Not long ago, I went record shopping with Giovanni Russonello, a jazz journalist with The New York Times. We’ve known each other for about six years, mostly because we have similar tastes in music and have connections to the Washington, D.C. area. We’ve also shared space on Popcast, the NYT-featured podcast hosted by Jon Caramanica, and another panel discussion featuring jazz critic Nate Chinen and musicians Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah and Nubya Garcia. At Head Sounds Records in Fort Greene, a niche little space tucked in the corner of a barbershop, we start rifling through the stacks when he picks up this one: Leon Thomas’s Spirits Known and Unknown. I had known about Thomas from his work with Pharoah Sanders, but I’d only skimmed this album. Gio let me snag this record since he already has a copy. I played it when I got home, thinking it could be a nice bridge to some evening plans. I played it four times in a row; the next thing I know, the day had passed and Thomas was still singing. It was all the energy I needed.
Thomas is loosely identified as an experimental vocalist. Across several tracks with Sanders, most notably the expansive “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” he’d sing in a rich baritone before launching into a yodel, a peculiar move for any performer, let alone one in a genre like jazz, where traditionalists don’t want the music to evolve at all. Luckily for us, Thomas didn’t care about such things; on Spirits Known and Unknown, released through the vaunted Flying Dutchman label in 1969, he opted for a sound that eschewed genre but stayed within the parameters of Black music. Though it scanned as jazz, songs like “Echoes” and “Song For My Father” (a Horace Silver remake) flexed a propensity for overcast soul, music that shimmered like that of Isaac Hayes but with an esoteric lilt.
Born in 1937 in East St. Louis, Ilinois, Thomas grew up in a creative household where music always played. His parents sang in church choirs and listened to gospel singer “Blind Lemon” Jefferson around the house. A track runner who also played baseball and basketball, Thomas thought he’d be an athlete when he grew up, but singing soon became the young boy’s hobby of interest. One day, the 10th-grader went to a local club to check out some music, when he heard Latin percussionist Armando Peraza performing a set. A local musician told Peraza that Thomas was a great vocalist, and was told to return the following week and sing in the band. He did and quickly gained traction. A radio show host named “Spider” Burks asked him to sing live on the air. Listeners were taken by the 16-year-old’s unique vocal style and mastery of jazz melody. Suddenly, Thomas was a star with a regular singing gig on the radio; listeners were enthralled with the kid. “I had to learn a new song a week,” he said in the liners for Spirits Known and Unknown. He’d also become a regular in the club, honing his craft as a budding talent.
Thomas started developing unique runs at the behest of his brother, a John Coltrane fan. “At first, nobody dug what ‘Trane was doing,” Thomas once said. “He said, ‘Hey, he’s doing on the horn what you’ve been trying to do with your voice! And he was right. ‘Trane was running all those changes, as was I, and he was also into something else — new ways of using sound to get deeper expression.” In turn, Thomas started studying trumpeter Miles Davis, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. After high school, he went to Tennessee State University and studied music and drama. This is when Thomas the iconoclast began to emerge. Armed with newfound theatrics, his performances became full-on shows; his voice and body converged to emit the past and present all at once — the ancestral spirit of church and the blues, alongside the eccentricity of jazz and poetry. Hearing this, the singer Faye Adams suggested Thomas move to New York City, where he’d get more professional opportunities. He went there and recorded an album in 1958 for the label RCA Victor, but it was never released.
He was discouraged but not defeated: Thomas soon landed a gig at the Apollo Theater, in a big band that featured Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal and Nipsey Russell. He was so good that Blakey, a famed drummer and bandleader, took Thomas on the road with him. Then the calls started rolling in and the names got bigger: Count Basie, Randy Weston, Roland Kirk, and Tony Scott. He met Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp during his time in the East Village, then started experimenting musically. It wasn’t until a trip to Los Angeles that Thomas, as we know him, emerged. After working with pianist Horace Tapscott out west, he went back to New York and forged a creative bond with Sanders in 1968.
Spirits Known and Unknown funneled Thomas’s lived experiences into a gorgeous stream of disparate thoughts. Featuring Lonnie Liston Smith on piano; Cecil McBee and Richard Davis on bass; Roy Haynes on drums; Richard Landrum on bongos; James Spaulding on flute and alto saxophone; and Pharoah Sanders (listed here under the alias “Little Rock”) on tenor sax, Spirits Known was a comprehensive effort that fully captured Thomas’s artistic vision. Though it reads “experimental,” the music stays within mainstream parameters, offering potential singles without pandering to the mainstream machine. On “Song For My Father,” for instance, the band quells the fire heard on previous tracks “One” and “Echoes,” allowing Thomas’s vocals to shine above the billowing mix. Instead of giving a straightforward take on the Horace Silver classic, he layers the chorus with his trademark yodel, toeing a line between Carnegie Hall and The East. The same goes for Thomas’s version of “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Where Sanders expands the track to a 32-minute epic with screeching saxophone wails and tempo shifts, Thomas leans into serenity with his own take on what heaven entails. “There is a place where love shines and rainbows are the shadows of a presence so divine,” he sings. “And the glow of that love lights the heavens above.”
Other tracks are political: “Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' To Vietnam)” is an anti-war song with pointed lyrics about the country’s misguided priorities. “How much does it cost to fly a man up to the moon?” he asks. “When I think of the hungry children that I see every afternoon.” Then there’s the almost nine-minute epic “Malcolm's Gone,” an elegy for the civil rights activist Malcolm X. For almost seven minutes, Thomas and the band unpack a slow-rising crescendo, excavating the spirit of Malcolm while delving into their own feelings about the icon. “I know he died,” Thomas laments, “just to set me free.” In the end, Spirits Known and Unknown is a full-circle LP that finds Thomas getting back to the instrument that made him a star: his voice. The joy of vocal expression prevails. The love of creativity dots the record’s darkest corners. “We’re into a new period,” Thomas said at the time. “No one has been nearly adventurous enough with the possibilities of the voice. All I need is a chance to get to the ears of the people."