey.

Capsule Info: Recorded live at Ethell's, in Baltimore, March 1987. They've all sounded better, but still a great record. Leon Thomas stretches out "Precious Energy" (recorded as "Sun Song" on a Pharoah Sanders album) to almost 13 minutes.

Leon Thomas: U-TURN
Produced by Pierre M. Sprey. yet unreleased.

Capsule Info: Recorded in the mid-1990s this album has yet to be released. It is, however, a deeply spiritual masterpiece. The extended arrangement of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child/Oo-whee Hindewhe" soars, the old black spiritual weaving in and out of a fierce rhythm of pounding congas and Leon's transcendent vocal summoning of ancestral presence. The recitation of psalms and spoken meditations on life's journeys complete the picture. This album deserves to be released and take its place among the classics.

Leon Thomas: ANTHOLOGY
Soul Brother Records/Passion Jazz, 1998. Compilation producer not listed.

Capsule Info: A welcomed and highly-recommended CD compilation of Leon Thomas' recordings from 1969 to 1985. It features material from his Flying Dutchman solo albums, and from Pharoah Sanders' IZIPHO ZAM*, Louis Hayes' VARIETY IS THE SPICE+ and Pharoah's SHUKURU# albums as well. Thank the folks at Soul Brother Records for finally bring Leon's work into the digital age.

Recordings As A Supporting Artist

Reprise 1964/65. Produced by Quincy Jones.

Capsule Info: Recorded in Nov. 1964. (incomplete info; I haven't heard this).

Verve 1965. Produced by ?

Capsule Info: Recorded in Jan. 1965. (incomplete info; I haven't seen this).

Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler: A MEETING OF THE TIMES
Atlantic 1966/1972. Produced by ?

Capsule Info: Recorded in 1966 but released several years later; Leon Thomas is featured on one cut. I've never heard this and don't know if that's Lonnie Liston or Non-Liston Smith on keys.

Pharoah Sanders: IZIPHO ZAM (MY GIFTS)
Strata East 1973/Bellaphon 1993/Charly 1998. Produced by Clifford Jordan, Jr.

Capsule Info: Recorded in 1969 and released by groundbreaking black jazz label Strata East. The classic "Prince Of Peace" makes its debut here, and the whole album is joyous.

Pharoah Sanders: KARMA
Impulse! Records 1969/MCA 1995. AS-9181. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Leon Thomas and Pharoah Sanders wrote their chapter in history with "The Creator Has A Masterplan", probably the best-known song for each of them. Thomas' voice is not only lyrical but a competitive instrument for Pharoah's squealing sax.

Archie Shepp: FOR LOSERS
Impulse! Records 1970. AS-9188. Produced by Ed Michel.

Capsule Info: I've only seen this album briefly. Recorded in 1968.

Pharoah Sanders: JEWELS OF THOUGHT
Impulse! Records 1970. AS-9190. Produced by Ed Michel.

Capsule Info: Leon Thomas here revisits "Prince Of Peace" from the IZIPHO ZAM album, a wonderful kind of sequel to "The Creator Has A Masterplan." Finally reissued on CD with 20-bit mastering in 1998.

Flying Dutchman 1970. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule info: When Larry Nai told me about this album I thought one of us was hallucinating. But there he is, Satchmo, singing in duet Leon Thomas' transcendental lyrics to "The Creator Has A Master Plan". And then as he starts growling those throaty mucousy noises he makes, Leon Thomas starts to yodel. Sheer, divine madness. It's actually very very beautiful, from one of Louis Armstrong's last albums. Bob Thiele and Oliver Nelson must have had an amazing laugh when they figured out they could do this. (On CD available as RCA/Bluebird CD WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD, 1970/1988.

Johnny Hodges featuring Oliver Nelson and Leon Thomas: THREE SHADES OF BLUE
Flying Dutchman 1970/BMG France 1998. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Recorded in March 1970. Are these same versions of blues songs as on Oliver Nelson's BLACK BROWN AND BLUE and Thomas's FACETS?. (incomplete info; I haven't seen this).

Flying Dutchman 1970/Bluebird BMG 1989. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: A big-band blues outing for Nelson; some singing by Leon Thomas. From what I know Oliver Nelson never quite did anything as beautiful after "Stolen Moments", but this is nice material nevertheless.

Flying Dutchman 1970/BMG France 1990s. Produced by Bob Thiele?

Capsule Info: (incomplete info; I haven't seen this).

Theresa Brewer: SINGIN' A DOO DAH SONG
Flying Dutchman 1972. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule info: I guess if you're married to Flying Dutchman president Bob Thiele, as Brewer was, you can get whoever the heck you want on your record! The liner notes suggest Thomas is also featured as percussionist on a second song including Gato Barbieri as soloist.

