The music was cool, sophisticated and unavoidably hip. You could tell just by looking at the cover art of any Blue Note album.
The titles signified the spirit: “The Cooker,” “Soul Station,” “The All Seeing Eye,” “Moanin’” and “Blue Train.”
Then there were the names, the groundbreaking instrumentalists who recorded those titles: Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey and John Coltrane.
Finally, there was the groove that made up the Blue Note sound. It was jazz rooted in bebop but still open and welcoming to its most distinctive ingredient: the blues.
This year, the blues, swing and profound jazz of Blue Note Records turns 70 years old. To celebrate, the music of the label’s past is being honored by a team of contemporary jazz’s most respected names. Under the banner of The Blue Note 7, they are bringing the label’s living musical legacy to audiences across the country - audiences that, in some instances, might experience their first serious performance exposure to Blue Note music.
“You don’t need a slide rule to understand the music that we’re playing,” said Blue Note 7 pianist and musical director Bill Charlap, who also records for Blue Note Records. “The music feels good to listen to and feels good to play. The audiences, even if they’re not necessarily jazz audiences, respond very strongly to the chemistry within the band and the feeling of the music.”
But treating the music of Blue Note Records as a museum piece isn’t the goal of the band - Charlap, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Steve Wilson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash.
The music that makes up The Blue Note 7’s new “Mosaic” album consists entirely of material recorded for the label in decades past (its title tune, for instance, is a Cedar Walton composition cut by Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1961). But the arrangements are new - nearly all of them were by members of the 7.
“We want to approach the music with respect for the essence and feelings of these compositions,” Charlap said. “But we want to do so within our own trajectory and our own vision of the music.
“This is not a repertory band. We’re playing this music as we play any music in 2009. That’s the whole point. More than anything else, jazz is about being yourself.”
Blue Note Records was started in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jewish immigrants who fled to New York to escape Nazi Germany.
Wynton Marsalis, another present-day Blue Note artist, put it this way during a performance last fall with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Singletary, a performance that relied heavily on the label’s vintage material: “Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff celebrated their freedom by producing the music of freedom.”
A 1939 Sidney Bechet performance of “Summertime” was among Blue Note’s initial recordings. Early works by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Ike Quebec helped carry Blue Note into the early ‘50s, but it was the advent of so-called “hard bop,” coupled with the introduction of 12-inch vinyl albums, that ushered in the label’s golden era.
From 1956 until Lion’s retirement in 1967 and, finally, Wolff’s death in 1971, Blue Note created blues-savvy music that reshaped jazz - be it with Blakey’s boppish Jazz Messengers, the sleek cool of trumpeter Morgan and pianist Sonny Clark, or the more compositionally daring and improvisationally free music of Andrew Hill and Ornette Coleman.
With the help of engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded many of the label’s artists in his living-room studio, and graphic artist Reid Miles, Blue Note albums looked as good as they sounded. Wolff, a commercial photographer while in Germany, even chronicled recording sessions with vivid black-and-white portraits that became visual signatures of Blue Note albums.
“What you hear and feel in those early records is a real performance,” said Grammy-winning saxophonist and longtime Blue Note artist Joe Lovano before joining Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a string of Blue Note tribute concerts last month in New York. “Each record had its own life, force and spirit.”
Although it dissolved in the late ‘70s, Blue Note was revived in 1984, with former CBS and Elektra Records chieftain Bruce Lundvall in charge. It has extensively reissued much of its back catalogue (to the point that some of it is going out of print again) while taking on a broader roster of pop and soul talent. Among its biggest-selling artists in recent years are Norah Jones and Al Green.
But the material that constitutes the current winter-to-spring tour of The Blue Note 7 (and a planned European trek this fall) is the ‘50s and ‘60s music made when jazz giants Morgan, Gordon, Blakey and others roamed and grooved on the planet.
“When we say ‘Blue Note material,’ what we’re really talking about are the artists,” Charlap said. “We’re talking about some of the most important figures in jazz history: Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver and so many others.
“These are heroic figures for anybody who is interested in jazz. They are, most certainly, musicians who made playing this music their life’s work. To honor the contributions, recordings and compositions of those artists ... it’s not so much a challenge as it is an inspiration.”