Strata East

Strata East was the quintessential US independent 70s jazz label

“Strata-East Records is an American record company and label specializing in jazz founded in 1971 by Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell with the release of their first recording Music Inc. The label released over 50 albums in the 1970s. Many of the label’s releases are now hailed as prime examples of 1970s post-bop, spiritual and afro-jazz”

The origin of the Strata East name is reference to the Detroit, MI. music organisation Strata Records. Dubbed “The Sound of Detroit”, Strata was formed in 1969 by jazz pianist Kenny Cox, who had previously released two albums for Blue Note under Liberty. Strata established its own recording studios and a Concert Gallery and an  ultimately short-lived record label, with less than a dozen titles in its catalogue by its demise in 1975.

Cowell and Tolliver were inspired by the Strata artists collective and independent label concept to establish a similarly independent “artist-controlled” label in New York, hence the name “Strata-East“.  The Strata-East logo, by designer Ted Plair, drew parallels with Strata, but the cover art developed further elements of graphical design, Africa-leaning, spiritual-mystic, retro-futurist imagery of ancient Egypt, and sometimes studio portraits of the artists. 

An important difference in practice compared with other labels was artist control. The artist-producers funded their own studio recording, brought in a finished tape ready for manufacture,  and paid for the initial cost of fabrication. Strata East Inc.’s contribution was branding, promotion, manufacture and distribution, with a significantly higher financial return on sales promised to the artists compared to other labels.

The musical spread of the catalogue reflects the eclectic range of its artists. Massively big band through to solo piano outings, R&B, soulful funk, experimental jazz, multi-piano choirs, spiritual jazz, hard bop, hard groove, some fiery and free.

Probably the nearest thing to a record hit for Strata East was Gill Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s Winter In America, and its dance-floor friendly much remixed and extended, The Bottle. The album debuted at number six in Billboard ‘ s 1974 Top Jazz Albums chart and ultimately sold over 300,000 copies in the US. In line with their artist-centric philosophy, the proceeds of that success I guess went to Scott-Heron and Jackson, not Strata East.

Strata East Label Variations

Test Pressing (1973)Cecil Payne Zodiac, SES 19734 – pressed March 9, 1973. Very rare

2. White label

Initially no R reg trademark on logo, no year of © copyright; zip code N.Y.C.10014; Registration mark added to white label logo on later titles.

3. Black and white label

R mark, © year of copyright, ST331/3 symbol, zip code N.Y.C 10010

The label’s busiest year was 1974, during which around two dozen new titles were released.

4. One-off quirky label for SES 1974-2 Mtume: Alkebu-Lan

(“ALKEBU-LAN is an ancient name for the African continent, representing the African land, people and culture – the basis of its historical greatness”.)

5. Light blue label (1980)

 Final handful of releases in 1980, light blue label with two centre crossbars, zipcode 10019

Re-pressing

Successful titles were repressed periodically, in some cases this snagged the 1973 label change. Example, the first title Music Inc (1971). The white label is first, lacks the R registered trademark seen at 2 o’clock on the logo on the black and white design, and the © year is absent.   The “iconic” black and white design is the second, repressed in 1974.

SES 1971 Music Inc. 

Strata East Label Addresses

During the 1970’s, Strata East operated out of three addresses over the years, NY zip code cognoscenti: seemingly going up in the world? NY-natives comment please. it’s not my manor.

10014: Meatpacking District|Downtown|Manhattan (1971-3)
10010: Stuyvesant Park|Manhattan (1974-8)
10019: Upper West Side|West Side|Uptown|Manhattan (1980)

Engineering

With artist/producers organising their own recording, variety of jobbing engineers and studios working around New York are credited on Strata East recordings (though none at Englewood Cliffs). It was not unusual for a title to be recorded at one studio, remixed at another, and the lacquer cut at a third.

Minot Sound, White Plains NYC run by George Carran appears quite frequently, and Town Sound, Englewood. Other engineers include Orville O’Brien Les Paul Jr. and George Klabin (Sound Ideas Studio); with mastering/lacquer cutting at Generation Sound Studios by Dave Crawford.

They generally sound pretty good, despite the warning flag “too many cooks”.