Santana: WELCOME
Columbia Records/ Sony 1973. Producer not listed.

Capsule Info: My favorite Santana album. The group performs "Going Home" with the Alice Coltrane arrangement from her LORD OF LORDS album, and John Coltrane's "Welcome". In an inspired match, Leon Thomas had joined the band during as the group's lyrical content became more and more spiritual.

Santana: LOTUS
Columbia Records/ Sony 1974. Produced by The New Santana Band.

Capsule Info: Recorded live in Japan in 1973, during Santana's more religious period. The multi-panel cover art is full of religious icons combined with trippy space imagery. Leon Thomas is the vocalist, and the group performs "Going Home" with the Alice Coltrane arrangement from her LORD OF LORDS album. Unfortunately most of the Leon Thomas signature tunes performed by Santana on that tour-- "The Creator Has A Masterplan", "Japan", "One," "Um Um Um", etc.--didn't make it to disc and only survive on bootleg tapes.

Archie Shepp: KWANZA
1974(?) Impulse AS-9262. Produced by Ed Michel.

Capsule Info: Recorded in 1968 and 1969, this is kind of an African-diasporic music sampler, covering blues, funk, avant garde jazz and all manner of rhythms; dedicated to the newly created African-American holiday of Kwanza. An all-star cast; a great CD reissue package. Leon Thomas appears on one cut.

David Liebman: LIGHT'N UP, PLEASE
Horizon/A&M 1976. Produced by David Liebman, Pee Wee Ellis and John Snyder.

Capsule Info: Mediocre blues-flavored jazzfunk with a heavy pop-disco sheen. Hey, it was 1976. Featuring longtime collaborator PeeWee Ellis.

Savoy/Arista 1977. Produced by Bob Porter and Pee Wee Ellis.

Capsule Info: Very much in the vein of the above David Liebman album.

The Louis Hayes Group: VARIETY IS THE SPICE
Gryphon Productions/Lewis Entertainment. Produced by Norman Schwartz.

Capsule Info: Leon sings two ballads, including lyrics he wrote for Freddie Hubbard's classic "Little Sunflower". From the liner notes: "By reason of habit and ignorance, Leon Thomas is still being labeled a singer. I certainly don't mean to suggest that he is not, it's just that there is so much more to the story. His is the original instrument (the human voice) and by virtue of its natural grace it is one of the finest you'll hear. What he can do with it is truly the love between him and God. To hear him use it flat out is startling." This recording is not fiery or out at all, but Leon's voice shows great warmth and sensitivity. "Little Sunflower" is anthologized on his ANTHOLOGY CD.

Pharoah Sanders: SHUKURU
Theresa Records, 1981 (and later Evidence). Produced by Pharoah Sanders and Allen Pittman.

Capsule Info: Wiliam Henderson's early '80s novelty synthesized strings and voices are weird and dated, but it's great to hear Leon Thomas yodelling again.

Malachi Thompson: SPIRIT
Delmark 1984. Produced by ?

Capsule Info: (incomplete info; I haven't seen this).

Wendell Harrison: REAWAKENING
Rebirth 1985?. Produced by Wendell Harrison and Billy Walden.

Capsule Info: I haven't heard this.

Hank Crawford: MR. CHIPS
Milestone 1986/1991. Produced by Bob Porter.

Capsule Info: I haven't heard this.

Jamaaladeen Tacuma: MUSIC WORLD
Gramavision 1986. Produced by Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

Capsule Info: Well it was the mid-1980s and this album frankly suffers from that era's fascination with sequencers and drum machines, but Tacuma brings in Leon Thomas to sing a mellow, gently sunny, 9-minute version of his classic and that's worth the price of admission.

Pharoah Sanders: OH LORD, LET ME DO NO WRONG
Signature/CBS Special Products 1989. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Again Pharoah is astoundingly eclectic: taking on reggae, Coltrane and the blues, with old partner Leon Thomas along for the ride.

Jeri Brown With Special Guest Leon Thomas: ZAIUS
Justin Time Records 1998. Produced by Jeri Brown and Jim West.

Capsule Info: After a long hiatus from records, Leon Thomas appears on a co-starring spot on Canada-based singer Jeri Brown's sixth album. The two duet on tunes ranging from bebop-ish straightahead scat to covers of Thomas standards "The Creator Has A Master Plan" and "Sun Song." The combination of Brown's high feminine airiness to Thomas's deep masculine foundation is engaging. With David Murray or Don Braden sitting in for the Pharoah parts on "The Creator" it clocks a nice 8:26. Leon yodels, Jeri soars. A welcome return to the CD bins.

Special thanks to Tetsuro Kubo for so much discographical information.


A Jazz Supreme