Hitting the Blue Notes

With the possible exception of Verve, no record label is associated with jazz more than Blue Note Records. Founded by German immigrant Alfred Lion and writer/financier Max Margulis, Blue Note's beginnings were modest. Lion produced a recording session featuring boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis on January 6, 1939, and pressed a mere 50 copies of each 78. Critical acclaim followed, and Blue Note was in business. By the early '40s, Lion's childhood friend Francis Wolff emigrated to the United States and became a Blue Note partner. Lion produced the sessions, Wolff took stunning pictures and handled the business dealings, and both made artistic decisions. Under the leadership of Lion and Wolff, Blue Note flourished for the next three decades, capturing some of the most potent jazz performances ever heard. After Lion and Wolff left the label in the '60s/early '70s, Blue Note went into a tailspin until visionary Bruce Lundvall brought the label back to life in 1985. Today, Blue Note Records is thriving and is once again one of the most respected jazz labels in history. In celebration of the label's 60th anniversary comes The Blue Note Years, a limited-edition 14-CD boxed set by various artists on the Blue Note label. Divided into seven volumes by style and chronology, it traces most of Blue Note's history, documenting the label's artistic and commercial successes, and casually noting its failures.

Volume I: Boogie, Blues & Bop (1939-1955) kicks off with Albert Ammons's "Boogie Woogie Stomp" from 1939 followed by Meade Lux Lewis's 1944 "Chicago Flyer." Both are good boogie-woogie recordings but are overshadowed by legendary pianist Earl Hines's progressive "Reminiscing at Blue Note," recorded when the upstart label was only six months old. In the early '40s, Blue Note recorded mostly swing, boogie-woogie and blues, but by the mid '40s and early '50s, it slowly changed its focus to bebop, in part because of the influence of saxophonist/A&R man Ike Quebec. By embracing the up-and-coming bebop movement with recordings by Thelonious Monk ('"Round Midnight"), Bud Powell ("Glass Enclosure"), James Moody ("Tin Tin Deo") and Miles Davis ("Tempus Fugit"), Blue Note secured a place in jazz history and positioned itself to become a major force.

Volume II: The Jazz Message (1955-1960) is dedicated to late '50s bebop and the birth of the hard bop movement. The year 1955 marked the beginning of Blue Note's golden era, a period where the label's classic "Blue Note Sound," bebop and blues-oriented hard bop, was enhanced by the production techniques of Rudy Van Gelder. With definitive recordings, no label embraced the hard bop movement more than Blue Note. The label made recordings by Art Blakey ("Moanin'"), Horace Silver ("The Preacher") and Hank Mobley ("Funk in Deep Freeze"). Blue Note also made stellar recordings in this period by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Jackie McLean that walked the line between hard bop and bebop while pushing the envelope in other challenging directions.

Volume III: Organ and Soul (1956-1967) documents another style of music Blue Note was fostering: soul-jazz. The label got Jimmy Smith to cut five albums' worth of material over three days in 1957. Those recordings changed jazz organ, as Smith's infectious bluesy style became the benchmark other organists sought to attain. Smith's popularization of the organ led to many organists' taking the forefront including John Patton, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff (the latter two are inexplicably left off this collection). It also led such guitarists as Kenny Burrell and Grant Green and saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Lou Donaldson to adopt the organ in their groups. Some of the sessions here document fairly straight bebop dates, while others are more soul-based. Also featured on Organ and Soul are the hard bop organless recordings of Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and Donald Byrd.

Volume IV: Hard Bop and Beyond (1963-1967) marks the emergence of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard as the next generation of jazz superstars, but also documents hard bop's continuing impact on acoustic jazz with recordings by Blue Mitchell, Horace Silver and Art Blakey. Though rooted in hard bop, Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," Hubbard's "Hub-Tones" and Shorter's "Footprints" marked departures into newer, more complex territory. Also significant are contributions from Joe Henderson and Dexter Gordon, two important bop saxophonists. Jazz underwent something of a revolution in the mid '60s, but in this context, the evolution of jazz in the '60s sounds quite natural.

