Those familiar with Theo Parrish likely know that the Detroit producer cultivates the cosmo-spiritual in everything he does, from his original productions to every cut he plays in his DJ sets. How appropriate it is, then, that he was asked to put together a mix of his favorite tracks from a most spiritual record label: Black Jazz, which operated for six years out of Oakland, California in the early '70s. During its run, the imprint focused primarily on what it described as "African spiritual jazz," often with a fusion or funk bent to it, the label's sounds reflecting the culture of the then-recent civil rights movement.
No stranger to jazz, funk, or fusion, Parrish came back with Black Jazz Signature, his entry in a series of Black Jazz mixes issued by Japanese label Snow Dog, which has been reissuing the Black Jazz's actual back catalog as well. Previous contributors to this mix series include Japanese DJs Muro and Mitsu the Beats, as well as the BBC's Gilles Peterson. Between 1971 and 1976, Black Jazz released 20 LPs, and Parrish dug through and employed the actual vinyl to produce this 77-minute mix. The quality of the music on this collection was almost inevitably going to be strong, considering the label's very consistent (and rather limited) output. This does not, in any way, diminish the savviness and coherence of Parrish's selections, which sit together with disarming neatness. Black Jazz Signature is pieced together such that, even though six different artists feature here, the mix has the feeling of a continuous, subtly shifting jam that continually stirs and stimulates, much like Parrish's sets behind the decks.
Of the compilation's 12 tracks, four are by The Awakening, a group whose tracks are some of the most rousing, unhinged, and "free" feeling of the set. The outfit hailed from Chicago, where Parrish grew up, which perhaps partly explains the affinity he apparently feels towards them. Three consecutive Awakening tracks form the center of this mix, peaking early with the crazed saxophone and drum patterns of "March On." The clean lead guitar playing on Calvin Keys' "Criss Cross," an excellent cut of jazz-rock fusion, is underscored by keyboards and a rhythm section that produce a syrupy, potent groove. Parrish's two selections by Rudolph Johnson, even though he's one of the more traditional-feeling artists here, are particularly strong, with quietly intoned vocals riding the rhythms of the piano, bass, sax, and drum ensemble in a deeply affecting way.
Prior familiarity with Black Jazz, or the more broad realm of jazz from this era, isn't at all necessary for enjoyment of this disc. Along with the previous mix releases in this series, Black Jazz Signature seems intended to shepherd people toward the Black Jazz reissue series. It no doubt does a terrific job doing just that, but it stands nicely by itself as a personal "best of" and a great DJ mix. Fans of Parrish—and anyone receptive to this sort of jazz, really—will very likely appreciate what's on offer here.