Cecil Payne: Zodiac (1968) Strata East ’73

Selection: Girl You Got A Home (Bill Lee)

.   .   .


Cecil Payne, baritone, alto saxophone; Kenny Dorham, trumpet; Wynton Kelly, piano, organ; Wilbur Ware, bass; Albert Heath, drums. Recorded December 16, 1968, at Town Sound Studios, Englewood, NJ.  First released in 1973 on the Strata-East label. 

Jinxed! Everything touching this record worked like a charm: a bad-luck charm.

Eric Dolphy Series: Strata East dedicated this short series to Eric Dolphy, who died accidentally in a Berlin hospital on June 29, 1964. No Trip Advisor star rating for you, German Health Service!

Side 1 Track 1:  a dedication to Martin Luther King,  fatally shot in Memphis on April 4, 1968, eight months before this recording date.

Two of the leading players – Wynton Kelly and Kenny Dorham – died just a few years after recording it, and the studio in which it was recorded burned to the ground two years later.

“Fire destroys Jersey recording studio”:

Always look on the bright side, find good things in a bad situation! Cecil Payne enjoyed a long active musical career, recorded into his mid seventies, an advertisement for the health benefits of lifting that weighty baritone sax (average 5kg)  all those years.  The final curtain fell in 2007, at the age of 85, a remarkably good innings for a jazz musician, many of whom never made it to 40. I wonder, with those longevity benefits, is it too late to take up the baritone myself?


Starting out in the big bands of the 40s, Payne worked with Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron: “the first baritone saxophonist to develop a coherent style to suit the complex and fast-moving bebop idiom“. It earned him a place on some landmark mid ’50s albums including Kenny Dorham’s Afro-Cuban (Blue Note),Tadd Dameron’s  Fontainebleau (Prestige) and Ernie Henry’s Last Chorus (Riverside).  From a promising start, however, his potential as leader was obscured by returning to a big band setting, joining Afro-cuban leader Machito (1963-66), Woody Herman (1966-68) and Count Basie (1969-71). Later he blended into Philly Joe’s Dameronia,

In line with his bop credentials,  several of Payne’s recordings were on theme of Charlie Parker: Cecil Payne Performing Charlie Parker Music (Charlie Parker Records, 1961), and Bird Gets The Worm (Muse, 1976). He also recorded a third cover of music from The Connection (Charlie Parker Records, 1962). A complete set of recordings for Charlie Parker Records  –  confusingly, most not actually recordings of Charlie Parker – was issued by Amazon on a load-bearing 30 CD set, the sort of Christmas gift you dread getting from a well-meaning aunt (or malevolent uncle).

The most widely known baritone player was probably Gerry Mulligan, whose playing offers a light and airy tone in the era of West Coast cool jazz. Sorry, Gerry, on that instrument, my heart belongs to Sahib Shihab wrestling the instrument to the ground, followed closely by Pepper Adams (Mingus Moanin’! ♪Duh,dida,da-diddle-a-duh♪). I’m not going to make the mistake again of listing  the twenty best players.  Payne is a skilled ensemble player, though not always pushing the baritone to its idiosyncratic limits, as angle-grinder burr, and a Moluccan cockatoo squawk.

Wynton Kelly … on organ – whoever heard of such a thing?

I’m still finding my way around Strata East Records, sort of “off-piste” for jazz directions in the early ’70s. Apres-ski, a very inventive cocktail with a jigger of funk and good measures of post-bop, afro and spiritual jazz: no gold lamé pants, and probably not much chart potential at the time.

Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell steered Strata East through around fifty albums over a decade It is first label I noticed using a collector-helpful date in its catalogue numbering series – starting at SES 1971, 1972, then 19731, 19732, 19733 … and so on until  (19)8001, (19)8002 and (19)8003. With the arrival of The Evil Silver Disc™, Strata East commenced the SESD series, reissuing much of its ’70s catalogue for disciples of The Shiny Thing.

