Positive Feedback Logo

Jazz Dispensary Top Shelf LP Reissues from Craft Recordings

04-16-2023 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 126

Jazz Dispensary is Craft Recordings' house label that mines from the riches of Concord Music's jazz, funk, soul, and fusion recordings from their Prestige, Fantasy, and Milestone imprints from the mid-60s through the mid-70s. While many of their releases are compilation mix-ups of classic grooves from the period, Jazz Dispensary's Top Shelf series highlights rarities from influential but less-well-known artists from Concord's deep catalog. The first Top Shelf slate of releases for 2023 features two albums prized by record collectors, 1974's Heavy Axe from composer/arranger/producer David Axelrod, and drummer Bernard Purdie's 1971 release, Purdie Good! Despite their lack of big-name recognition, selections from both of these albums have been sampled by artists on a slew of recordings over the last couple of decades.

Neither of these records has been domestically reissued in ages; David Axelrod's Heavy Axe hasn't been reissued as an LP by Fantasy Records since 1999, and was only available as an import CD or LP released on the UK jazz imprint BGP in 1998. A quick scan of Discogs shows that obtaining a domestically pressed copy of Heavy Axe is not an option, and a minty BGP reissue LP will cost you anywhere from $55 to $75 USD; the BGP CD reissue can be had for significantly less. Bernard Purdie's Purdie Good! has never been reissued domestically, and was only released on a Japanese import CD in 2014. The only LP reissues come from 1978 (on BGP's French subsidiary) and 1992 as a Japanese Prestige label import. Neither of those reissues currently appear on Discogs, but original LP copies rated VG+ will set you back anywhere from $105 to $135 USD. The chance of finding a decent LP copy of either of these albums in a storefront is nearly impossible, and that's especially disheartening for crate diggers.

That makes these new reissues particularly noteworthy for collectors. Both LPs have been remastered from the original analog tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, and have been pressed on 180 gram vinyl at RTI. These are AAA, all-analog recordings throughout every step of the remastering to LP pressing process. The artwork for the heavy cardboard, tip-on style jackets come from Concord's vaults, making the new reissues very faithful to the originals in appearance. The two albums are available from Craft Recordings as standard black vinyl LPs that came inserted in VRP-style rice-paper record sleeves, which are always a very nice touch! Through special arrangement with Vinyl Me Please (VMP), they're also being released as colored vinyl LPs—more on that later.


David Axelrod, Heavy Axe. 180 Gram Craft Recordings LP, $29.99 MSRP

David Axelrod had developed a sterling reputation as a staff producer for jazz and soul labels when he decided to record his first album in 1968. That album, Song of Innocence, was one of the first albums to fuse elements of jazz, rock, and soul, and Axelrod wrote, arranged, and produced the entire album. It was a critical success, with one critic coining the phrase "jazz fusion" to describe the album. Axelrod was on the cutting edge; he was basically an early jazz/rock equivalent of the Alan Parsons Project, where he wrote and oversaw all aspects of the recording without actually playing on it.

That success continued with a string of albums leading up to 1974's Heavy Axe, where Axelrod wrote half the album's music, and again arranged and conducted the orchestrations. However, this time, he turned over the production role to Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, who also wrote and provided the sax solo on the album's opening tune, "Get Up Off Your Knees." For Heavy Axe, David Axelrod recruited an all-star cast of musicians, including guitarist Johnny "Guitar" Watson, a horn section featuring Gene Ammons, Oscar Brashear, George Bohanon, and Snookey Young, synths and keyboards from George Duke, along with vocals on Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" from Stephanie Spruill. Along with countless other performers and a full complement of strings, but you get the idea—this is David Axlerod's show, and he definitely leads the band. 

The opening side one track, Adderley's "Get Up Off Your Knees" has a really cool, synth-driven vibe, and Cannonball's solo is superbly lyrical. But the album's orchestration is really dense—there's a ton of instrumentation on the track, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson's solo nearly gets lost in the mix. That can be said for much of the album; the mix is a bit murky in places. Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" gets a similar treatment—there's a lot going on in the nearly opaque orchestration—but the wordless background vocals just hover in an otherworldly fashion, to stunning effect. Watson's guitar intro to "You're So Vain" really brings the funk, and Stephanie Spruill's soulful vocal casts the song in an entirely different light compared to Carly Simon's mega hit from a couple of years earlier. "My Family" is the first Axelrod original, and closes Side one. A plaintive intro that features George Bohanon's trombone accompanied by massed strings soon gives way to a hip fuzz-tone guitar signature from Billy Fender that sets the tune's groove.

