Jazz remains chock full of great legacies that can be, and are, continually rehashed. Public-television documentaries, books by leading jazz critics, tribute albums by younger musicians—something is always at hand to remind us of the greatness of Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis or Charlie Parker. And this is remarkable, considering most Americans don’t seem to like jazz much, their nation’s great, original art form.
And of the things that can be celebrated in jazz, Blue Note Records most often ascends to the top of the list. Fine, as the Blue Note sound is one wing of jazz folks find pretty tolerable: hip, funky, swinging and with not a little gospel-tinged bluesy-ness. Countless books of Blue Note albums covers, Blue Note documentary films and Blue Note T-shirts exist, and Blue Note Records itself loves to produce new recordings essentially celebrating its BlueNoteiness: Blue Note Christmas albums, Blue Note Anthologies of frequently sampled tunes, Blue Note Plays The Beatles, etc.
In 1985, when Blue Note was raised from the dead by Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cuscuna, they recorded a town-hall concert, featuring an all-star line-up of artists playing classic Blue Note tracks: One Night with Blue Note. In 2009, Blue Note turns 70 years old, so why not put together another Blue Note event? Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records, by an all-star group calling itself the Blue Note 7, gets the party started. Though sure to provide great music, do we really need all of this BlueNoteiness? Seventy years later—and a full 50 years after the label’s true heyday—does the Blue Note sound still prove something we need fresh versions of?
Yes and no. The Blue Note 7, a nimble group packing fresh arrangements of eight tunes, associates with the label’s best years. The group is led and organized by pianist Bill Charlap, whose trio work in the last decade has been stellar. Here, his outstanding arranging paves the way for an able septet: trumpeter Nicholas Peyton, alto sax and flute player Steve Wilson, tenor sax player Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. The group can burn but smart-burn.
What Mosaic delivers in spades is a refraction of some of the great tunes that came from Blue Note artists between 1955 and 1965. Charlap and his group have jiggered the rhythms, head arrangements and harmonies in a such a way the music proves easily recognizable but also surprising. The funky SNAP of the best Blue Note music is still there, but it now comes with a slightly different flavor, a new tang. The title track—composed by pianist Cedar Walton for a Jazz Messengers date—comes with a newly syncopated piano figure, which, in turn, leads to a new set of syncopations on the melody. It’s not a new tune, but it crackles with a new kind of pop.
A similar approach works on many of these arrangements. With a surfeit of intelligent soloists, the group (along with Charlap’s wife, jazz pianist Renee Rosnes) wisely creates arrangements that mostly feature just one or two voices. Bobby Hutcherson’s waltz, “Little B’s Poem”, for example, highlights Wilson’s flute and Bernstein’s guitar on the main melody, and then each man gets generous solo space. While the whole horn section plays accompaniment and coloration (and gets a beautiful ensemble chorus), this track is given an original sound very different from the original. Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” gets an ingenious new bass-line groove, and the melody and primary solo is given to Peyton, who sounds like a fully mature master at this stage in his career.
A note about a few other soloists. It’s great to hear Ravi Coltrane here, playing with peers and playing not at all under the weight of his father’s legacy. Fleet and sweet on his solos, Coltrane still makes clear the weight of his horn, proving to be his own man. Charlap sounds incisive and to-the-point in this context, not having to carry all the harmonic and melodic freight as he does in his trio. Lewis Nash, particularly on his “Inner Urge” solo and fade, sounds like an ideal balance between delicate and strong. More!
A couple of the tunes, though not quite as well known as the others, provide a particularly nice suprise: “Idle Moments”, by pianist Duke Pearson, sets up as a dandy and soulful feature for Bernstein; and “The Outlaw”, a lesser-known Horace Silver tune, gives Bernstein space before moving into a tricky Latin figure and then setting Wilson loose for a Cannonball-ish turn.
It’s particularly nice to hear McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace” and Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” in new arrangements. These simple but classic jazz melodies have been done at blowing sessions for so long now they benefit smartly from Charlap’s fresh ideas. “Peace” gains a lovely new sound on the bridge, with the horns playing quietly and the rhythm section creating a cushioned harmonic suspension. “Urge” radically reconfigures its bassline, making the melody temporarily opaque. On the solos, the rhythm section feel then switches between this hip bassline and straight swinging/walking, a tension-and-release feeling that is so very Blue Note but still new.
This, perhaps, is just what we should want from nostalgia: a tangy mixture of familiarity and surprise. Seventy years of history, even when it’s 70 years of great music, is too heavy a load to carry. The Blue Note 7, courtesy of Bill Charlap and his chums, give us plenty of yesterday but also some today.
Just who hungers for more of these Blue Note tributes remains an unanswered question, but this one provides more than just a reheat of the great old stuff. Tasty, nouvelle Blue Note cuisine. Waiter?