While ostensibly seeming like a jazz footnote compared to New York City or Los Angeles, San Francisco remains a thriving centre of jazz development. The progressive jazz recorded in San Francisco in the last quarter of the 20th Century might not be as prolific as other cities, but it’s all about quality over quantity. San Francisco’s Fantasy Records was formed in 1949 and released many Dave Brubeck LPs. After hitting gold dust with Creedence Clearwater Revival, it opened its own recording studio in nearby Berkeley and bought up the Prestige, Riverside and Milestone catalogues, becoming the largest jazz independent label in the world. In its shadow, more progressive jazz artists who didn’t fit that mould turned elsewhere.
Within this close-knit jazz community, El Cerrito stands out as being particularly important in the city’s development of its own character and catalogue. El Cerrito is a small San Francisco suburb a short drive from Berkeley, an area of small shops and petrol stations. Since 1976, El Cerrito has been the home of Down Home Music, a record shop started by Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records. It was also the home of Theresa Records, a virtually unknown label that released twenty-seven LPs between 1975 and 1982. Its stable of artists included Pharoah Sanders, Idris Muhammad, John Hicks and George Coleman. The catalogue was eventually purchased by Evidence Music, an American jazz and blues record label that has kept some Theresa titles in circulation as CDs.
Pure Pleasure Records is on a roll rescuing little-known titles and labels from obscurity, including titles from Strata-East and Nimbus West. Pure Pleasure has now added Theresa to its list of late twentieth century progressive jazz titles. In addition to this Theresa title, Pharoah Sanders’ 1980 Journey To The One, a two-record set that also features Idris Muhammed on drums, is currently available. By the time you read this, Norman Williams’ The Bishop and Babatunde’s Levels Of Consciousness should be hitting record shelves.
Idris Muhammed, born Leo Morris in 1939, converted to Islam and changed his name in the 1960s, around the same time he segued from the R & B circuit – where he played for Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield – to jazz. He played as a sideman on many sessions with some of the best. Few drummers have succeeded as session leaders and sadly Muhammed never gained sufficient notoriety to break into that small company. He cut about a dozen titles as a leader, and about half are still available. For anyone who values straight ahead jazz played by real instruments without a lot of over production, this is by far his best. His band consists of George Coleman and Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone and Ray Drummond on bass. Coleman and Sanders were still performing when the Pandemic shut down public performances. Coleman, who played with Miles Davis, and Sanders, who played with Coltrane, are two of the great under-appreciated artists of our time, although Sanders routinely plays to sold out venues. When I last heard him play shortly before the Pandemic, jazz icon Wadada Leo Smith was in line behind me. Ray Drummond, raised in the San Francisco bay area, moved to New York after turning his jazz hobby to a profession and dropping out of an MBA program at Stanford University. Along with Muhammed, he supplies a rhythm section behind the two-horn front line that never lacks a sense of forward momentum.
Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his Englewood studio in September of 1980, the recorded sound has the advantage of preceding the digital era at the Van Gelder studios. Each quartet member receives equal treatment, and nothing is lost in the mix. After the opening song, where the horns are stuck a little too far left and right, the microphone balance rights itself and we get pretty close to the sound you might hear in a quite small club stage. Ray Staff’s mastering and the thick, flat and quiet pressing from Pallas reveal a new gem in the Pure Pleasure catalogue.