Is Blue Note Records on the Rise, Again?

One of the great treasures of jazz's past, the Blue Note record label, seems to be enjoying a new golden age. Here are two reasons why.

One of the great treasures of jazz's past, the Blue Note record label, seems to be enjoying a new golden age. Here are two reasons why.

Jazz has a small number of “name brands”, and one of the most consistent has been the Blue Note record label. For two decades, from the late '40s to the late '60s, a “Blue Note” recording meant something solid and exceptional, something with a driving sense of swing.

Overseen by producers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, these discs were not only brilliantly played and recorded, but they captured a flow of snapping jazz from the traditional to the soulful to the exploratory. The list of “Blue Notes” from this era constitutes, most certainly, the most amazing run of classic jazz recordings in history, from the Thelonious Monk records of 1947 to Coltrane’s Blue Train to Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and beyond.

The label effectively disappeared in the late ‘60s, but was revived by EMI in 1985, when producer Bruce Lundvall started resigning old Blue Note artists such as McCoy Tyner and new players like Joe Lovano and John Scofield for new recordings. Maybe it wasn’t quite the same – jazz had been changed in basic ways by the market, by electronics and rock music, and by a diffusion of clarity about what it really meant to play “jazz” – but these were still some of the best records of that time.

But these records no longer had a clear identity. A “Blue Note” in 1962 couldn’t be mistaken for a record on any other label. Even the same musicians recording elsewhere didn’t sound the same. (The producer Bob Porter famously said, “The difference between Blue Note and Prestige is two days’ rehearsal.” Blue Note, simply put, was quality.) In the '80s and beyond, Blue Note recordings might have come out on Columbia or even some independent label.

But maybe there’s something Blue Note-y in the air again. The last month or so has been an exceptional one for Blue Note. In 2012, producer Don Was (known more as a rock or soul musician, not necessarily a jazz maven) took over, and something exciting started to kick in. The newest version of Blue Note isn’t any revival of the Golden Age – it’s something better. Maybe a new Golden Age that’s starting to rise? And it's building on a sound that consolidates what's best about jazz today.

Artist: Brian Blade and the Fellowship

Album: Landmarks

Label: Blue Note

US Release Date: 2014-04-29

UK Release Date: 2014-04-29

Image: Blade & the Fellowship Band, Landmarks

There are two releases in 2014 on Blue Note that thrill in a wonderfully similar way, a way that connects to the jazz tradition but also pulls away from it in songful, exciting ways. There is the link between the new and the old Blue Note -- both feature a forceful push of fresh sound that is still grounded.

Brian Blade, a drummer who has been playing prominently with both Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter’s quartet, who seems cozy with folky Americana and also driving swing, is a perfect musician for the combination of "fresh yet grounded". And the latest by his “Fellowship Band” does that in spades. This band has been recording since 1998 (its first two recordings were on Blue Note before the group jumped to Verve for a disc), but Landmarks is the best thing Blade has done. The band is mostly the same, with pianist Jon Cowherd writing some of the tunes, Myron Walden on alto saxophone, and a couple of guitarists adding edge to a two-reed front line.

What gives this band a “sound” is the way it avoids anything resembling the old walking bass line style, the "ding-ding-a-ding" on the ride cymbal. Blade fashions a sound for this band that melds pop structures and pop rhythmic patterns to tuneful melodies that still sway with a jazz cadence. Most of the tunes are mid-tempo and contemplative, etched with a dark blue tint of emotion.

The title track sets up moody descending chords, with bassist Chris Thomas playing a gorgeous improvisation that slowly introduces the melody. Melvin Butler’s soprano sax is traced by the charcoal harmony of Walden’s bass clarinet, and you’re hooked, you’re haunted, the song takes you away. Cowherd roams all over the landscape in his dramatic solo, and there’s a bridge that cycles through a set of surprising harmonies before it takes you home like a good pop song should.

Blade tends to think like a filmmaker rather than a jazz musician. Landmarks (even that title suggests the cinema) tells a story in waves or episodes. The first six songs actually seem like a trio of linked pairs of pieces, with a short, textured composition preceding a longer piece for the whole band. “State Lines” sounds like a series ideas and whispers coming across a set of low-slung telephone wires, and it leads into “Ark.La.Tex.”, which is a breathy drone over which a piano bassline weaves a minor melody that finally rises like the sun on the horns. The longest piece on Landmarks is "Farewell Bluebird", a charming folk melody that rolls like a wagon wheel and then rises into a majestic jazz climax before simmering back down.