Volume V: The Avant Garde (1963-1967) shows Blue Note's reaction to the avant-garde movement with recordings by Larry Young, Andrew Hill, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Blue Note was a late entry into the avant-garde scene. While Coleman recorded the landmark album Free Jazz for Atlantic in 1960 and Coltrane was tearing up the saxophone on his Impulse albums in the early '60s, Alfred Lion generally avoided the dissonant nature of the avant-garde movement. When Blue Note finally started to go avant-garde, it made records that were more structured and disciplined than those of other labels. Blue Note was not a leader of the avant-garde movement but a cautious follower that put out few recordings that were as exploratory as Coltrane's later work. However, the label did give Taylor, Coleman and Don Cherry the freedom to explore new directions that could hardly be called conservative.

Volume VI: The New Era (1975-1998) is notable as the collection completely skips the 1968-1974 period, a troubling flaw in an otherwise brilliant collection. There may be some rationale to this decision, but none of it has artistic merit. Lion and Wolff sold the label to Liberty Records in 1965, with Lion retiring in 1967 and Wolff passing away in 1971. Under corporate ownership, Blue Note began to languish between 1967 and 1974, and the label made some embarrassing recordings to be sure. But it also made significant recordings by Turrentine, Green, McDuff, McGriff, Hancock, Byrd and others. Many of these have been reissued over the past few years as part of Blue Note's Rare Grooves series, which focuses mostly on soul-influenced jazz. The omission of this period diminishes the credibility of the package and is an insult to the artists who recorded for Blue Note during this period.

The fact is, the 1968-1974 period is important because it demonstrates Blue Note's artistic and marketing failures in the fusion era. With a corporate ownership unable to understand the nuances of fusion, Blue Note was left behind. The three recordings sampled here from 1975 and 1976 show the best Blue Note had to offer, with Ronnie Laws's "Always There" standing out as a fantastic funk track. However, the omission of late-'70s material is also hard to comprehend, except for its scarcity.

Few new recordings were made by Blue Note in the late '70s (none of them appear here), and by 1980 Blue Note was no longer producing new recordings, surviving solely as a jazz catalog imprint, a fond memory of jazz's better days. In 1985 Blue Note, now part of EMI-Capitol, was resurrected by Bruce Lundvall. It was the perfect time to relaunch the label, as the rise of Wynton Marsalis and the return of Miles Davis in the early '80s helped create a renewed interest in jazz. He aggressively signed a solid talent roster that included jazz veteran Tony Williams and young lions such as Stanley Jordan and Bobby McFerrin. Since then the label has been home to some of jazz's best talents, including Joe Henderson, Benny Green, Kevin Eubanks, Kurt Elling, Renee Rosnes, Casandra Wilson, Jacky Terrasson, McCoy Tyner and Eliane Elias (most of whom appear on this volume).

Volume VII: Blue Note Now as Then is the concept set: classic Blue Note songs performed by artists of the '90s. Elias does Kenny Dorham, Eubanks does Bobby Hutcherson, Geoff Keezer does Herbie Nichols, etc. Most of it is very nice, but it doesn't belong in this compilation. The 1968-1974 material would have provided a more accurate and thus more relevant historical perspective.

As far as packaging, The Blue Note Years has a 48-page book of photos taken from Blue Note sessions, and the liner notes are good, but they are divided up into each volume and skip over the 1968-1974 period. A longer book, instead of seven small booklets, would have been easier for the reader.

As an overview of Blue Note's history, The Blue Note Years is excellent until 1968, at which point it falls apart until the mid '80s. That's a big gap in history. If you can live with that (and a suggested retail price of over $200, too) there's some phenomenal music in this package, and some tremendous insight into jazz.


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