Vinyl:

Typically, around 150gm bare vinyl weight, easily enough to provide a good fill and avoid underweight vinyl issues. Clean pressings, no sign of added recycled vinyl on any of my copies.  Solid performers if well cared for by previous owners. 

More than can be said for the covers, prone to show ring-wear through solid dark colors. (left and right below, double LP gatefold wear front and back) Unlaminated paper has not aged well.

 Artwork/Design can be remarkable on some titles, though not consistently. Scarcity means remaindered copies with cut corners appear more often than you would wish, likewise, an abundance of sellotaped edges. Top auction prices go to sealed copies in shrink which have protected the fragile artwork from the ravages of time.

Runout Etchings

Strata East runout groove area is remarkably short of information as regards pressing plant or mastering engineer, usually a simply a hand-etched catalogue number, side and mix number.

Catalogue Number Format

The catalogue number format consists basically of the year of issue and a sequential count of titles issued that year, for example: SES 19749, Irvine Weldon, the nineth title issued in 1974. The number format looks promising, but …

in some years, the year format drops the first two numbers, YYYY becomes YY, for example, 7417, 17th title issued in 1974. In some years the issue number is two digits, in others just one (no leading zero) so the numbers are of different length after 9. Double LPs span two sequence numbers with a slash “19737/8” The 1st title in year is (+blank). Some titles insert a hyphen separator between year and issue number, others do not. 

These inconsistencies mean you cannot use the assigned catalogue number to sort Strata East titles in numerical or chronological order by computer, without resorting to major reformatting manipulation. Learn to code, guys!

SES Complete Label Series (57 titles)

The SES Series commenced in 1971 with a white label, superseded during 1973 by the familiar black and white label, but with some anomalies. Re-pressings after 1973 are with the black and white label, so some of the early releases are found with both designs, evidence suggests the white is the earliest (e.g., absence of trademark registration) 

A total of 57 titles are shown. There are occasional gaps in sequence, where a catalogue number was allocated but the title was not issued. – these gaps are not shown. The labels are randomly either Side A or B, according to availability and best photo quality online.  (Click sets to view full screen)

Strata East SES Catalog Listing Reference

Number   Artist   Title  (highlighted links to LJC reviews)

SES 1971 Charles Tolliver Music Inc.
SES 1972 Charles Tolliver Live at Slugs’ Volume I
SES 1972-0 Charles Tolliver Live at Slugs’ Volume II
SES 1972-1 Clifford Jordan In the World
SES 1972-2 Jazz Contemporaries Reasons in Tonality
SES 1972-3 Composer’s Workshop Ensemble 
SES 1972-4 Mtume Umoja Ensemble Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks
SES 19730 The Piano Choir Handscapes
SES 19731 Brother Ah Sound Awareness
SES 19732 M’Boom Re: Percussion
SES 19733 Pharoah Sanders Izipho Zam (My Gifts)
SES 19734 Cecil Payne Zodiac
SES 19735 Juju A Message from Mozambique
SES 19736 Charles Brackeen Rhythm X
SES 19737/8 Clifford Jordan Glass Bead Games
SES 19739 Billy Harper Capra Black
SES-19740/1 Charles Tolliver Live at the Loosdrecht Jazz Festival
SES 19742 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson Winter in America
SES 19743 Stanley Cowell Musa: Ancestral Streams
SES 19744 The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe A Spirit Speaks
SES 19745 Charles Tolliver Live in Tokyo
SES-19746 Charlie Rouse Two Is One
SES 19747 Dick Griffin The Eighth Wonder
SES 19748 The John Betsch Society Earth Blossom
SES 19749 Weldon Irvine In Harmony
SES 7410 The Cosmic Twins The Waterbearers
SES 7411 Muriel Winston A Fresh Viewpoint
SES 7412 Shamek Farrah First Impressions
SES 7413 Charles Sullivan Genesis
SES 7416 Keno Duke/Contemporaries Sense of Values
SES 7417 Cecil McBee Mutima
SES 7418 The Ensemble Al-Salaam The Sojourner
SES 7420 Juju Chapter Two: Nia
SES 7421 Jayne Cortez Celebrations and Solitudes
SES 7422 Composer’s Workshop Ensemble We’ve Been Around
SES 7423 Sonny Fortune Long Before Our Mothers Cried
SES 7425 Charles Davis Ingia!
SES 7430 Shirley Scott One for Me
SES 7431 Harold Vick Don’t Look Back
SES 19750 The Piano Choir Handscapes 2
SES 19752 The Brass Company Colors
SES 19754 Billy Parker’s Fourth World Freedom of Speech
SES 19757 Charles Tolliver Impact
SES 19758 Milton Marsh Monism
SES 19759 Larry Ridley Sum of the Parts
SES 19760 John Gordon Step By Step
SES 19761 George Russell Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature
SES 19765 Stanley Cowell Regeneration
SES 19766 The Heath Brothers Marchin’ On
SES 7610 The Warm Voice of Billy C Where Have You Been, Billy Boy?
SES 19771 Shamek Farrah and Sonelius Smith The World of the Children
SES 19772 Johnson and Jones The Liberation of the Contemporary Jazz Guitar
SES 19780 John Gordon Erotica Suite
SES 8001 Charles Tolliver Compassion
SES 8002 John Hicks Hells Bells
SES 8003 The New York Bass Violin Choir The New York Bass Violin Choir

