Blue Note Records

List This! A Beginner’s Guide to Blue Note Records

Blue Note, one of the foremost jazz record labels, is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a vinyl initiative, releasing highlights from its massive catalog over the course of two years. Here are some picks to get you started.

Blue Note was one of the, if not the, titan of jazz releases for much of the past century. This year marks the label’s 75th anniversary, and with that anniversary comes a huge initiative on the part of the Blue Note team to reissue many of its seminal works on vinyl. Their goal is a simple one: produce quality-sounding vinyl that faithfully reproduces the sound of the original recordings. Many of these LPs are available now at your local record store or for sale via many online retailers. It should be noted that these albums are available in traditional formats of CD, MP3, and box sets, but for the best listening experience possible, I highly recommend the vinyl reissues. Their clarity and workmanship is apparent in nearly every track—and, for purists, there really is no other way to listen to jazz from Blue Note except on vinyl.

With such a broad and extensive catalog—one that spans from 1939 to the present—Blue Note have taken on a massive undertaking. It is releasing five LPs a month for the remainder of 2014 and are continuing the trend well into 2015. Today’s List This entry is not designed to be comprehensive; acute readers will note the omission of some of Blue Note’s more famous players (e.g., Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, etc.). Rather, these LPs are spotlighted to give you, the listener, a good starting point for cherry-picking some of the highlights of their reissue campaign. Jazz, maybe more than any other genre of music, is highly subjective. Every listener has their favorites, their biases, their preferences, and this list is no different. But choosing 10 LPs from a list of hundreds is a daunting task, and there will be disagreements. Regardless, here is a primer, a beginner’s guide to Blue Note and the pervasive, cultural artifacts the label was able to provide; a document in time of the most authentic, American style of music. Enjoy.

10. Medeski, Martin, and Wood
Combustication (1998)

Medeski, Martin, and Wood are the likely outlier in the list of Blue Note LPs, not only because they are “newest” group of jazz artists to make the list, but also because their brand of jazz is tinged with elements of fusion and hip-hop. MM&W are the type of jazz band that has distilled the influences of their forefathers into something genuine, new, and intriguing. Combustication is exactly as its title suggests; a melding of combustible elements that create a new jazz science. Whether it’s the trip-hop leanings or an infection of new beat swagger, this album is a prime example of where jazz can lead when it’s been filtered through the net of tradition and modernity.

9. Ornette Coleman
New York Is Now! (1968)

Like Eric Dolphy, another truly avant-garde jazz player, you have to be ready for Ornette Coleman. His brand of free jazz is alternately experimental and mind-blowing, and he never lets up on New York Is Now. Coleman, it seems, was never interested in rehashing the elements of “what was”; rather, he was (and still is) always looking forward to demolishing the boundaries of what jazz can be. On New York Is Now!, one of a handful of albums he created in the 1960s, tonality is key. He descends into the lower registers of his instrument, only to come back up for a giant gasp of air giving the listener just enough time to register the slow burn he’s cooking. Like Monk’s Genius of Modern Music, New York Is Now! is a great starting point for all things Coleman. It may not be his finest work (that is arguably The Shape of Jazz to Come), but it is the sturdiest and most solid LP from one of the most celebrated innovators of the 20th century.

8. Freddie Hubbard
Ready for Freddie (1961)

Freddie Hubbard’s 1961 LP irons out some of the rougher edges of hard bop and turns them into a bouncing, melodic run of tracks that are simultaneously soothing and swinging. Its title is apt, for Ready for Freddie is a major milestone—an announcement, really—of Hubbard’s ability to maneuver within an entire band of swingers. Tracks like “Arietis” and “Crisis” are built around a grooved bass line, while “Birdlike” is a Charlie Parker ode that keeps Hubbard’s style fresh and new, even while paying homage to Parker. Hubbard typically gets overlooked for larger names in jazz, but Ready for Freddie is a powerhouse of showcase, with Hubbard leading the pack.

7. Wayne Shorter
Speak No Evil (1964)

Speak No Evil’s track titles (“Witch Hunt”, “Dance Cadaverous”) are misleading. They read like horror titles or fairy tale tropes designed to scare children when the weather turns colder. But Wayne Shorter’s indelible album is anything but. It’s a gentle, at times, rolling walk through an Autumn evening, punctuated with lighthearted grooves (“Dance Cadaverous”) and Thelonious Monk-inspired piano trills. To say nothing of Shorter’s sax playing, which is always superb and always operates stylistically in the service of the song. Shorter is not flashy in the way other saxophonists can be, but his ear is always on time and always in tune. And that makes him a worthwhile performer.

6. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Free for All (1964)

No list of jazz musicians is ever complete without mentioning Art Blakey. Blakey was one of the key inventors of modern bebop drumming, though Free for All tilts most decidedly into hard bop. Free for All has Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, and Reginald Workman) in full-on attack mode. Listen closely and you can hear Blakey’s drums start smoking under his tamed fury. It’s there on the title track and the aptly named “Hammer Head”, both of which never let up for a second. Blakey always made great use of the snare, never afraid to substitute it for a ride cymbal shuffle. Here, his distinctive style is the backbone of this small group and his drums are mixed higher into the sound—for good reason. Blakey is unmistakable; Free for All is proof of that.

5. Thelonius Monk
Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 (1952)

Any kind of Monk is good Monk, but Genius of Modern Music is a great place to begin. Monk’s virtuosic piano playing is on full display on each track. Whether he’s running down the keys on “Ruby My Dear” or pushing chord melodies on “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, Monk has a true ear for filling in a band’s gaps and holding back when necessary. (His piano doesn’t show up until after the band intro on “Humph”, and even then you have to tune your ear in to catch it.) Monk is probably the most well-known jazz pianist outside of Art Tatum, but his catalog is vast and spans decades. Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 is the perfect primer to his consummate style and, indeed, his genius grasp of modern music that lasted for many more decades.

4. Eric Dolphy
Out to Lunch! (1964)

Much of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! is a showcase in interplay and tonality. Dolphy and his band members, which include Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, spent most of Out to Lunch! pushing the limits of free jazz and improvisation in the same way Ornette Coleman does on his records. Dolphy is the showman here, though. He alternates from rigid squawks to flourishing runs with no missed time in-between. Out to Lunch! is likely the most adventurous jazz album on the list, but it’s a stunning listen that slams against the boundaries of modern jazz and hard bop. Sadly, Out to Lunch! was Dolphy’s final album. He died of complications from an undiagnosed diabetic condition in Berlin in 1964. Fifty years later, the mind of Dolphy and his seminal recording survives. Out to Lunch is a must-have.

3. Hank Mobley
Soul Station (1960)

Hank Mobley is full of surprises, and Soul Station has always surprised me with each and every consecutive listen. Soul Station is a record that can stay in heavy rotation on your turntable and never lose any of its luster. Recorded in 1960, at the edge of new jazz boundaries, Soul Station eschews labels (e.g., bop, hard bop, etc.) in favor of a solid, strong set of performances from a well-versed horn player. Mobley wasn’t necessarily an innovator, but he didn’t need to be. And Soul Station showcases his playing without the aid of any other horn players. He carries the show all the way to the finish line, and he does it with grace and aplomb.

2. Herbie Hancock
Empyrean Isles (1964)

Herbie Hancock, like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, has a long and storied career. From Grammy wins to the Headhunters, from fusion and funk to piano ballads, Hancock’s output is daunting and enormous. Empyrean Isles, however, is one of his earliest records and one of his best. Here we get Hancock unfettered by the later pull of jazz fusion, instead showing off his prowess with a superior band that includes Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Anthony Williams. If there’s any complaint to be made about Empyrean Isles, it’s that Hancock isn’t on center stage like he is on later releases. But to hear him take a solo on “Olilqui Valley” is to hear a great pianist that is just starting to flex his fingers. Additionally, Empyrean Isles is rife with imagery, as the title suggests, and Hancock especially can conjure up those images with a well-placed string of notes. Empyrean Isles is a record to come back to, again and again, a Sunday morning breather to gently wake up every sleepy eye in the house.

1. John Coltrane
Blue Train (1957)

Coltrane is one of jazz music’s preeminent fixtures and Blue Train is one of his many staples. Recorded in 1957, Blue Train has Coltrane planted firmly in the moment, drawing from the past (“Lazy Bird”, “I’m Old Fashioned”), and keeping his eye on the future, drawing out his next big move. Those next big moves would come later with Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, but for now, Blue Train is the sound of a giant jazz musician coming alive and finding his groove. Much of Coltrane’s prodigious output was captured as live performances, where he stands out a true improviser, but his studio records offer the best view of Coltrane’s flexibility and planning. Opening track “Blue Train” is a jazz staple, and its stamp is unmistakable and unforgettable. You can never go wrong with any Coltrane, but Blue Train is very nearly flawless, a piece of art to last for ages to come.