The Blue Note 7: Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records

Another all-star band reminds of the rich jazz legacy of Blue Note Records.

The Blue Note 7

Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records

Contributors: Bill Charlap, Steve Wilson, Nicholas Peyton, Ravi Coltrane, Peter Bernstein, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash
Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2009-01-13
UK Release Date: 2009-01-13

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?


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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