Henry Butler, the New Orleans jazz pianist, released his debut album, “Fivin’ Around,” in 1986. And along with ratifying a major talent — a smartly rampaging virtuoso whose engagement in New York soon afterward drew a smattering of notable pianists — it signaled the reactivation of Impulse Records, the storied former home of the saxophonist John Coltrane, which had then been dormant for nearly a decade. “We had a nice little hand in reviving the label at that time,” Mr. Butler recalled this week.
History may be about to repeat itself, in a fashion. Impulse has, in effect, been quiet since the late 1990s. But on July 15 it will release “Viper’s Drag,” a new album by Mr. Butler and the trumpeter Steven Bernstein. The first in a series of scheduled new releases, it represents another hopeful reboot for the label.
This new iteration of Impulse, to be announced on Wednesday, is being run by the veteran executive Jean-Philippe Allard, as a division of Universal Music France. It has a strict jazz focus, with other releases including a 1990 concert recording by the bassist Charlie Haden and the guitarist Jim Hall; a joint effort by the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, the bassist Stanley Clarke and the guitarist Biréli Lagrène; and new albums by an impressive and diverse heap of pianists: Kenny Barron, Ran Blake, Sullivan Fortner, Rodney Kendrick, Jacky Terrasson and Randy Weston.
Provisionally speaking, Impulse’s reactivation reflects a larger turnaround for major-label jazz divisions, most of which had struggled or been shuttered within the past decade or so. OKeh Records, another historically significant jazz label, was revived last year under the umbrella of Sony Masterworks, and has released albums by artists both emerging and established. Blue Note Records, which endured a few shaky seasons under EMI, is on stronger footing as it celebrates its 75th anniversary — and is now a property of the Universal Music Group, as is Verve. If you also factor in Nonesuch, ECM and Concord Jazz, which operate as independents with major backing, you get a picture more robust than anyone would have dared to imagine just a few years ago.
Impulse began its life as a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount, founded by the producer Creed Taylor, who had a feel for bringing modern jazz into the pop mainstream: Among the label’s first four albums, in 1961, was the Ray Charles classic “Genius + Soul = Jazz.” Coltrane made his Impulse debut later that year, beginning an intensely productive association — with the label and with Mr. Taylor’s successor, Bob Thiele. Coltrane’s integrity and questing spirituality would come to define the image of Impulse, though the label was hardly restricted to music in his style.
In his 2006 book, “The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records,” the journalist and music historian Ashley Kahn outlines the label’s trajectory through the 1960s and ’70s, including its sale to the more pop-oriented MCA Records “for what was then a fire-sale price: $30 million.” The last batch of albums on the label, before Mr. Butler and “Fivin’ Around,” was released in 1977.
Shifting corporate structures dictated the label’s fortunes then and since. In 1990 MCA bought the jazz label GRP, which took over management of Impulse, eventually building a small but serious roster that included the pianists McCoy Tyner, Danilo Pérez and Eric Reed, as well as Diana Krall. By the late ’90s, MCA had been renamed the Universal Music Group, acquiring PolyGram, which owned Verve; all of that new conglomerate’s jazz holdings, including Impulse, were organized under the Verve Music Group. By the 2000s, most of the Impulse roster had been reassigned to Verve, leaving Impulse to function as a reissue label. (One special exception was “Translinear Light,” a landmark final recording by the keyboardist and harpist Alice Coltrane, John’s widow, released in 2004.)
The current Impulse revival can be traced to another tectonic industry shake-up: the 2012 purchase of EMI Music by the Universal Music Group, for $1.9 billion. “We already had the Verve label, and through the acquisition of EMI we were gaining Blue Note,” said Max Hole, the chairman of Universal Music Group International, speaking from London. “So we became, overnight, the keeper of some of the world’s absolute greatest jazz recordings. I felt we weren’t very organized in the way we looked at jazz, globally.”
It was Mr. Allard’s suggestion that led to a resurrection of Impulse, which gives Universal three of the most recognizable jazz labels. Speaking from Paris, he said the label would project an international perspective, taking advantage of its foothold outside the United States. (He has a North American artists and repertoire manager in Brian Bacchus, another industry veteran.)
To some extent this mirrors the situation for OKeh, which also has a European head office, and a pointed slogan: “Global expressions in jazz.” Both examples suggest a buy-in to the commercial conviction articulated by Mr. Hole: “There’s still a very healthy jazz market in certain countries in the world.”
Asked to define his mission for the revived Impulse label, Mr. Allard said, simply: “I want to make it successful. For me it’s very important that jazz is not a failure. Without compromising the music, I want commercial success.” It would be misleading, in other words, to say that the label is bravely taking up the mantle of post-Coltrane avant-gardism. Mr. Allard instead cited the soul-jazz singer Gregory Porter, whose win at the Grammys this year has fueled strong sales.
But the example of Mr. Porter also illustrates some of the potential complications in Impulse’s current position. Though he was signed to Universal, and probably would have been an Impulse artist, the timing led to his landing at Blue Note. Under the new structure, Impulse’s albums will be distributed in the United States by Blue Note, which in other respects is a competitor. Mr. Hole differentiated the three jazz labels in the Universal fold by way of artistic personality, contrasting Mr. Allard’s straight-ahead jazz sensibility with those of Don Was, the president of Blue Note (which mixes in rock and R&B), and David Foster, the chairman of Verve (which leans toward satiny orchestral pop).
Mr. Butler — who will play music from “Viper’s Drag” with Mr. Bernstein and the Hot 9 at the Zinc Bar on Wednesday — struck a note of cautious optimism that seems, for the moment, well advised. “This is my second go-round on the label,” he said slowly, “and you never know what a label is going to do until the record gets out there and they actually start doing something.”