Label Watch: Soul Jazz Records

By rights, Soul Jazz Records should really be called Soul Jazz Reggae House Funk Punk Ska Dub (etc. etc.) Records. We take a closer look at this legendarily catholic (small c) label, who've done more than most to broaden our musical horizons.

Soul Jazz Records was set up in the early 90s by Stuart Baker with the aim of making cultural connections of diverse, dance-oriented music through compilation albums. Don’t be fooled by the name though, there’s more than just soul and jazz on offer here...

In fact, the label has become a reliable ‘go-to source’ if you need to get the lowdown on any number of underground music scenes, whether its New Orleans Funk, experimental Latin Fusion, Brazilian Tropicalia, Jamaican Dancehall or German Kosmische. They’ve even charted the development of localised punk scenes with the Punk 45 series of compilations.

A big part of the back catalogue comes from the association with Jamaica’s Studio One label, which was at the forefront of the Jamaican music industry’s phenomenal creativity way back since the earliest days of ska in the late 50s, through the roots reggae years through to the primacy of dancehall in late 70s. The label releases 12”s and albums by contemporary artists like Hieroglyphic Being, as well as commissioning recordings of traditional music, like the two volumes of Vodou percussion. More recently they’ve also began publishing large format books of photography and art that often accompany album releases.  

The Skatalites

If it wasn’t for the Skatalites, modern music as we know it would’ve been a very different beast indeed. This group basically invented ska and were the house band for Studio One, recording some of the best known and loved instrumentals to come out of Jamaica as well as providing backing for renowned artists such as Bob Marley & The Wailers, Desmond Dekker, Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe and Toots and The Maytals.

Despite the image of 60s ska musicians lined up smartly with suits and dicky bows on bandstands, many of the Skatalites were Rastafarians who regularly attended jam sessions in the Wareika hills (see the Count Ossie entry below). According to the band’s drummer, Lloyd Knibb, the rhythmical innovations of ska, with its offbeat emphasis, came as a direct result of his incorporation of Rasta drumming styles onto their arrangements of American rhythm and blues tunes.

Other Skatalites, like the horn players Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso, had been born in Cuba and added rumba along with jazz and rock n’ roll into the ska mixing pot. The resultant recordings, like the 1965 single ‘Guns of Navarone’ (later covered by The Specials), are propulsive and upbeat. This music would evolve into reggae but would also have a renaissance with Two-Tone in the UK and inspire punks, from The Clash to the multitude of Ska Punk bands that currently proliferate the globe.        

Count Ossie

A crucial figure in popularising Rastafarian beliefs and their musical expression, particularly the ‘nyabinghi’ and ‘buru’ style of hand drumming. Count Ossie set up a Rasta community in the Wareika Hills on the east side of Kingston in the early 1950s; a place which has acquired an almost mythical historical status where many of that generation of the city’s musicians learned about Rastafarianism, including many members of the Skatalites.

By the late 1950s he’d formed the Count Ossie Group drum ensemble, becoming some of the first artists to commercially release songs that meld Rastafarian drums and chants with popular music. In 1970 the group joined forces with Cedric Im Brooks’ horns group, The Mystics to become The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Driven by a consciousness raising zeal, they created unique music that fused Rastafarian tradition with free-jazz elements reminiscent of John Coltrane and Sun Ra along with atmospheric, storytelling effects to convey a view of Jamaican history that had been violently negated.

Art Ensemble of Chicago

This avant-garde jazz collective officially formed in 1969, developing a mercurial style that blended the fiercest free jazz with African dance rhythms, popular song, meditative ambiance, orchestras of kid’s toys and comedy skits. The core group centred on the massed reeds of Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors on bass and Lester Bowie on trumpet.

They relocated to Paris in 1970 where they were joined by percussionist Don Moye and recorded the albums ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass’ and ‘Les Stances a Sophie’ with Bowie’s wife Fontella Bass (the soul singer of ‘Rescue Me’ fame). The band became renowned for their incendiary live performances in which virtuosic feats of musicianship met with carnivalesque theatre; each member typically adorned with face paint and tribal costume– channeling African history into a future music that went well beyond the limits of jazz.        

Steve Reid

Steve Reid was an extraordinarily versatile drummer who might’ve faded into obscurity as a footnote – a low-key linchpin backing some of the greatest names in funk, soul and jazz – if it wasn’t for Soul Jazz’s reissues of his lost early 70s LPs (‘Nova’, ‘Rhythmatism’ and ‘Odyssey of the Oblong Square’) and his late career collaboration with Kieran Hebden (Four Tet).