Promotional Stamps

One or other of a cover stamp, label stamp, and some printed white label for radio station promos. 

45rpm Singles/ Juke Box/ Promos

International Distribution 1970s

Parallel to the original US release, many Strata East titles were released “simultaneously” – in the same or following year, – in Japan by Trio Records and in the UK by Polydor Records (some inexplicably with alternative cover)

SES 1971 Music Inc. early 70s overseas issuesClifford Jordan: In The World: – early 70s overseas issues

Industry standard practice at this time was local remastering from copy tape, with the inevitable loss of fidelity compared with the original US issue. Trio nevertheless has a good reputation in audio quality, Polydor less so, and as for Polydor “artwork” …

Auction Prices – The Most Valuable Strata East  Originals

The most valuable title by far is SES 19732, M’Boom Re-Percussion, which peaks at just short of $2,000 and occupies a lot of the top auction slots. It is a 33-minute percussion extravaganza, in which the intrusive surface noise clicks and pops of the YouTube uploader’s copy makes interesting counter-rhythm to the percussion ensemble.                                                     

Other titles nestling around the $1,000 mark include the first Shamek Farrah title, First Impressions, and our friends Descendants of Mike and Phoebe (A.Grace Lee Mims, Bill Lee, Billy Higgins, Cliff Lee, Consuela Lee Moorehead, Sonny Brown); A Spirit Speaks, which fields an excellent delivery of the Bill Lee composition John Coltrane found on Clifford Jordan’s essential Glass Bead Games.

SES 1972-4 Alkebu-Lan Live at The East (bottom centre,) has me sold just on the strength of that cover, never mind what the music is like.. “WELDON IRVINE~IN HARMONY~INSANELY RARE SEALED ORIG” Bob Dj clipped just over $900 for Weldon, and a couple of others around $500-$750. Good condition lesser titles settle around the $250 to $350 mark.  Original Strata East is pricey but not out of this world for collectable rare vinyl.

SECD Series – The Evil Silver Disk.

Many Strata East titles released on CD in the 90’s by the independent German label Bellaphon, and Charly Schallplatten GmbH, and many in Japan.

DJ Champions 

Jazz-oriented DJs have found a rich seam of material in the catalogue of both Strata East and Strata, for both spinning and sampling. 2015 saw a live Strata East concert with many of the original artists on stage at London’s Barbican Centre, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Strata East Modern Vinyl Reissues

In recent years many Strata East titles have been reissued under license, by several vinyl reissue specialists, including Pure Pleasure (UK), Everland (NL), Bomba and P-Vine Records (JP) 

Digital files are now the only likely source, with Pure Pleasure pressing by the German giant Pallas, others at Czech giant GZ Media. Though claiming “audiophile remastering”, none claim to be remastered from the original tapes.

Copy tape must have been available to enable Bellaphon and Charly remaster for CD in the early 90s. Copy tapes existed but digital files today can be written easily to vinyl destined for international markets and geared to mass low-cost production, with decent margin for independent distributors. Anything can be callled “audiophile” in the absence of any accepted definition or standard.

The original tapes were owned legally by the artists, and in some reissues claimed to be authorized by the artist’s estate. The actual custody of individual original tapes is unknown, and probably at this stage, a lost cause.

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