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DAVE DAVIES, Host:

In 1961, ABC Records got into the jazz market when producer Creed Taylor set up the Impulse label, whose glossy fold-out album covers with orange and black spines were easy to spot on collectors' shelves.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says collectors usually had lots of them - more for the music than the packaging. The label turns 50 this year, and a commemorative box of early Impulse releases is out. Kevin has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The trombone duo of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding on the first tune recorded for Impulse in 1960, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." It was released as a single, hoping for a little luck, but Impulse got more jukebox action with Ray Charles's "One Mint Julep," arranged by Quincy Jones with Charles on organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MINT JULEP")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Hey. Just a little bit of soul.

WHITEHEAD: Ray Charles from the 1961 album "Genius + Soul = Jazz" rocking, slicked-up blues out of period Count Basie, with Basie's band on half of it. That album is in the set "First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection, 50th Anniversary," containing the first six LPs Impulse recorded before producer Taylor moved on.

Nowadays, Impulse is remembered as the label John Coltrane and friends made a lot of records for. But those first sessions were less about explosive small groups than handsome arrangements for big or midsize bands, like Ray Charles's, or Kai Winding's four-trombone units.

I G: the blues and the chord pattern to Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." There's sleek writing for four horns, electrifying saxophone solos from Eric Dolphy, and Bill Evans brooding on piano. Nelson's "Hoe-Down" is a barn dance for pairs of horns shouting back and forth two by two.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOE-DOWN")

WHITEHEAD: Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and drummer Roy Haynes with Oliver Nelson.

The other great early Impulse LP was "Out of the Cool" by Gil Evans, the arranger of Miles Davis's orchestra records, like "Sketches of Spain." Evans had been working with his own band in a club and brought very little music to the studio; he orchestrated as the tape rolled, cueing in players and stretching meager materials to good effect.

Evans gets overlooked as an early master of minimalism. His "La Nevada" is like Gus van Sant's movie "Gerry," about two mooks lost in the desert; it's captivating, though not much happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA NEVADA")

WHITEHEAD: Gil Evans with two key henchmen: trumpeter Johnny Coles, who made you not miss Miles Davis and fleet, funky guitars Ray Crawford. With short motifs that keep repeating, harmony that barely moves and extended solos to flesh it all out, Evans's music is not so different from what John Coltrane was working on when he came to Impulse. His label debut "Africa Brass," with orchestra charts by Cal Massey, sounds like Gil Evans's simmer brought to a boil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA BRASS")

WHITEHEAD: With all this music brought together in one place, you hear how diverse artists reflect their time, one way or another. Decades later, similarities become more obvious, objects in the distance appear closer together. The "Impulse at 50" set looks sharp in the label's traditional orange and black. It has a few alternate takes that have been out before, and three rough rehearsal extracts for the "Africa Brass" sessions that the old Impulse would never see fit to release.

The Impulse label was always about more than Coltrane and the avant garde; it was home to Ellingtonians and organ players, drummers galore and unclassifiables like Pee Wee Russell and Charles Mingus. The slick packaging helped, because it showed the musicians the label was serious about promoting their music. They did not waste those opportunities.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist eMusic.com. his new book is "Why Jazz: A Concise Guide." He reviewed "First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection, 50th Anniversary."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA MOVE TO THE OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN")

CHARLES: (Singing) Let me tell you honey, we gonna move away from here. I don't need no iceman. I'm gonna get you a Frigidaire when we move way out on the outskirts of town. Whoa, you see, we won't need nobody always hanging around.

DAVIES: I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA MOVE TO THE OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN")

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