As a teenager, Reid lived round the corner from John Coltrane in Queens, New York and began his recording career with Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street’ (1964). He spent time travelling across West Africa, playing with musicians in Ghana (including the hi-life innovator Guy Warren), Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal and in Nigeria where he worked with Fela Kuti.

On his return to the USA, Reid collaborated with Charles Tyler, Sun Ra, James Brown and Miles Davis. His partnership with Hebden in 2006 after he’d relocated to Switzerland resulted in a radical pairing of freewheeling, improvised electronica and Reid’s fluid, polyrhythmic groove.

Sugar Minott

One of the classic voices of Reggae music and a pivotal figure in the transition from roots Reggae to the dancehall style which came to dominate Jamaican music from the late 1970s onwards. Minott grew up in a poor area of West Kingston and developed a broad knowledge of Jamaican music from a young age as a selector at two local sound systems. After his first group, The African Brothers split, Minott began working as an apprentice with Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd at Studio One, first sessioning as a singer and guitarist before recording his own singles.

Minott was the first artist to record his own original vocal versions over pre-recorded, classic rhythms- releasing singles that often proved more popular than the original records, birthing  dancehall. By the late 1970s, Minott himself had become not only one of Jamaica's most popular singers but had an even bigger fanbase in the UK, prompting a brief spell living in London. His return to Jamaica saw continued success there with his Youth Promotion sound system and continued hits on his own Black Roots label, as well as with Lloyd Barnes US-based Wackie’s imprint.      

Popol Vuh

This experimental German group was formed in 1969 after founder, Florian Fricke acquired a Moog synthesizer. Although Popol Vuh are often lumped in as a ‘krautrock’ band (a term that some German artists find offensive), the varied styles of music they created over 30 years always seemed infused with an air of spirituality and grace that sets them apart from contemporaries like Can or Faust.

Popol Vuh’s debut album from 1970, ‘Affenstunde’, opens with sounds of a dawn chorus before plunging the listener into an alien soundscapes that drift from otherworldly abstraction to ominous darkness and ethereal beauty, sometimes accompanied by Holger Trülzsch’s texturally rich hand drumming. This debut and its follow up, ‘In den Gärten Pharaos’, along with the group’s soundtrack work for Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, have become landmarks of early synth music.

Popol Vuh went on to abandon synths in favour of piano, harpsichord, guitar and tamboura on albums like ‘Hosianna Mantra’ (1972), with it’s exploration of sacred themes. By 1974’s ‘Einsjäger & Siebenjäger’, the band was joined by Amon Düül II’s Daniel Fichelscher on electric guitar, taking them in a more progressive rock-oriented direction, yet still retaining their characteristic luminous, cosmic air.  


ESG play stripped-down bass and drums driven funk that’s sassy and infectious. Originally made up of the three Scroggins sisters, Renee (vocals), Valerie (drums) and Deborah (bass), they formed in the housing projects of the South Bronx in 1978 when their mother bought them a drum kit, bass guitar and some hand percussion to keep them off the streets.

The strategy must've worked as it lead to them impressing Ed Bahlman (founder of legendary NY post punk label 99 Records) at a talent contest. He became their manager and organised shows for them in Manhattan, where they also impressed Tony Wilson from Factory Records. He promptly flew them over to Manchester to record half of their debut EP with Martin ‘Joy Division’ Hannett. The band also played at the opening of the now legendary Haçienda nightclub in Manchester in 1982.  

Given the straight-up immediacy of their sound, it’s not surprising that ESG have become one of the most sampled artists of all time, especially their eerie and menacing instrumental ‘UFO’. With an instantly recognisable sound that fuses elements of funk, latin, hip hop and punk; this is uplifting music for dancing with a tough, no-nonsense edge.  

Arthur Russell

Russell was a cello player of superlative originality and versatility; often mixing microtonal drones, wistful melodies and extended techniques to generate rhythmical effects. His cello playing was often accompanied by his introspective singing style, fluid and gentle- with a country-inflection that belied his Iowa prairie roots. On top of this we get his overwhelming openness to all the currents of contemporary music streaming through New York that seem to coalesce so uniquely in his own sound.

If all this music was on the same minimalist continuum for Russell; whether it was the avant-garde loft music of friends like Rhys Chatham, Phill Niblock and Philip Glass, or the art-rock of bands he collaborated with like The Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, it was through the burgeoning disco scene that he first started to really connect with a broader audience. Under names such as Dinosaur L, Loose Joints and Indian Ocean, Russell produced records that welded funky rhythms with wild, off-kilter arrangements that have become a part of the underground dance music canon.   