Side two opens with a drivingly propulsive and fusionesque "Mucho Chupar," the second Axelrod original. Olga James' wordless vocals in combination with layer upon layer of Fender Rhodes keys keep the song moving into the next cover, Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing." Which features another nifty guitar turn from Watson. The album ends with a pair of Axelrod originals, the synth and guitar driven "It Ain't For You," where Watson again lays down one funky guitar figure after another. Heavy Axe closes with maybe the best tune on the entire album, "Everything Counts," where Rudy Copeland's Moog solo is accompanied by an incessant Fender Rhodes vamp and an army of horns. It's stunning, to say the least!


Bernard Purdie, Purdie Good! 180 Gram Craft Recordings LP, $29.99 MSRP

The name of session drummer par excellence Bernard Purdie should be intensely familiar to anyone who's listened to albums by artists as diverse as Miles Davis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, the Rolling Stones, even Steely Dan, to name a very few. Purdie developed a reputation as a crack session drummer, with a constant groove and immaculate timing. His signature drum pattern became known as the Purdie Half-Time Shuffle; countless artists from Led Zeppelin to the Police have replicated it on their albums, and Purdie himself gives a master class on his technique in Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters." 

Purdie took time out from his busy session schedule to record 1971's jazz/funk opus Purdie Good! at Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio, with none other than RVG behind the controls. In addition to Purdie's drums, the recording sessions included Teddy Dunbar and Billy Nichols on guitar, Gordon Edwards on bass, Harold Wheeler on Fender Rhodes, Charlie Brown and Warren Daniels on tenor sax, Tippy Larkin on trumpet, and Norman Pride on congas. The album didn't fare well commercially or critically, which partly explains why it virtually disappeared from record shelves after it was initially released in 1971. 

Purdie played with James Brown, and the side one opener, "Cold Sweat," shows that he learned a thing or two about "tightening up" from The Godfather of Soul. Purdie's intricate stickwork in the tune's center is nothing short of astonishing—if you only need one reason to buy this album, this tune is definitely it! Next up is Bobby Bloom's "Montego Bay," and Purdie himself provided the backbeat to the original monster hit. Purdie's version here entertains, but it's probably also the album's weakest track. The Purdie-penned title track gets off to a slow start, but really cooks into a guitar/keys/horns burner by the time it reaches its conclusion.

Side two opens with another Purdie original, "Wasteland," which was originally a long vamp fadeout for another song chosen for the album, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." Purdie liked the fadeout's groove much more than "Phoenix's" melody, and eventually jettisoned the melody in favor of "Wasteland's" delicious eight-plus-minute groove; he really pounds the skins in the tune's outro. Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" features a really great exchange between Warren Daniels' tenor sax and Ted Dunbar's guitar, and Purdie contributes some nifty runs and fills throughout. The album closes with another Purdie original, "You Turn Me On." Purdie's superb drumming drives the tune, and some excellent exchanges between trumpeter Tippy Larkin and the other horns keep the tune moving along.

Don't Wait to Grab these LPs!

I listened to these excellent LPs on my all-analog, all-tube playback system; you can click on my name in the header above to see the components in both my home systems. Both of these excellent and enjoyable albums are worthy additions to your collection, and if you're in the least bit inclined to grab either—or both—don't hesitate, because they'll likely sell out very quickly. My Craft Recordings' black vinyl review copies were perfectly flat, with no surface imperfections and no appreciable groove noise—typical for LPs sourced from RTI, which are generally among the best pressings available. The overall sound quality of these LPs is beyond reproach.

But if you're interested in possibly grabbing the colored vinyl versions of either album from Vinyl Me Please, be prepared to pay handsomely, as they list for $53 each (for non-members) on VMP's website. That's a significant uptick in price over the $29.99 Craft LPs, but the VMP versions are strictly limited to 1,000 copies each. I know we're in a relatively strange economic situation currently, but I don't quite understand the additional cost of the VMP versions, except to drive their ultimate desirability to collectors to an even higher level. The VMP colored vinyl versions were also pressed at RTI, and I would guess they're the aural equivalents of the Craft black vinyl versions—I've had very good impressions of the sound quality of recent VMP's colored vinyl releases. YMMV; I really love colored vinyl pressings, but $53 each is a little rich for even my blood!

When you consider the already high prices of minty used copies on Discogs or elsewhere, that tempers the price of the VMP versions to a certain extent. Both of these albums are available for high-resolution streaming on Qobuz, so you might want to take a listen there to make sure the jazz/funk/fusion melange of Heavy Axe and Purdie Good! are your cup of tea before pulling the trigger. Highly recommended!

Craft Recordings


All images courtesy of Craft Recordings