On every song, Blade is coaxing and cajoling. Though he can be a remarkably powerful jazz drummer with Shorter or others, these Fellowship records suggest that his great strength is as a colorist – a drummer who probably would choose watercolors rather than oils if he had to face a canvas. He lets Cowherd steal the spotlight a few times, but mostly this is an entire band of cooperators, of ego-less team players.

This, then, is not the old Blue Note jazz, where every solo seemed to be a heroic climb to the top of a bluesy mountain. This new Blue Note sound is cinematic and shaded, a set of sculptures or short films. It is jazz that long ago stopped worrying about how American pop music might connect or whether jazz should sound mainly “composed” or improvised. This music, beyond category, just settles on your ears as intriguing pleasure.

Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire

Album: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

Label: Blue Note

US Release Date: 2014-03-11

UK Release Date: 2014-03-11

Image: Akinmusire, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint

Even better, and wildly ambitious, is the second Blue Note release from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. His 2011 When the Heart Emerges Glistening was breathtaking and new, and The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint is even more daring and successful. Like Blade’s new music, this is a set of tunes that paints a picture, that projects a movie inside your head – no thrilling, athletic swing but instead it presents the new Blue Note paradigm: complex compositions that blend jazz, pop, and even classical with improvised solos that tell sinuous stories.

Akinmusire is, among other things, a fantastic new voice on his instrument. Though he can and does play the blues and will evoke the hard-bop trumpeters of jazz past, most of his solos trade in surprising intervals, new melodic shapes, and departures from convention that nevertheless sound natural and beautiful. The opening duet with pianist Sam Harris, “Marie Christie”, is a piece of angular improvised impressionism, with Harris moving gently across upper octaves like rainfall while the leader flutters, rolls and roams in mid-register like a tumbler, a gymnast. Akinmusire’s runs get faster and more astonishing, sure, but then he squeezes out a gorgeous bent note up high to rip your heart for a second.

Several songs are unconventionally beautiful. “Asiam (Joan)” is an Akinmusire melody given lyrics by singer Theo Bleckmann, supported by the leader’s quintet: Walter Smith on tenor sax, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Justin Brown, and Harris on piano. Bleckmann adds not only a steely lead vocal but also many layers of vocal texture beneath the trumpet solo – like a prismed stream of sunlight that splits into its component colors as you hear it.

But the revelatory vocal track here is “Our Basement (Ed)”, written by the singer Benna Stevens and featuring Brown, Harris, a masterpiece of a solo by Akinmusire, and a chamber arrangement for string quartet that combines a heartbeat pulse with a delicate simplicity. I've played this song for a half dozen people in their 20s who don't necessarily love jazz and, to them, it sounds like the kind of arty-indie-pop that ought to create a hip sensation at SXSW. That it contains a "jazz" trumpet solo of breathtaking originality is just part of it being really great, eye-opening music that happens also to rip your heart out.

Mostly, though, the instrumental music on Savior is just as genre-defying. “J.E. Nilmah”, for example, starts with a set of squiggles and pokes by guitar, piano, and trumpet that slowly develops into a lurching theme for the ensemble that has an unusual time signature. "The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits" brings the string quartet back, along with flute, and the resulting melody sounds somewhat like the first few minutes of Miles's "In a Silent Way" -- beautifully atempo, pensive, dramatic. Akinmusire also adds guitarist Charlie Altura to the quintet in interesting ways that increase the texture and sensuality of the music.

Savior assays classical, jazz, pop, and arty impressionism, but it never feels random. Instead, it feels like a vehicle moving down an American interstate, past every interesting place that music can go in 2014. And if it is jazz, which it is, that's because there is still a distinctive way that the trumpet, the glorious improvising trumpet that Louis Armstrong first made into an American emblem of pride and freedom, reaches for the blues and for a kind of swing.

No Restrictions, but Somehow, Direction

These two Blue Notes make jazz seem central and interesting again. The music that this "new" Blue Note represents has a course to travel, one that includes and cuts across pop music and classical music, notation and freedom, old and new. But it is a path with few rules of restrictions.

Both Brian Blade's Landscapes and Ambrose Akinmusire's The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint seem on a similar, dynamic, shoot-you-to-the-moon trajectory. They are showing how jazz can keep prospering even in today's world. That these great records should come out on Blue Note is no coincidence, perhaps, and let's be heartened by it. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff should be dancing and grooving in their graves. Blue Note lives!

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