Vinyl: Strata East SES 19734

This Strata East cover bears an unusual aesthetic. Black and white design, artists in performance pictures but on the front cover not gatefold or back, which is graced with a drawing by producer Cliff Jordan’s 13 year old daughter. Austere rather than “cheap”, understated as though to signpost the serious intent of the music, and a hint at its mystic, spiritual quality.

A touch of NY/jazz collective politics, the musicians credits are explicitly listed “in alphabetical order”. No Hollywood casting hierarchy here.

Good, unobtrusive stereo recording, well-balanced image, centre-weighted, no special stereo effects to speak of, and good dynamic and tonal range. Natural sound, but remember it’s still 1968, plenty of time ahead for things to go wrong.  It is not Blue Note and Van Gelder, but a lot better than many in its day.

It is a mid ’70s East Coast pressing and etching  O.O. is a new one for me. O.O. mean anything to anyone? Some years ago, when I was required at work to comment on a lengthy section of draft text, it was customary to make brief observations in the margins. When something struck one as particularly tendentious (look it up, if you must) the conventional marginal comment was  ” oo “. I’ll leave you to figure that for yourself. I don’t think that applies here. There is no ear here, or any other part of human anatomy.

Collector’s Corner

Unlucky Zodiac Signs of 2018

Not that I am superstitious touch wood but after reading all the bad luck signs associated with this Strata East album, I checked my own zodiac sign for good and bad luck in 2018. Bummer.

“For zodiac signs, Taurus, Sagittarius, Aries and Virgo, the coming year isn’t bringing a good sign. This year may see you have heartbreaks, losing out on opportunities and suffering through medical ailments. But, the ray of hope in all this is that none of these things remain permanent.

Phew, that’s a relief then, just temporary bad luck.

 It was my good luck to spot this rare Strata East album in a London store. It was the sellers even better luck that someone came into the store that day who appreciated it and was willing to pay the not-inconsiderable going rate.

Brighter side, much.

26 thoughts on “Cecil Payne: Zodiac (1968) Strata East ’73

  1. I have to agree that Pure Pleasure didn’t do a great job with (some of) the reissues of Strata-East records. In December last year I bought the reissue of Billy Parker’s Fourth World – Freedom Of Speech. I was very happy PP reissued it as it was one of the few Strata’s I never found in original pressing. As Graham pointed out: the cover looked great, vinyl very quiet, nice and flat. But there was something with the sound… not loud, crisp and clear like all other (or) Strata-East records I own, but a bit muffled, while the high(er) frequency tones (e.g. hi-hats) have this sort of “sizzling” sound which I remember from, for instance, Blue Note CD’s (re)mastered by McMaster. So probably not a needle drop in this case but manufactured from a digital source.
    Then, by coincidence, I bought an original pressing of the very same record on Discogs last February. Exactly what I thought: the original pressing sounded just “right”: loud, crisp & clear sound, comparable with (many of) the other original SE’s. Unfortunately I had to return the record as it was severely overgraded, and the seller, who sold the record in consignment, would not give me a partly refund.
    With regard to the existence of master tapes of Stata-East records: I always understood that, although the label was owned by Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver, that the actual recordings were owned by the artists who made the recordings. So the master tapes will probably be very hard to trace. What interests me though which source was used for the (various) Japanese reissues of Strata-East titles on vinyl. I only have one, the Charles Sullivan record, and to my ears it sounds very good.

    • Thanks for the input. I had a conversation recently with London DJ Jean-Claude about Pure Pleasure/ Strata East reissues, and he mentioned several titles were needle-drops, he knew, because he had provided them with the source original vinyl, from his own collection.

      I have a review coming up of a vintage Japanese reissue of Strata East Billy Harper’s Capra Black (SES 1973) on Denon (Nippon Columbia, Japan, 1978). This is pre-digital era, and the transfer sounds pretty good. The originals are exasperatingly rare, so a vintage Japan transfer seemed a good option, indeed, the only option.

