Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Leon Thomas

  • The Leon Thomas Album [Flying Dutchman, 1970] A
  • Spirits Known and Unknown [Flying Dutchman, 1970] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Leon Thomas Album [Flying Dutchman, 1970]
I've got to admit it: If anything like a Great Artist--a concept I by no means entirely approve--has arisen in popular music since the first great days of rock, Leon Thomas is probably it. He has literally expanded the musical possibilities of the human voice. He is as powerful a jazz/blues singer as Joe Williams or Joe Turner, both of whom he occasionally resembles, as inventive a scatter as Ella Fitzgerald. But that's just the beginning, for despite the generation lag, Thomas beats Turner and Williams in their mode even while singing his own, and he turns scatting from a virtuoso trick into an atavistic call from the unconscious. So even though I think Oliver Nelson's arrangements here don't suit the material; even though I'm slightly embarrassed by the inflation of a Thomas composition like "I Am"; even though I'm not sure all of Thomas's explorations in black consciousness are apropos; despite all this, I have to suspend my disbelief and recommend this record unreservedly to anyone with the slightest fondness for jazz. A

Spirits Known and Unknown [Flying Dutchman, 1970]
The subtitle, "New Vocal Frontiers," is accurate. Thomas is the only really interesting jazz singer to have appeared in a very long time. He even yodels. B+

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1970s]: In the early '70s, the only time the former Pharoah Sanders vocalist has had a solo recording career, I thought his yodeling vocal expansions turned scatting "into an atavistic call from the unconscious." But without rejecting his yodel I came to prefer his shout--his collaboration with Oliver Nelson on "Disillusion Blues" over the one with Sanders on "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Meanwhile, my reservations about his muddle-headedness became firmer. Only Legend and The Leon Thomas Album remain on my first-run shelves, though I wouldn't advise against any of the others.