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Beginning at the End with Leon Spencer, Jazz Dispensary Vinyl Me Please Reissue

Sometimes when I put on an album, I pause to wonder why it was released in the first place… or what the producer was thinking with regards to how the record was assembled… or how the record label might have altered the artist’s intended recording in order to maximize its chances upon release… Especially when reviewing reissues of older albums, I do stop to consider these things because I know that the music universe is populated with many collections issued not to the artist’s satisfaction…

That said, the late ’60’s/early ’70’s music sub-genre of “soul jazz” and “acid jazz” is littered with many great groove jammers by artists many people have never really heard of these days. And perhaps it is fair to bet that many people outside of major markets like New York and LA didn’t hear about them back in the day, especially if you weren’t listening to the right hip radio station. These weren’t hugely popular artists at the time but their music became influential and respected, achieving notoriety in certain circles. 

Today, thanks to the world of vinyl record collectors — and probably boosted by DJ’s who like to sample amazing beats from the time before they were called beats — there are a lot of fine reissues of jazz obscurities popping up. 

I’ve reviewed some recently from Craft Recordings’ fine Jazz Dispensary imprint late last year — just click on the artists’ names here to get to those reviews of records by Bernard Purdie, David Axelrod, Jack DeJohnette and Idris Muhammed,

This final album that I am reviewing in this current round of releases was challenging as I didn’t really know anything about Leon Spencer beforehand. And after listening to this album — Where I’m Coming From— over and over the past several months, it fell into that odd purgatory bucket where I wondered why it was put out the way it was back in the day, why it disappeared, and most importantly why I wasn’t connecting with it today?

I finally realized what was bothering me about it, which stymied my review for a couple months: the best tracks on this perfectly OK album of sexy soul funk jazz grooves are buried at the end. 

In the world of instrumental soul-jazz especially, cover tunes are often a major focus, at least for selling albums initially. Thus this 1973 album starts out with a fun instrumental take on the then-still-fresh Stevie Wonder hit, “Superstition.” Spencer also does Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love” (from the smash hit Super Fly soundtrack) and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” (also a soundtrack album, by the way)  All of these are great tunes but on many of these albums, those sometimes workman-like interpretations have a tendency to float by the listener, lost in the shadow of the originals. 

I mean… it is a rare instance that a cover of a Stevie Wonder tune is going to better  or even approach the passion zone of the original. Just sayin’…

Thus it didn’t entirely surprise me to find Spencer’s originals tucked on to the end of the album. “The Price a Po’ Man’s Got To Pay” is a smokin’ little blues jammer which has a really sloppy tape splice edit (or a bad “punch in”), so I can understand that song finding a home toward the end of the album.  

But the title track — “Where I’m Coming From” —with its sweet Traffic-inspired groove provided by no less than the great Idris Muhammed should have opened the album.  Boosted by a horn section that includes Sonny Fortune on Sax, Hubert Laws on Flute plus in-the-pocket guitar from Melvin Sparks, this tune builds to sweet slow burn that rings true, at least to these ears. Spencer’s organ playing is funky and impassioned, revolving off a riff that also reminds me of some of the grooves honed by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders in the early/mid 1970s and even some things by The Meters. 

The Jazz Dispensary reissue is true to form a very high quality affair. The 180-gram red vinyl RTI-pressed vinyl sounds great — it is perfectly centered and dead quiet, probably much better than the early ’70 pressings Prestige Records was churning out by then (via Fantasy Records which had purchased the label by then). 

The vintage-style red vinyl feels kind of like an old Fantasy Records pressing, for those of you who remember those.  The cover is made of thick cardboard, again, a design arguably better than what Prestige Records was issuing at the time of its release.

This reissue of Where I’m Coming From isn’t exactly cheap via Vinyl Me Please, but then finding an original of this album seems to be going for about the same price. So if you are into Leon’s grooves, you can still order a copy direct from them (click the album title anywhere in this review to jump to their page.

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