Leader Blues

Saturday, September 26, 2009

TOP STORY >> Blue Note: World’s best jazz label marks 70 years

Leader executive editor

Blue Note Records sent its all-stars to Memphis early this year to kick off the jazz label’s 70th anniversary. But it was snowing, and many jazz fans, including this reviewer, stayed home that evening, afraid of treacherous road conditions — although there was probably no more than an inch of snow that day.

But for those who missed the concert, the label has issued “Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records” with the Blue Note 7.

These all-stars would have made the older generation of Blue Note artists proud: Carrying on the tradition of solid jazz are Ravi Coltrane (John Coltrane’s son) on saxophone, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Steve Wilson on alto sax and flute, Bill Charlap on piano, Peter Bernstein on guitar, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums.

They play the compositions of such Blue Note stalwarts as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson, Duke Pearson and Cedar Walton.

Even if you’re not a jazz fan and have never heard of Blue Note, you’ve probably heard the hard-bop trumpet player Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” on a Chrysler commercial. Morgan was one of Blue Note’s top-sellers until an ex-girlfriend shot him in a New York saloon, where he was performing in 1972.

Going on eight decades, Blue Note has recorded more first-rate jazz artists than other label. Just about every major musician has recorded for Blue Note — from Cannonball Adderley to Tony Williams, from Art Blakey to Larry Young, from John Coltrane to Bud Powell, from Miles Davis to Sam Rivers, from Eric Dolphy to Wayne Shorter, from Andrew Hill to Gonzalo Rubalcaba, from Freddy Hubbard to Jimmy Smith, from Clifford Brown to Dexter Gordon, from Donald Byrd to Blue Mitchell, from Kenny Burrell to Grant Green, from Lou Donaldson to Sonny Rollins, from Kenny Dorham to J.J. Johnson, from Elmo Hope to Jackie McLean, from Hank Mobley to Stanley Turrentine, from Tina Brooks to Jason Moran, from Ron Carter to Chucho Valdes, from Johnny Griffin to Charles Tolliver, and many more.

Blue Note Records, founded by two refugees from Nazi Germany, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with several important new releases and more reissues from its priceless back catalogue.

Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf, who were jazz fans while they were growing up in Berlin, moved to New York before the Second World War and heard the music they loved all over town.

Lion attended the famous “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and rented a studio a few weeks later to record two of the musicians who played at the concert — the boogie woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis from Chicago.

Lion recorded several numbers to give to his friends, but it seemed everyone wanted a copy, so he started Blue Note and took on Wolf as a partner.

Those first recordings, made on Jan. 6, 1939 and issued originally as 78s, are available on a CD called “The First Day.” It’s a great record —it gets a top rating in “The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD” — with Ammons and Lewis taking turns doing their own solos and performing together on two numbers.

Lion soon recorded Sidney Bechet, the soprano saxophone pioneer from New Orleans. His fledgling company was getting noticed. Lion went into the military during the Second World War, but in those years he must have heard music that went beyond boogie woogie and New Orleans jazz: Bebop was developing in New York and waiting to be recorded after the war.

Lion and Wolf recorded Monk and Powell and issued the records with distinctive covers that were inspired by the sleek, Bauhaus school of design in their native Germany.

The music became more sophisticated, which meant more rehearsal time before going into the studio. Blue Note paid their musicians for the extra effort that went into those records. No wonder the musicians revered them.

There was hard bop and free jazz and organ trios, and then the label ran out of steam: Lion was not well and sold the company to Liberty Records for a lot less than it was worth. Wolf tried to keep Blue Note going for a while, but fusion and rock were killing the music.

Although Blue Note was dormant for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, it found its second wind with a new team of executives, including Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cuscuna.

The label roared back with Joe Henderson’s “The State of the Tenor,” a double CD recorded at New York City’s Village Vanguard in 1985. McCoy Tyner returned with a stunning solo album called “Revelations.” Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer on the classic Blue Notes, remastered dozens of old records.

Previously unissued music was released for the first time on CD: The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane “Live at Carnegie Hall,” Horace Silver “Live at Newport 1958,” Jackie McLean’s “Demon’s Dance,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Without a Song: Live in Europe 1969” and much more.

Joe Lovano, the multi-reed instrumentalist, has released at least one CD every year for 20 years. His latest, “Folk Art,” stretches the limits of jazz. It’s as good as anything Blue Note recorded in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps better sounding because of superior recording technology.

New stars like Greg Osby, Stefon Harris and Gonzalo Rubalcaba have signed with the label, which keeps moving in new directions: Along with his piano playing, Robert Glasper’s “Double Booked” mixes modern jazz with hip hop.

To survive, the label does much more than jazz: It has signed Arkansas’ own Al Green, who has released a couple of fine Blue Notes: “I Can’t Stop” and “Lay It Down.

The label has just released Willie Nelson’s CD of standards called “American Classic.” A Norah Jones CD is scheduled for release in November.

But jazz is still the label’s claim to fame. No one has done more for jazz.

If you’re interested in buying Blue Note records, here are some recommendations from label chief Bruce Lundvall:

Thelonious Monk’s “Complete Blue Note Recordings.” “A Night at Bird Land” with Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson and Curly Russell. Dexter Gordon’s “Go!” Coltrane’s “Blue Trane.” Powell’s “The Genius of Bud Powell.” Herbie Nichols’ “Complete Blue Note Recordings.”

I’d start with those recommendations, and then you have about 500 more to go. Enjoy the music.