Sonny Fortune: Long Before Our Mothers Cried (1974) Strata East

An uncommercial island, Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver’s Strata East Records, stubbornly surrounded by increasingly commercial waters, making music to satisfy its core listening audience rather college boys and the bachelor demographic, who had moved on elsewhere.

Venturing further into the 1970’s, soul jazz and electric jazz rock fusion were not the only shows in town. Lurking in the shadows, spiritual jazz was defining an alternative direction, from the church of Strata East. Rough-hewn melodies, harmonies and dissonances in equal measure,  a groove somewhere but not necessarily to the fore, instrumental virtuosity but the ensemble more important than the individual. A ’70s attitude combined with respect for the previous decade and its roots, it makes for unpredictable and interesting listening.

Another first for LJC.

Selection: Sound Of Silents 


Sonny Fortune, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Charles Sullivan, trumpet; Stanley Cowell, piano, electric piano; Wayne Dockery, bass; Chip Lyle, drums; Mario Muñoz, bass drum, timbales; Angel Allende, congas, triangle, tambourine; Richie Pablo Landrum, percussion; recorded September 8 & 15, 1974 at Minot Studio, White Plains, N.Y. Engineers John Battilori and Ron Carran; cover, Carole Byard.


Three percussionists join drummer Chip Lyle for the 14 minute overly-long afro-centric percussion title track, shades of Solomon Ilori meets Art Blakey’s Afro-drum ensemble. That aside, the four remaining tracks cover all bases: ballad, post-bop modal, new thing, free jazz, funk, cinematic and spiritual. All complete with tricksy song titles.

Stanley Cowell’s piano is  described repeatedly in reviews as “bracing”, whatever that means. Angular, forceful figures and chords, Cowell switches between acoustic and electric piano, and each sounds equally at home here.

Sonny Fortune favours only the upper range saxophone –  alto and soprano. He is full of good musical ideas, whether rapid-fire elongated runs, picking out the melody, or shifting  harmonies against Charles Sullivan’s bright solid trumpet,  and his voice is not obviously anyone elses.

Whether this was the best introduction to Strata East only time will tell, but it is a promising introduction, intriguing, which will have more to follow.

Vinyl: SES 7423

Early 70’s vinyl is not always great, and a small element of recycled vinyl being added is not unusual. Not in any way problematic, no where near some of the Prestige/New Jazz horrors. The engineering here is punchy in the mid-band  and the upper register is well retained. Bass is dry and musical, as it should be, though I cant work out whether its a pickup on acoustic bass or electric, probably the former.

Minot Sound Studios, which opened the year before in 1973, boasted 8-track recording, but the stereo here is fairly centre-weighted, could almost be mono looking at the left and right histograms in Audacity, and a solid central image, which works well with this style of music.

Collector’s Corner

1970’s, Real Men Wear Flares.

I had flares then, of course. And a large droopy moustache. But I wasn’t listening to Strata East, probably almost no-one was. I was listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Larry Coryell, Santana, Chick Corea, what happens when you just go with the flow, what’s currently on offer. What I learned over the decades that followed is to cast aside “the latest offer”. You have to find your own way. That is liberating, really exciting. Now where did I hang those flares?

10 thoughts on “Sonny Fortune: Long Before Our Mothers Cried (1974) Strata East

  1. I saw Sonny Fortune perform live a couple of years ago and I was pleasantly surprised. It was a hot, steamy August afternoon with excruciating humidity at the Richmond Jazz Festival, and Sonny took the stage in the early afternoon, right after Ramsey Lewis’ rather uninspired set. Sonny started his set with a lengthy reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” in all its Coltranesque glory, lots of bent notes, modal experiments, polyrhythmic drum explosions, the whole thing. It made me forget the sun, the heat, the humidity, the crowd and my seasonal allergies as I laid flat in the grass to soak up every note, grateful for the chance of inhaling second hand reefer smoke that lingered in the air. Ah, what an experience.

  2. Mike and Phoebe is one of my favorites — this Sonny Fortune is rather excellent too. The label has a rather diverse catalog though it’s hard to argue against such cornerstones as Charles Tolliver and Clifford Jordan being the peak of the label.

  3. I hardly think Mahavishnu and Chick Corea were “going with the flow.” They were popular “jazz-related” acts, but when I think of ’70 conformity, I think of Neil Sedaka, Tony Orlando, and Olivia Newton-John! ha ha.

  4. strata east will provide many great musical moments for you, i’d imagine. i happen to know that the bass is indeed a pickup on an acoustic upright. amazingly, i just bought this exact album yesterday. what a coincidence.

    sonny fortune would go into more commercial territory, but he did some other great stuff. i also love “awakening”, too.

    almost every strata-east title i am aware of is glorious. i echo the suggestion of looking into charles tolliver’s music (all of it). also the keno duke records, billy harper, cecil payne, george russell (a reissue from flying dutchman), john gordon, composer’s workshop ensemble.

    the piano choir, liberation of contemporary jazz guitar, and mike & phoebe are both great too, but may not be your style, LJC.

  5. Yet another ball tearer, LJC.

    Check out ALL of Charles Tolliver’s Music, Inc. discs from the late ’60’s -> mid ’70’s.

  6. Thank you for this post! I was working in a record store in Boston, Mass. 1974-1978, who’s manager was very hip (and still in music) and was able to get a number of artist owned labels in the store, which included Strata East. I saw most of the albums, listened to some in the store, and bought a few – all nothing less than excellent.

    When I first started getting into jazz, it was McTyner’s piano solos and Blue Note LPs that I listened to. Went to see him at Slug’s in Manhattan – an uncompromising jazz club (really local bar) in the far east of Manhattan between avenues B & C, not near any public transportation. Walking into this place for a night of music, was like walking in on one of those firey mid 60s Blue Note sessions. That’s the only way you can describe this place. What a great way to have started listening to live jazz.

    Anyway, McCoy’s band was Freddie Waits, drums; Herbie Lewis, bass; and Sonny Fortune, alto sax. Yes that’s the first place I saw him and was amazed. His playing was (and is) simply wonderful, active, emotional, and creative. He comes in to solo on Miles’s Agharta, midway through side one, after that long electric/ Psych. R&B vamp, and that’s when you hear the performance really take off.

    And there’s nothing wrong with listening to Mahavishnu Orch. I was listening to them (and saw them 4 or 5 times late 1971 through fall 1972) along with McCoy, Chick Corea’s “Is” album, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, and Coltrane’s Ascenion (which I finally “got” after not understanding it three years prior when I was eighteen). Also Weather Report Live in Tokyo….. but yes, Strata East did what no one else (or not too many others) were doing took up the mantle of mid-late 60’s jazz and carried it forward. Best regards, Ed Edward Fenning

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