Still Good, Just Not the Best. Or Enough.
For all that, Blue does still issue jazz. Good stuff too. But just not as much as you would think.
I enjoyed four fairly “straight” jazz releases from Blue Note in 2009, and each one tickled its way toward excellence. One of these discs could have made my best-of list. But the revelation is that only one reached that high. And not quite. In previous years (in fact, just last year) I’ve had three Blue Notes up in the stratosphere. Is this just happenstance, or is something changing?
Listening to Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records, you would think that very little had changed at Blue Note. Here is an all-star band called the “Blue Note 7” (pianist Bill Charlap, Nicholas Peyton’s trumpet, Steve Wilson on alto sax and flute, Ravi Coltrane’s tenor, Peter Bernstein on guitar, Peter Washington on bass, and drummer Lewis Nash) playing new Charlap arrangements of classic tunes from the label’s storied past. It’s a smart and tangy variant on nostalgia, and the playing is stellar. But it’s not even debatable whether it’s derivative. That’s the whole point.
Eliane Elias, the fine modern pianist and Brazilian singer, is up to a similar task on her Bossa Nova Stories. Elias has recorded this kind of material before, and so it’s unlikely that a bossa record with some light orchestral accompaniment (and one that includes “The Girl From Ipanema” to boot) is going to break any barriers. Yet Elias is a canny interpreter and, despite her cheesecake liner photos, a fairly ruthless player. This is a pretty record that still has rhythmic bite, some hip new(er) songs, and a sense of puckish fun. Pretty good stuff, but not “best of” material.
Blue Note’s most dramatic recent signing—and almost by definition it’s biggest “jazz” star—has got to be the great Wynton Marsalis. Last year, Blue Note released his joyful concert collaboration with Willie Nelson, and I’m still listening to it regularly. This year, Marsalis dove back into his more pretentious and historical bag with He and She, an attempt to musically illustrate a poem by the trumpeter himself.
Forget the poem (though that’s hard, as the whole thing is recited twice on the disc by the maestro himself), and enjoy the music, much of which is whip-crack brilliant. Marsalis’s current quintet is outstanding, and tracks like “The Razor Rim” are perfectly conceived modern jazz. But just a little too often, the band goes into a didactic/historical bag (“School Boy”), and there is a preponderance of waltz-time tracks. From the greatest trumpeter on the planet, you hope for a skosh more.
(Blue Note; US: 19 May 2009; UK: 4 May 2009)
The near-miss from Blue Note this year is Joe Lovano’s Folk Art, a fine and wide open record credited to his band “Us Five”. A working quintet (two drummers, James Weidman on piano, and the young bassist Esperanza Spaulding), this band has a sprawling joy that harks back to the ‘60s, when jazz could be free and a little messy but still cook. Lovano is one of the finest saxophonists alive, and he can play just about anything. Here he caresses ballads, he generates riveting free improvisation, and he gets funky without seeming mawkish. Close to the very top tier of the year, but some record had to pull in just behind my very favorites. This was it.
This year, by the way, Blue Note Records reached its 70th anniversary. Ouch.
And Then There Was(n’t) Verve
The second-most august major label in jazz is Verve. Once the home to Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and many others, Verve also enjoyed a resurgence in the ‘80s with artists like Joe Henderson, Shirley Horn and, eventually, Diana Krall.
But 2009 was nothing much on Verve. Krall released a limp orchestral bossa nova record, Quiet Nights. Yawn. It made Blue Note’s release by Eliane Elias seem like Kind of Blue. Krall is an outstanding singer and pianist, but this was a too respectful, too tame piece of work. And my goodness, it’s been done to death and much better.
Beyond that, Verve seems oblivious to its jazz past. Melody Gardot, an inventive and attractive young singer, released her second disc, My One and Only Thrill, but you would be hard-pressed to put it on any jazz best-of list. Gardot works with jazz feeling and has some delicious Billie Holiday vinegar in her throat, but she is writing pop songs in the Norah Jones vein. (And don’t think that Verve didn’t know that when they signed her and ponied up for some higher production values for her second disc.)
Everyone loved the classic jazz samba records on Verve in the ‘60s, so Verve has historical reasons to be releasing some of the coolest Brazilian music of today by Bebel Gilberto. All In One continues the string of great discs since 2000’s Tanto Tempo by the daughter of Joao Gilberto and Miucha, mixing classic Brazilian pop with modern production and edge. I can’t resist it, I urge to you to dig it, and I also can’t really call it jazz.
Verve is also the home, this year, to the latest from the uncategorizable Nellie McKay. Normal as Blueberry Pie is a tribute to Doris Day, and it finds this young pop songstress embodying one of her obvious models. She records standards like “The Very Thought of You” and “Mean to Me” that are maybe kinda jazz, but the real point of the record is something else: a refraction of a certain kind of vocal style that connects the pop music of one era (Day’s version of the late ‘40s through early ‘60s) to the cool remove of today. Again, this is intriguing music, not dopey stuff and not commercially calculated in the worst kinds of ways.
What Blue Note and Verve are mostly betting on these days is hip but appealing adult pop singing. It’s music usually made by very attractive women (Krall, Gilberto, Elias, McKay, Jones, Wilson) who are singing pop songs with a jazzy edge or maybe jazz material that has a pop sheen. The labels’ rosters are brimming of a dozen or more other enchanting women in the same vein—more than I could begin to catalog there. You might enjoy any one of them with your latte.
The great jazz legacies of these labels has morphed—or maybe even lurched?—into a jazzy glaze. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Blue Note and Verve are producing weak music. In fact, it’s quite wonderful music in many cases. (And in my heart I’m betting that Blue Note will be back on my “best of jazz” list next year.)
But now that real jazz—adventurous jazz—has so few homes that can get it heard by listeners beyond the already-devoted, here’s to a reversal of fortune. C’mon Blue Note and Verve: get back in the business of bebop and swing and crazy saxophone solos. White wine is fine, but don’t neglect the bourbon of American music. The year 2010 is knocking and people are out of work. So many of us still need a stiff drink now and again.