  2. It was Billy Harper’s Capra Black lp on Strata-East that initiated my interest in jazz-hybrids (the more hyphens in the description, the better). Don Cherry’s European recordings, the Spiritual Jazz compilation on the Jazzman label. etc. A wide and deep well to be sure, but thanks to recent re-issues, and YouTube, one can sample and identify those pricey pieces to go after. Quick tip if interested: Almost every artist on the Black Jazz label was re-issued on the parent label Ovation in 1976 with great sound, at about a quarter the price (2-3 lps compiled onto one with alternate covers).

  3. O.O. = engineer Orville O’Brien, O’Be, who recorded quite a number of late ’60s/early ’70s jazz records.

  4. Careful with the Pure Pleasure Strata East reissues. I have just bought my first – Harold Vick’s Don’t Look Back. Musically a fabulous album, but this latest reissue is a needle drop and to my ears not a very good one. What bugs me most is the sticker on the shrink wrap boasts analogue mastering, which it could well be, but I wasn’t expecting third party surface noise and mistracking. Pity, as the gaps between tracks are silent and the vinyl is nice and flat. Made a great job of the sleeve too.

    (Just for reference I have tried it on three very competent turntables with the same result – Garrards 301/SME/Hanna SL, Garrard 401/SME/V15, LP12/Lingo4/Ekos/Krystal with the same disappointing results).

    • Wow! That’s a huge bummer. I have four other releases from this series and they all sound very good with no pressing problems or other noise whatsoever (played on my AMG Giro with Benz Ruby Z cart). I have the Vick on order too, but might cancel it now. How did you find out it was from a needle drop? I didn’t realize PP or Speakers Corner ever did this. So disappointing.

      • Needle drop evident by listening. Without having an original copy to compare to the editing seems a bit heavy handed with sudden fades at the end of tracks, probably to hide the fact that it is a needle drop. If you do buy a copy I’d like to know your observations. If it isn’t a needle drop, then the tapes are in pretty bad shape, complete wth what sounds like surface noise and mistracking, in other words a fairly poor LP. Don’t get me wrong, the pressing is, ironically, excellent, highlighting the fact that I’m hearing this as a needle drop. I just wish these companies would be more explicit about source material.

    • Hi. Just wanted to leave an update. I ended up buying the Pure Pleasure Harold Vick and had a very similar issue to the one you describe. Parts of the album sounded very bad — like mis-tracking, pressing defects, or some combination. And, like you, the album “looked’ pristine. However, after giving it a good vacuum clean those problems disappeared. It sounds great now. FWIW I used AIVS 15 enzyme cleaner, followed by one rinse with distilled water and a final rinse with Walker Audio Pure Water.

  5. glad you seem to have enjoyed it! It isn’t representative too much of SE, but it is one of many great SE titles. i place pepper at the top, followed by payne, only because i have heard so little of sahib. someday.

  6. For those who don’t know already, some Strata East titles (including this one) are now available as reissues from Pure Pleasure.Obviously, when mainstream collectors start going all in for stuff from labels like Strata East you know the prices are gonna go even further into the stratosphere. So these are a great way to acquire nice-sounding, clean copies for a minimal investment. I don’t have originals for 1-1 comparison to the PP releases . But they don’t sound bad, in an apples to oranges manner, in comparison to the original Strata East lps I do own FWIW.

    • I rarely get a satisfactory answer to the question to modern vinyl reproduction: “what is your source?” As far as I know Pure Pleasure are digital (CD) transfers onto vinyl, happy to be corrected if they had access to “original tapes” but never had a straight answer from them.

      Whether they “sound good” is a comparative judgement – you have to be able to compare PP with the real thing, which requires you to have access to both. The catch is, if you had an original, why would you go and buy a modern reissue simply to compare them?

      Been here a few times and whenever I have been able to compare, the original invariably outshines the modern reissue by a wide margin. I have not found a comparison that finds in favour of the modern reissue (despite partisan comments by Steve Hoffman)

      Since originals are out of the question for many people, the issue is whether the reissue is a “good listen”. Only listeners can answer that. If it sounds good to you, no one can argue with that.

