[14 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Blue Note label has released a two CD set called The Best of Blue Note. With just two pieces of plastic, it skims over Blue Note’s “best” moments. You know what that means, right? Lace up your gloves, it’s sparring time! Jab! Hook! “What do you mean they didn’t include [song X]?!” “You mean to tell me that [song Y] made it on here and [song Z] didn’t?!” Song Y’s proponent gets a swollen face. No one wants to challenge song X’s proponent. Song Y’s proponent, meanwhile, gets both roses and garbage thrown at them. The ring is a mess. Is anyone happy with the outcome? Does anyone learn anything in the end? And as soon as you found out that Blue Note set aside only 22 songs in two hours and 22 minutes to tell their 75-year-old story, are these questions even worth asking?
If you’re reading this, you know Blue Note. You know the font and color of the logo, you can close your eyes and see Francis Wolff’s iconic photographs. And you certainly don’t need me to tell you what the music sounds like. All I would have to do is list the artists and tell which of their songs are featured. From there, you have your opinion and it is most likely a good one. But while you, the reader, don’t feel the need or worth to critique the music, you definitely have the motivation to critique the compilation process. It goes beyond song selection too. When you pull the sleeve out of the jewelcase and open it up, all you see are the names of the musicians who played on each track. That’s cool, giving credit where credit is due. But there is no story. There are photographs, but they’re tightly bunched together. No captions. They don’t even bother to say from which Blue Note records each song came. Is this one of those the-CD-is-dead-or-dying packaging moves that takes care of many a self-fulfilling prophesy in the music industry? You know, telling us that no one really reads liner notes anymore?
Whatever, I don’t know. The collection starts with Sidney Bechet’s cover of “Summertime”, the label’s first hit. A very old recording indeed, and by track two the sound quality already improved dramatically. After some choice cuts from Monk, Powell and Clifford Brown, we’ve already arrived at the seminal John Coltrane record Blue Train. The title track from that record and the title track from Art Blakey’s classic Moanin’ occupy 20 minutes of the first CD. Factor in Sonny Clark’s essential cut “Cool Struttin’” and the compilers really have to watch themselves. “Back at the Chicken Shack” recorded by the sly organist Jimmy Smith concludes the first disc. (It’s worth noting that the trumpeter Prince of Darkness only shows up as a guest on Cannonball Adderley’s “Somethin’ Else”).
The second disc starts conservatively enough. Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne”, Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”, Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil”, Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” helps The Best of Blue Note stay the course. But much like the college professor who realized they burned up too much of the semester on a particular subject, Blue Note quickly picks up the pace through ‘70s into the present day. From the funky “Black Byrd” by Donald Byrd, the compilers jump 20 years into the future for Us3’s breakthrough hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”. A commercially successful blend of jazz and hip-hop if there ever was one, this is a chance for Hancock to get a second say on The Best of Blue Note since his piano riff is the main sample.
The last four tracks find the label deep in transition. Cassandra Wilson singing Robert Johnson is nothing too left field, but the inclusion of Norah Jones’s “Cold Cold Heart” only reminds me of Fred Kaplan’s lament that it was her that saved the label, financially speaking (“by no stretch a jazz singer,” he insists). The creatively restless Robert Glasper enlists Erykah Badu for the modern R&B-flavored “Afro Blue”, a cut that for better or worse does not fit with the rest of the music. Gregory Porter is given the last word, and to many that is a nice thing. The title track of his Blue Note debut Liquid Spirit is an optimistic one, and it’s suitable that Blue Note use it to conclude their brief overview.
I realize that a double album is not usually considered “brief”, but this is Blue Note we’re talking about here. Two CDs is not even close to being comprehensive. Fortunately, Blue Note is not an obscure, struggling label. Everyone knows this music. Most everyone knows from where it came. If any artist or any album got shortchanged by this collection, their career is not sunk. So in a way, that shows how inconsequential The Best of Blue Note really is. Essential music doesn’t always make for an essential product. But you knew that already.