Graded on a Curve: Chester Thompson, Powerhouse

An Oklahoma native who landed in San Francisco in 1969, organist Chester Thompson joined Tower of Power in 1973 and after a decade with that group, hooked up with Carlos Santana for a 26-year stint that included work on GRAMMY®-winner Supernatural. But pertinent to right now is Powerhouse, Thompson’s 1971 debut for the Black Jazz label, which has just been reissued on LP and CD by Real Gone Music. In most (likely all) synopses of jazz in the year 1971, Thompson’s album doesn’t receive a mention, but that’s a faulty measurement of its worth. Let’s delve into that a little more below

Artistic canons, which are dominated by masterworks, are certainly useful in ascertaining the creative heights and the breakthroughs of a particular discipline, but they are forever at risk of ossifying and even becoming downright moribund. For this reason and others (sexism, racism, Eurocentrism, etc.), canons have received scrutiny of late, which is completely fair, though I’m not here pile on. Rather, let me merely recommend maintaining an openness to artworks, in this case musical recordings, that haven’t been championed as high hierarchical classics.

It shouldn’t be difficult to make this argument to music fans, but when it comes to jazz (and the following applies to varying degrees to any style that’s existed for more than a half century), the history is by now considerable, indeed labyrinthine, and therefore potentially daunting, so that many end up simply falling back, deflated, and electing to absorb the established cannon. Of course, getting acquainted with masterpieces isn’t a terrible problem to have, but it doesn’t represent jazz’s true historical sweep.

Chester Thompson’s Powerhouse isn’t a masterpiece. Instead, it’s a highly appealing album by a quartet working in soul-jazz territory, which for 1971 was not exactly novel. Had it been released by Prestige and not by the label cofounded by keyboardist Gene Russell (whose own album New Direction was the imprint’s first release in 1971), it might’ve been slapped with a title like Soul Gravy and immediately followed by two, maybe three exclamation points.

But in fact, Powerhouse doesn’t really connect like a Prestige album, as there are no deep fried versions on contemporary pop tunes, standards given a funk transfusion, or bluesy variations. Instead, all four tracks are compositions-arrangements by Thompson. And in avoiding the formulaic in its embodiment of the soul-jazz spirit, the organist and his band also largely bypass the higher-toned post-bop atmosphere of Blue Note’s numerous contributions to the style.

That is, the soul and the jazz are given roughly equal weight in Powerhouse’s scheme, with each track offering groove sharpness enhanced by catchy head themes and lively soloing. This equality of oomph and exploration gets deepened by the instrumental makeup, which features saxophonist Rudolph Johnson, trombonist Al Hall, and drummer Raymond Pounds.

The presence of trombone and the absence of guitar helps set things a bit apart, though I don’t want to give the impression that the ‘bone was seldom used in funkier situations. As Hall’s playing flows, it fits in well throughout the set. The same is true of Johnson on sax, as he plays with robust edge but never takes it outside.

Unsurprisingly, the saxophonist cut two albums as leader for Black Jazz (the first, Spring Rain, was reissued by Real Gone in February of this year, with the other on deck), but as the title of opener “Mr. T” should clarify, it’s not like Johnson’s a show stealer here. But Thompson, while consistently present, isn’t exactly forcing the issue, either. If the distribution of soul and jazz is in good balance, so is the equilibrium of creative personality.

The lack of a bassist isn’t unusual, as the organist helps to secure the album’s rhythmic heft. Pounds is energetic behind the kit, and while not without finesse, he goes easy on the explicitly jazzy syncopation a la Art Blakey and his many disciples; he’s more about persevering funky pulse. But on the melodic side, Thompson’s lack of watery note noodling is refreshing and it’s what ultimately puts Powerhouse in my keeper column (as overzealous organ is a personal turnoff).

With its four tracks totaling under 28 minutes, Powerhouse flirts with the skimpy, but it can alternately be assessed as a concise representation of Thompson’s band concept, minus the padding of those aforementioned standards, pop covers, and blues run-throughs. However, “Trip One” does spread out to nine minutes as the melodic theme inches toward the stately sweep of Blue Note (it also captures Pounds at his jazziest).

The title of “Weird Harold” underlines some connections, as it references a character on the contemporaneous television cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, though the deeper association is to Herbie Hancock’s LP of 1969, Fat Albert Rotunda, which marked the pianist’s bold turn toward a soulful orientation.

Now, Hancock’s album is much broader of scope as it was built from the coin in Warner Brothers’ hefty change purse, but still extant is a comparable desire to make music that’s both satisfying to its creators and relatable to audiences. Underscoring this duality is the closing title track, which reminds me just a bit in compositional terms of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” though Thompson’s tune is less melodically spiky. That’s just fine.

When I think about my favorite records, there are surely beaucoup consensus masterworks and cornerstones of stylistic advancement mingling in the mix, but equally prevalent are LPs that just get the job done in genre terms, even of that job has been done many times before. Hey, there’s always matters of individuality, group interplay, and range of intensity to consider, and that’s just for starters.

In the example of Chester Thompson’s Powerhouse, the contents deliver the sheer kick of hearing four guys transcend formula and get it right without a hitch. Maybe not rare, but uncommon enough that the set coheres as an experience wholly worthy of retrospective attention. Don’t worry, those masterpieces aren’t going anywhere.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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