A Sense Of Purpose: Larry Young - "Unity"

Larry Young • Unity • 1966 • Blue Note Records
Recorded November 10, 1965 at Van Gelder Studio

The Tracks:

A1. Zoltan
A2. Monk's Dream
A3. If
B1. The Moontrane
B2. Softly As A Morning Sunrise
B3. Beyond All Limits

The Players:

Larry Young - Organ
Joe Henderson - Tenor Sax
Woody Shaw - Trumpet
Elvin Jones - Drums

The Vinyl:

A first stereo pressing on the "NEW YORK USA" label procured while visiting New Orleans earlier this year.  Finding LPs of this caliber at local brick-and-mortar record shops is becoming more and more rare as most vintage gems make their way instantly to the internet. Released in 1966 in mono and stereo; repressed only once in 1967 on the "A DIVISION OF LIBERTY RECORDS, INC." label, it wasn't reissued again until 1981 in Japan and not until 1986 in the USA on a Direct Metal Mastering vinyl pressing. 

I snagged this VG+/VG+ copy for only $50, a ridiculously low price for a record this rare that regularly goes for at least $100 in this condition online. Yes, I pinched myself numerous times, and triple-checked that what I had was actually what it seemed before I pulled the trigger, but at the end of the day I now owned a vintage copy of one of my all-time favorite late-period Blue Note albums. 

The Selections:

The Music:

Unity is a wild post-bop ride, with Larry Young clearly showing he was in favor of the adventurous direction that John Coltrane and others were taking jazz by the mid-1960s. The lyrical soulfulness of the hard bop that dominated jazz music over the previous decade is still present, but the group is clearly interested in stretching out their musical chops. Larry Young had already tipped his hand the previous year with his Blue Note debut Into Somethin' by enlisting the restlessly creative tenor saxophone Sam Rivers into the fold, proving that he was no longer interested in simply being another Jimmy Smith clone. The group Young assembled for Unity is no less bold, with Joe Henderson taking up his usual role as a creative sideman no matter the session and a twenty-one year old Woody Shaw making his very first appearance on a Blue Note album. Rounding off the quartet was the top-of-the-heap post-bop drummer extraordinaire Elvin Jones, who always seems to lend an air of authenticity to outings like this one. 

The two strongest tracks on Unity are penned by the horn players: "If" by Henderson, and Shaw's soon to be classic number "The Moontrane." Both tunes let the group really show off a collective spirit that - like the best of jazz music - still shines with individuality and originality. For many listeners, the highlight of the album will be the presence of Shaw, whose stature in the jazz world has grown immensely over the past couple of decades (Young & Shaw knew each other from growing up and playing together in Newark, NJ). But, be sure to take some time to savor Young's take on what the organ can do in jazz, how he is fully present yet never overpowers his bandmates, managing to make the record his own without drowning out the best they have to offer. I often feel that Young's musical prowess on the organ is best compared to what McCoy Tyner could do on the piano: both men possessing that innate ability to both drive the melody forward and to lay back in the cut.

Larry Young would continue to expand his musical vision over three more albums on Blue Note, before he went out on his own and made what many consider to be his crowning achievement in the cult classic Lawrence of Newark, an album that an old roommate of mine swore was one of the great jazz records of all time (you can be the judge here). Whatever your stance on the more avant garde direction that Young's music took after Unity, it is safe to say that all jazz fans will find something to like on his Blue Note debut, and for some it will open their ears to exploring even more of where a good deal of jazz music headed off to in the second-half of the 1960s.

The Videos:

Unfortunately I could not find any live clips of Larry Young performing during the 1960s, but I did happen across this amazing forty-one minute video of a 1987 performance in Kongsberg, Norway featuring Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson and Billy Hart joined by Bjorn Alterhaug on bass and Dag Arnesen on piano. The whole group is absolutely in the cut, and the performance is a true joy to behold.