      • Yes, I agree it’s impossible to make a valid comparison without the exact same titles. In general, I also prefer original pressings. However, I’ve found quite a few recent reissues, jazz and other genres, that are quite good. Some that even better the originals, to these ears The gear one uses also really makes a difference, in my opinion.

        • These things can be surprising. Case in point, Sun Ra. I gathered up those Impulse mid-1970s “reissues” only to find them very disappointing, compared to the modern reissues of his later 50s material. I wonder what original Saturn pressings sound like, the collector premium is a bit too rich for me.

          • Funny you mention Ra. I just purchased a Saturn pressing of one of his late 70’s albums, My Favorite Things/Some Blues But..Blue.” It’s the only Saturn pressing I own. I too would love to know how his earlier stuff sounds on the original pressings.

      • When they license they ask for hi-res files from the licensee. They are doing some Flying Dutchman and these will be from 24/96 transfer.
        However the lack of licensing information on their releases, means that you can’t tell from individual titles what they have been presented with.
        The Stanley Cowell Rejuvenation I had was one of the worse sounding reissues I’ve had, but maybe the original was like that.
        So who knows on the SE reissues what the masters are?

        • Thanks for informed input, appreciated, Dean.

          I reckon tapes like those from Blue Note and Prestige recording sessions have had careful stewardship over the decades – preserved in vaults by big companies, and we know through Michael Cuscuna, Ron Rambach and Kevin Grey they still exist (mostly) and are a usable resource today. The likelihood of Strata East tape recordings ( and lots of other small labels) being preserved over the last 40 – 50 years seem at odds with commercial reality, given the industry belief that the future was “digital”.

          I’ve grown used to listening to original vinyl pressings for so many years now, when something of “modern” manufacture is mounted on the turntable, it gives itself away.

          I do a lot of A:B-ing with buddies and there is no hiding place. Yesterday I was listening to the Stan Tracy Jazz Suite “Bible Black” track with a friend, comparing Gilles Peterson 2004 reissue with the EMI Lansdowne original. Gilles take was quite impressive, until you put on the original, which is riveting, and chilling by comparison. I have no idea why technically, but the experience is incontrovertible.

          I would encourage everyone to take time out to compare these things. It’s educational, and good fun, too.


          • The truth of the matter is that it is very hard to get original master tapes out of labels now, and that there are so many variables that I’m pretty certain that almost nobody can hear the difference between high res digital cuts and AAA cuts (it’s why people always have to ask).
            For instance in the case of Bible Black, the difference could be everything from the degradation in a 40 year old tape to the quality of each mastering.
            I’m convinced that what people object to in a lot of modern mastering is the quality of the mastering, not the quality of the source.
            When I was cutting records on new artists in the 90s the mastering sessions were almost always attended, and would take the best part of a day. This is almost never the case with reissues. The economics just don’t work out.

            • Dean, do you think the Stanley Cowell on SE is a needle drop? Thanks for letting us know of its poor quality, another one to be avoided.

            • You can get lucky with tapes from small labels and independent productions, as long as they haven’t been stored poorly they often haven’t been played since the time of original release, (unlike major label titles), and can sound stunning. I’m in agreement with Dean that it’s often mastering that lets things down, a well done 24/96 transfer may sound better than the original quarter inch copy used as the cutting master and whatever some people on hi fi fora claim done properly you won’t be able to tell the difference between analogue and digital and that’s not even starting on digital delay stages. My memory of 1990s mastering sessions is that if you paid good money you could spend all day and get a lesson in mastering, if you did it on the cheap, you literally queued up and they got you in and out as fast as possible, funnily enough these days it’s somewhat similar with getting needledrops cleaned up, there’s a huge difference in the quality that’s offered.

  7. All of the Dolphy series on Strata-East titles are good. There is so much music to discover on the label.

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