Performing Arts

Reviewing Jazz of 2009: Wherefore Art Thou, Blue Note?

Wynton Marsalis

The best jazz of 2009 did not come, even a little bit, from the storied "major labels" of jazz. What happened to Blue Note and Verve this year?

In compiling my favorite jazz recordings of each year, I don't initially pay attention to what "label" produced them. It's the music that matters—what sounds spent the most time coming across my speakers (or ear-buds), what my reviews said about the compositions and performances, what my heart felt about each artist's work in the last 12 months.

For the record, this year's favorites were:

New Piano Trios

Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity (Act Music + Vision)

Jack DeJohnette Music We Are (Golden Beams)

New Groups/New Sounds

Alex Cline, Continuation (Cryptogramophone)

Steve Lehman Octet, Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi)

Henry Threadgill, This Brings Us To, Volume I (Pi)

Ben Allison, Think Free (Palmetto)

Tony Wilson Sextet, The People Look Like Flowers At Last (Drip Audio)

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside)

Tradition Reinterpreted

Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)

Masada Quintet, Stolas: Book of Angels, Volume 12 (Tzadik)

Matt Wilson Quartet, That's Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto)

But once my selections have been made, it's always interesting to look at what companies gave me the most joy. And in recent years, there have been more and more independent or artist-run labels on these lists. The sad but decided truth: the big record companies, the ones out to make a real-live profit, no longer see much of an angle in recording and promoting adventurous, thrilling jazz.

But I have still been able to rely on a few old friends: Verve and Blue Note, classic jazz labels that, in new incarnations, have been giving great music a serious launching pad from which to be heard. Yet the shocker this year is that neither Verve nor Blue Note made my list. Their absence—their silence—is still ringing in my ears.

Good Music, Conveniently "Accessible"

Not that these labels have stopped putting out good music. Robert Glasper is still recording for Blue Note, and his trio record In My Element was my favorite disc of 2008. His 2009 release, Double Booked featured music that was clearly an extension of his brilliant work. And I loved half of Double Booked. The other half showed off Glasper's more commercial side—playing hip hop and recreating classic funk from the '70s. I have no doubt that Glasper comes by his interest in this music honestly. There's no shame in digging a groove or plugging in. But that half of his music, truth to be told, is more derivative, less interesting, and ultimately less forward thinking than the work he does with his trio. Glasper is more authentically hip hop without plugging in.

But here's the thing. You just have to believe that Blue Note also loved the fact that Robert Glasper, a previously knotty and largely acoustic player, was suddenly seeming "commercial". I'm not accusing Glasper of selling out. But I'm noting that all the forces at Blue Note (and, let's be fair, in society) are more than happy to approve of his more "accessible" music. Alas, that half of Glasper happens to be less wonderful too.

So, no surprise that the "new" Cassandra Wilson disc issued by Blue Note this year was Closer to You: The Pop Side, a collection of her various covers of pop songs. It's a wonderful, if too sweet, introduction to her amazing talent. Through a pop music lens.

Norah Jones

Pop music, indeed, is Blue Note's secret weapon. In 2002, this fairly rigorous jazz label put out a slim little disc that may have seemed unlikely to change the face of the label. So what that this Ms. Jones was Ravi Shankar's daughter—she was a modest little jazz pianist and singer with a charming umber tone to her singing. Norah Jones, that is.

And the label has been busy like a bee releasing non-jazz ever since. Blue Note started off 2009 with Rays Guns Are Not Just the Future, a harmonically intriguing piece of lounge-pop by a duo called The Bird and the Bee. With some Brazilian chill mixed into the groove, this band seems both engaging and ironically distant at once. Interesting. But not Wayne Shorter or Horace Silver. And not jazz.

Oh—and guess who else put out a new pop album on Blue Note in the last few weeks? Come Away With Me probably should never have been called "jazz", but in 2002 we just thought, "It's on Blue Note." By 2009 we know that Norah Jones's jazzy/Starbucks-y style is ready to fade into something a little more indie-hip. Thus The Fall. Which isn't necessarily bad, particularly what with all the Norah Jones wannabes out there crowding the field. It's cool to hear a young artist get, I don't know, younger and enjoy a little distortion in her guitars. But Norah has never seemed less "jazz", less "Blue Note".

So, my point is not that Blue Note is promoting cheesy stuff. Glasper and Jones aren't Boney James or Kenny G. And The Bird and the Bee is not Miley Cyrus. But these Blue Note artists, are operating with a consciousness of sales nevertheless. Which is to say that they are pop artists first and foremost.

Robert Glasper

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