Leon Thomas’ first solo album Spirits Known and Unknown is just that; a meeting of traditional and avant-garde jazz spirits. As a young vocalist, Thomas had succeeded in putting together a fairly respectable CV with bands from Art Blakey to Count Basie, but had yet to find an outlet for his unusual scat style. Often described as yodeling, Thomas would reach deep inside himself to create a sound that was both awesome and unsettling. He finally found his musical home alongside Pharoah Sanders at the independent Flying Dutchman label and would go on to make some of the most idiosyncratic jazz vocal albums of all time.
However, this was no means a foregone conclusion. Lamenting that “no-one has been nearly adventurous enough – for this time – with the possibilities of the voice” Thomas found himself set free by the aggressive harmonics of Coltrane’s saxophone and the revolutionary drive of the UGMAA, which drew him towards the freedom of players like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders (whom he would go on to accompany for a large part of his own career). Leon Thomas was about to become that vocal adventurer; the voice of the spiritual avant-garde.
The subtitle of his debut album, released in 1969 by independent label Flying Dutchman when Thomas was already 33 years old, reads “New Vocal Frontiers”. The voice as an instrument had somehow been neglected by the great innovators of 60‘s jazz, its universal accessibility perhaps deemed unfit for the dangerous and experimental climate of the avant-garde. It was something which Leon soon noticed himself: “In a way things have come full circle. At the very beginning of all music, there was the voice. Now we’re getting back to the importance of that primary human instrument”.
However, where his predecessors, the great jazz singers from Dizzy Gillespie to Johnny Hartman would use the voice as a means of replicating instruments – vocal solos mimicking the articulations of trumpets and saxophones – Leon Thomas saw the voice as a means of searching for sounds hidden deep within himself.
Jazz critic Nat Hentoff put his finger on it when he wrote in the liner notes to the album, that “Thomas is searching as far into himself as he can go for spirits known and unknown and is creating new dimensions of vocal expressiveness to bring these spirits, – these feelings – into the experience of others”.
The technique itself has often been compared with yodeling – in which the singer utilised both his ‘chest’ and ‘head’ voice, switching between vocal registers in order to free the entire vocal spectrum. The implications of this in the context of the avant-garde are clear enough: Thomas was uniting body and mind, technique and improvisation, the conscious and the unconscious sound. The result was, and still is for first time listeners both impressive and deeply unsettling.
However, the origins of this style were far from conceptual. Quoted in his obituary in The Independent Thomas explains the extraordinary story behind his unique vocal style. We join it here with Thomas trying to contact a guy who apparently owed him some money:
"I’d been trying to reach this cat for ages with no luck. I was at home and I thought: I’m gonna make this cat pick up the phone mentally. I began my yoga exercises and got to the head stand. In one intake of breath, I planned to walk to the phone upside down, dial his number and make him answer with this mental projection. As I crossed the threshold of the bedroom, I transcended. I was one place and my body was another. I dropped to the floor, right on my face and my teeth went into my bottom lip. There was blood everywhere."
Unable to pull out of a pre-arranged gig with Sanders’ in a New York church, Thomas received eight stitches to his mouth and perofrmed regardless. What happened next would define his career:
"I got up on the stage and when it came time for me to scat, this sound just came out. I didn’t know where it was coming from. I realised that the ancestors had arrived and given me what we call throat articulation. They said to me: you will sing like this with your mouth closed. And that was the first time it presented itself to me, in a church. My God! Thank you. It surprises me, it does everything of its own volition. I call it Soularfone. The pygmies call it Umbo Weti. This voice is not me, my voice is ancient. This person you see before you is controlled by ego but my voice is egoless."
The passages in which Thomas utilises this technique do indeed sound as though he has surrendered control of his own voice, allowing the sound to emanate from within him unchecked. This guttural yodel, brought up like some fearsome demon with every draw of breath, confronts the listener with something so foreign and yet so familiar, like the fragment of a dream (or a nightmare) that haunts us inexplicably the following morning. The temptation is to look away and for this reason alone the record is far from an easy listen. Leon Thomas had the power to summon up a repressed primordial urge and listening to the record as I type, I can’t help but flinch every time Thomas’s voice plumbs these depths.
Despite his prolific connections with famous big bands of the day, Thomas’s real break came as a guest on Pharoah Sanders’s Karma and the seminal “The Creator has a Master Plan” – a lyrical adaptation of Sanders’ “Pisces Moon”, which would be the curtain-raiser of his first solo album. It is perhaps no surprise that Thomas, whose improvisatory style was so indebted to Coltrane, was picked up by Coltrane’s erstwhile producer Bob Thiele and taken to Flying Dutchman.
The players that accompany Thomas point to the clashing traditions which his voice would try and articulate. Alongside Leon Thomas’s lifelong musical foil Pharoah Sanders (who appears on the record under the alias “Little Rock”) are among others Roy Haynes and Lonnie Liston Smith; Haynes a drummer schooled in the hard bop small bands of the late 50’s and Smith, a young pianist who would pioneer the future sound of cosmic fusion. He pays homage to the tradition Haynes represents with an interpretation of Horace Silver’s latter-day standard “Song For My Father”, adapted with Thomas’s lilting lyricism. Yet even here, Thomas swings liberally between jazz singer and spiritual yodeler, and his voice can often seem like it is walking a tightrope, leaning away from the note to toy with the spiritual vibrato of the yodel. To the left of him are the spirits known, to right, the spirits unknown, with the listener in suspense as to which way he will lean.
As was the case with much of the Flying Dutchman roster, Thomas’s debut outing doesn’t pull any political punches either, with the second side effortlessly transposing the spiritual onto the political, with the lung-busting “Damn Nam (I Ain’t Goin’ To Vietnam)” and the deep Coltrane-infused “Malcolm’s Gone” which sees the band, and Pharoah Sanders in particular in an expansive mood.
Spirits Known and Unknown is a record of staggering versatility and vocal innovation; a shot in the arm for the jazz establishment and one of the most terrifyingly visceral experiences any record can hope to evoke in its listeners. It is an essential addition to any collection, jazz or otherwise.
Leon Thomas went on to record several more impressive albums as a leader for Flying Dutchman, and toured with Carlos Santana in the early 70’s, before drifting away from the scene, finally resurfacing on Pharoah Sanders’ 1987 record “Oh Lord Let Me Do No Wrong”. Lapsing in an out of drug abuse, Thomas’s career was reignited for a short time courtesy of the acid jazz scene in the early nineties, and an anthology of his work was released by Soul Brother a year before his death in 1998.