I repeat all this with a broad grin. No judging here, live and let live, to each his own, etc. But it’s that, er … supposed mystical connection between getting high and music appreciation that Craft Recordings (a division of Concord Records) is now tweaking with the Jazz Dispensary Series.
“It predates me, but the idea came about either right before or right after the election that legalized cannabis in California,” says Mason Williams, senior vice president of Artists & Repertoire at Craft Recordings. “Sig Sigworth, who’s the president of Craft Records and oversees all things catalog for Concord, thought there was something there. Why not do something with it?”
Jazz Dispensary reissues, which come from the Milestone, Fantasy, and Prestige catalogs (all of which Concord owns), dig deep into the late ’60s/early ’70s history of a subgenre now known as soul jazz. Jazz Dispensaryafter the word used for retail pot outletswas launched in 2016 with four various-artists compilations drawn from the catalogs of those labels as well as Stax and Riverside. Each single-LP compilation was named for a potent strain of weed: Soul Diesel, OG Kush, Purple Funk, and Astral Travelin’. All are sold out, as are Volume IIs for several strains.
The success of these compilations convinced Craft to launch the Top Shelf series, focused on reissues of the albums that had provided the tracks for the VA compilations. A deal followed with ecommerce subscription and retail site Vinyl Me, Please: limited editions of 1000 33 1/3 rpm pressings pressed at RTI, each in a different color of 180gm vinyl, to be sold exclusively on the VMP website. At some future point, Williams says, they might become more widely available in black vinyl versions.
That first group of Top Shelf releases included albums by Leon Spencer Jr. (Where I’m Coming From), Idris Muhammad (Black Rhythm Revolution!), Bernard Purdie (Purdie Good!), Jack DeJohnette (Sorcery), and David Axelrod (Heavy Axe). All are sold out.
Williams says all VMP releases are cut directly from “original analog album master tapes.” To confirm, I spoke with the man cutting the lacquers, Kevin Gray of Cohearant Audio. “All those were cut directly from the analog master tapes,” Gray confirmed in a recent interview. “The sources were all in excellent condition.”
Apparently, that’s also true of two Top Shelf titles released by JD on its own, on 180gm standard black vinyl: organist Johnny Hammond’s album Gears and Azymuth’s Telecommunication. You can order both or either at jazzdispensary.com for $29.95.
Now VMP × JD have just released four more titles, spanning the spectrum of soul jazz styles: saxophonist Gary Bartz’s sweeping, Mizell-produced jazz funk album The Shadow Do, from 1975; the hard near-funk of guitarist Melvin Sparks’s Spark Plug from 1971, with Idris Muhammad, Leon Spencer, and Grover Washington Jr., engineered by Rudy Van Gelder; the rhythms and ambience of 1971’s Peace and Rhythm, by Idris Muhammad with Ron Carter on bass; and Worlds Around the Sun (1972), the career-defining jazz/funk masterpiece by keyboardist Bayet1é, aka Todd Cochran, sampled by De La Soul and Kendrick Lamar. These colored-vinyl Jazz Dispensary/ VMP collaborations sell for $45 to VMP members; nonmembers pay $50. Buy the whole set for $200 and, for an extra $15, get a tote bag.
While “legalize it!” is ostensibly the wink-wink, nod-nod theme of the Jazz Dispensary series, the real hook for LP fans and cratediggers is the fact that while many of them have been sampled innumerable times by hip-hop artists, most have never been reissued before and are now expensive on the secondary market and hard to find in good condition. “The first time a lot of people ever heard these songs was based on a sample by a fill-in-the-blank hip-hop artist,” Williams comments. “These reissues are also for people of a certain age that used to look at liner notes on the back of LPs and discovered that so and so played on this album and then decided to go dig into their catalog.”
There was a time when jazz purists looked down on soul jazz albums. Some still do. Donald Byrd was criticized for making a funky, poppy record like Places and Spaces, now arguably the brightest gem in his catalog. When first released, many of the titles reissued in the Jazz Dispensary series were dismissed as too commercial, not serious, beneath the artists who made them. Yet, as the years have gone by, their influence has spread.
“When these records came out, they were an easier entry point for people who were scared of jazz or who thought they weren’t smart enough, or just didn’t get it. Today, these quasi-funk and soul albums definitely appeal to a younger audience. They have a beat and a good vibe to them. And so many of the musicians on them also played with soul legends like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.”
Pleased with the success of the Jazz Dispensary imprint, Williams notes, “It’s just continued to grow and grow and grow … no pun intended.”