Hieroglyphic Being

Anyone who has experienced a DJ set by Chicago’s Jamal Moss a.k.a Hieroglyphic Being, will understand how Soul Jazz makes a natural home for his own releases, given the similar gargantuan sprawl of styles he spins: covering house, techno, industrial, noise, jazz and avant garde music. His own production style has the same breadth of influence, bristling with a raw, lo-fi energy and dense abstraction. Hieroglyphic Being tracks sound spontaneous and vital, unfolding organically with real grit, earthiness combined with otherworldly, esoteric vibes.

Moss’ highly idiosyncratic sound is often seen as a precursor of the rough-edged electronic style that’s come to be known as ‘Outsider House’ (Huerco S; Laurel Halo; Anthony Naples), although he himself prefers the Sun Ra-inspired descriptor of ‘Cosmic Bebop’. Whatever you care to call it, his style is the product of trauma. Fostered at the age of three by a devout Christian couple, Moss was socially isolated and often picked on by his peers. An attempt to reconnect with his birth mother in his teens ended badly and he was subsequently rejected by his foster parents. For the young Moss, homeless and disconnected, the Chicago club scene became the closest thing resembling social cohesion.

The early acid house pioneer Adonis picked-up on Moss’ deep devotion to music and became a kind of mentor; you can feel this thread to the origins of house music run right through Hieroglyphic Being music. The importance of dance music in creating an inclusive communal space in Moss’ life tie-in with the futurist themes of his work and the almost unremitting stream of releases he puts out on labels from Ninja Tune to Ghostly, and his own Mathematics imprint. This guy makes party music with a vision.

Various - Nu Yorica! Culture Clash In New York City: Experiments In Latin Music 1970-77

This is was one of Soul Jazz’s earliest compilations from over 20 years ago and shows what they do best; it takes a deep slice of a music scene at a particular juncture in time and space and gives you varied overview, complete with photos that capture the atmosphere and attitude of the era along with informative notes. In this case it’s Latin music and its many fusions created in New York’s melting pot in the 1970s - a scene most of of us wouldn’t have a clue where to start with if it wasn’t for these sorts of compilations.

Across the many tracks on offer here you get some of the sharpest interlocking rhythms you’ll ever hear coupled with some pretty drastic melodic shifts. There’s a nice range in styles too, with the Puerto Rican contingent that gives the comp its title best reflected, along with everything from the relatively traditional Cuban Rumba style of Cachao to streetwise funk by ex-gangster Joe Bataan. The real highlights for me though are when the groove locks into a kind of ecstatic delirium; like on the final sections of Grupo Folklorico’s  ‘Anabacoa’ and Eddie Palmieri’s ‘Un Dia Bonita’. ¡Chévere!

Various - Rastafari: The Dreads Enter Babylon 1955-83 - From Nyabinghi, Burro and Grounation to Roots and Revelation

This ‘Rastafari’ comp really stands out from Soul Jazz’s many compilations of Jamaican music, as it presents the nyabinghi drumming style central to Rastafarianism as the vital foundation for reggae music in tracks that range from atmospheric grounation chants to skanking paeans to Jah.

Two of the most notable tracks come from Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: ‘Tales of Mazambique’ with it’s eerie evocation with rattling percussion, flutes and bird calls of an African paradise spoiled by European contact and ‘Narration’, a solemn, spine tingling history lesson told across hypnotic akete drums and double bass, with Cedric ‘Im’ Brookes’ interjecting with some jagged, but impeccably measured, Coltrane-esque saxophone knots.

Various - Nigeria Freedom Sounds! Calypso, Highlife, Juju & Apala: Popular Music and The Birth of Independent Nigeria 1960-63

Here’s Soul Jazz again doing what they do so well, presenting an informed and readily digestible survey of a particular music scene, this time the burgeoning creativity that came in the wake of Nigeria’s independence from Britain in the early 1960s.

There’s a great variety of styles included here, reflecting the country’s cultural diversity and the intricate mix of intersecting influences. Listening to this overall, it’s impossible not to feel the joy oozing from these performances, with favourites being Horuna Ishola and his Group’s apala songs.  

Various - Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher - Afro-Centric Jazz, Street Funk and the Roots of Rap in the Black Power Era 1969-75

This is the second volume of Soul Jazz compilations putting together exploratory music by African-American artists addressing themes of empowerment and self-definition in the context of the civil rights movement. As always there’s great balance of breadth and depth, with some big-hitters (Don Cherry, Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron) alongside some blazing new discoveries (Byron Morris and Unity, The Pharaohs).

The absolute jewel in the crown here though is the opener, Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Theme De Yoyo’, with it’s moody, cool funk erupting into furious torrents of molten jazz fire, somehow finding its way back to the groove with a shrug like nothing happened. All topped off with Fontella Bass’ absurdist sass vocals – just mind-blowing.  

Arthur Russell - The World Of Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell was too complex a musician to effectively survey in a one-stop release of this kind, but this compilation brilliantly showcases the range of his more dance-oriented tracks. From the Francois Kevorkian mixed opener, ‘Go Bang’ with its shrill organ and slip-sliding bass and the Larry Levan mixed disco-funk of ‘Is It All Over My Face’, the vibe is wild and hedonistic. Then there are the quieter, more soulful tracks which foreground his syncopated cello playing and unique voice like ‘Keeping Up’ and ‘A Little Lost’.

It’s hard to imagine now the relative obscurity in which Arthur Russell prematurely died in 1992, given the huge swathe of reissues over recent years covering his idiosyncratic music. In fact it this compilation that seemed to spearhead this overdue reappraisal of his singular body of work.

Various - Vodou Drums in Haiti 2: The Living Gods of Haiti – 21st Century Ritual Drums & Spirit Possession

Soul Jazz run a very respectable line in commissioning recordings of traditional musics. They’ve released albums of Yoruba sacred songs and Fuji street music from Nigeria, Gwo Ka music from the French West Indies and Afro-Cuban musics. For me though, it is this second installment from a series of recordings of Vodou ritual drumming from Haiti that stands out.

Maybe the starkest recording of the lot with no singing or chants, you really feel close up to each of the drums on this recording but once these rhythms interlock, the effect is absolutely mesmerising. The pace and agility of the playing is breathtaking and while you can hear shades of say deep techno, what really makes these recordings of traditional master percussionists so special is the constant tension between holding the rhythm and the little improvisatory shifts that keep everything alive. Music to get possessed to alright.

Various - Deutsche Elektronische Musik: Experimental German Rock and Electronic Musik 1972-83

Whatever you call it– ‘Krautrock’, ‘Kosmische’, ‘Elektronische’ –the experimental music made by Germans during the 70s has been incredibly influential despite its relative obscurity. If you’ve been wanting to get to grips with this stuff but didn’t know where to start, then get this compilation; it’s probably the best overview you’ll get of the amazingly fertile creativity on offer in one foul swoop.  

Across this compilation you can hear hypnotic synth workouts (Michael Bundt, Popol Vuh, Roedelius, Tangerine Dream), proto-techno/electro (Conrad Schnitzler, E.M.A.K), groovy motorik bliss (Harmonia, Neu!), psychedelic folk rock (Gila, Ash Ra Tempel) and then the hard-to-categorise mix of all these you get from Can, Faust, Amon Duul II, Ibliss and more. Stunning music made by a generation wanting to rid itself of the guilt of war and build a new future.

Various - PUNK 45: Les Punks: The French Connection. The First Wave Of Punk 1977-80

The Soul Jazz Punk 45 series of compilations document different punk scenes around the world at various stages of development. If you like raw, in yer face music then, either one of these comps will hit  the spot. This particular one charts the first surge of French underground punk bands with illuminating notes tracing the intellectual foundations of French decadent thinkers and surrealism on the movement. That said, there’s a great deal of Iggy worship on display here mixed in with some sharper, Cabaret Voltaire style experiments from Kas Product, Charles de Goal and Metal Urbain.  

Various - New York Noise: Dance Music From The New York Underground 1977-1982

The second New York-centred compilation on this list is sharper but in a different sense- focusing on the spikey, punked-up funk of ‘no wave’ and ‘post-punk’. After complaints that the original compilation from 2003 was too slick and discoey, Soul Jazz recompiled this reissue to up the grit. And fair dues, what you get across this record is insistent, clattering rhythms, guitars that needle and clang, acerbic vocals and angular basslines that just don’t let up.

As always with Soul Jazz, there’s a balance of depth and breadth here, including some of the legends of the scene: James Chance and the Contortions (who I seem to remember Steve Albini once describing as the most confrontational performer he’d ever seen) with the incendiary tour de force ‘Contort Yourself’; Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls with their pummeling repetition and Suicide’s Alan Vega putting in a typically wired performance against a relentless wall of pounding rockabilly.    

Various  - Acid - Can You Jack? Chicago Acid and Experimental House 1985-95

A comp charting the rise of Chicago’s house scene and the particularly raw and infectious strain of early techno known as acid. The sound of acid comes from the Roland 303, which was designed to emulate a bass guitar. It sounded so weird that it bombed commercially, hence how it ended up being picked up cheap by Phuture (DJ Pierre, Spanky, Herb J). They exploited the machine’s quirks to make ‘Acid Tracks’, making a sound that was both alien and infectious.

You get that foundational track here, along with many variations on that theme, some well know, some obscure. While some people might complain that this music is meant to be heard in a club or within a mix etc., I actually love how crude and raw some of this stuff sounds in all its stark psychedelic glory.