The Blue Note All-Stars: Our Point of View

Courtesy of Blue Note Records

A sextet of current Blue Note Recording artists releases a kind of thesis statement on how daring jazz mixes seamlessly with groove-based music, with a noted nod to the Blue Note past.

Blue Note Records is the ultimate "brand" in jazz. Like all the great, lasting brands it is associated with a look and a feeling. If you love jazz, the phrase "Blue Note" brings to mind the classic logo that sat in the circular center of LPs for a generation and the feeling of excitement you would get hearing that crackling "Blue Note" sound: hard bop, fiery solos rich in blues but delivered with the hip sophistication of modern jazz, the very soundtrack of 1955-75 for jazz fans.

The Blue Note All-Stars

Our Point of View

(Blue Note)

Release Date: 29 Sep 2017

Since the heyday that earned this brand loyalty, Blue Note has been through a series of corporate purchases and periods of rebirth, sort of. It fizzled in the 1970s, then was reborn in 1985 when Bruce Lundvall came in to produce new recordings, and Michael Cuscuna started aggressively working on reissues. Some sharp new music came about (some as good as ever, but not as consistently brilliant), and the label started a rather self-conscious habit of assembling young musicians in the "Blue Note style"; in 1986 they created Out of the Blue as a kind of jazz supergroup of unknowns that happened to include alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and drummer Ralph Peterson. Around that time Blue Note also held (and recorded) a Blue Note 50 concert featuring musicians from its past and its 1980s present.

Upon 75th anniversary in 2014, Blue Note assembled another youngish supergroup that is molded, sort of, like the bands of the past. This time out, however, the band is comprised of established stars of the moment: pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist Lionel Loueke, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland — hardly unknowns. Like Out of the Blue, they play mostly their superb compositions, but then they also collaborate with Blue Note Royalty by playing two Wayne Shorter tunes and including Shorter and Herbie Hancock on another. (Side note: per my friend and critic Michelle Mercer — this is a supergroup of male jazz players . The number of women on the Blue Note roster, historically and in the present, is pointedly anemic.)

The resulting Our Point of View is a compelling statement about one of the several important places where jazz is thriving in 2017.

Maybe there were times in the past when jazz had a clear advanced guard, a leading figure, an era-defining sound. Maybe the "Blue Note sound" was even such a thing in, say, 1964 when Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder came out and hypnotized both jazz fans and certain jukeboxes. But even then — and certainly since then — there were co-existing styles that were dissimilar. In '64 there were still band singers like Sinatra and Ella who were singing jazz, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were advancing a credible and vital avant-garde, Wes Montgomery was developing an early form of smooth jazz (recording Beatles and other pop hits), and so on. Like the rest of our culture, jazz today is made up of many vital neighborhoods but hardly a single city center.
That said, one of the important jazz neighborhoods today is a corner that has managed to combine knowledge and love of hip-hop and soul with an equal understanding and affection for the sophistication of modern jazz. These musicians are comfortable with the abstractions of players like Andrew Hill and Eric Dolphy (Blue Note artists, both) and the funky joy of Erykah Badu. They are aficionados of Wayne Shorter and J Dilla.

Robert Glasper (who co-produced with current Blue Note head Don Was) has been a primary proponent of this approach, so it's appropriate that this collection kicks off with one of his signature slow-grooves, over which we hear the voice of Bruce Lundvall himself — who died in 2015 — talking about the fact that "there are more creative musical voices out there than ever before". This recording makes a compelling case for Lundvall's claim and for the vitality of the approach espoused by Glasper & Co. Like Blue Note music from the 1960s, this band insists on both groove and daring improvising. The version of "funk" these days, however, is not based on boogaloo and gospel rhythms. Glasper's "Bayyinah" demonstrates this beautifully, beginning with an idiosyncratically jagged piano introduction that refracts hip-hop rhythms into an original jazz keyboard language. Kendrick Scott and Derrick Hodge (here on electric bass) then embody this groove in a locked-tight pattern that places a stuttered waltz time inside a dancing 4/4 backbeat — a springboard for electric piano, saxophone, and trumpet solos that conclude in a collective exercise is texture. Similarly, Scott sets up a complex rhythm on "Cycling Through Reality, with piano, bass, and guitar all churning different patterns against each other that, nevertheless, give us a 4/4 groove.

Hodge and Akinmusere offer tunes with a more straightforward kind of backbeat, but each enchanting. "Henya" starts with a long intro/cadenza for Strickland but eventually makes its way to a clean funk groove over which the tenor player flies and explores while Glasper's chorused Fender Rhodes makes everything sound smooth and glassy. (Say what you will about the textures of "smooth jazz", but when Glasper shines up this classic keyboard sound, he hums it with as much authority as classic Herbie Hancock.) Hodge's "Message of Hope" is built on a lovely and simple rise-and-fall melody, but it is propelled throughout by a double-time snare/bass drum pattern that is a caffeinated joy.

This band has another beautiful gear as well — a gentle, folk-melodic approach to jazz harmony. Strickland's "Meanings" has a theme with the appeal of a children's song that's been shot through with sunlight. It is stated first by Loueke, singing along with his guitar, then by the horns in more detail. It winds up and brings you to a new place during the guitarist's solo. Hodge is the composer of "Second Light", a 6/8 tone poem for overdubbed trumpets, acoustic bass, and string quartet. "Freedom Dance" is from Loueke's dancing Afro-pop bag, beginning with percussive guitar and wordless vocals and leading to a loping kind of funk that can carry you a good distance down any road. Most lovely of all is Akinmusere's brief "Bruce, the Last Dinosaur" (again, for Lundvall, who signed most of this band to Blue Note before he left the label). It comes off as a valedictory with a good touch of mourning.

In that last tune, the heart is really Akinmusere's tone, which is clean and pure except when he chooses to crack it slightly, letting out the feeling around the edges. For me, he is the most compelling soloist throughout Our Point of View because he seems always to be painting on the canvas with the widest range of colors. Strickland is a compulsive melody-maker, infusing imagination through his volumes of lines with great precision. Hodge improvises in small spots, always with the song in mind, and Glasper is now a total personality: himself in every context even if the influence of Herbie Hancock is never far from your ear.

Hancock himself appears on "Masquelero", along with the tune's composer, master saxophonist Wayne Shorter — two veterans of Blue Note's greatest years. (The song, it should be noted, is from a non-Blue Note Miles Davis album, however.) The band recasts it with a different kind of ballad rhythm: restless, mysterious, nervous. Shorter comes through on his splendid, nasal soprano saxophone, while Hancock adds piano texture while Glasper ruminates on Rhodes. There are no real "solos" here but a long, pass-the-torch collective improvisation that suggests that the young guys are in every way capable of trading ideas with the legends.

The most nostalgic thing on Our Point of View, however, is the other Shorter composition, the classic "Witch Hunt" from Speak No Evil. Akinmusere and Strickland voice the head to sound just like Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter from 1964, but the rhythm section double-times the swing beneath the main part of the melody, then takes every liberty under the solos to switch time, tempo, and groove. Loueke plays tasty nibbles around the edges on the head, and his solo is perhaps the highlight of the performance — with the band moving further out of the tradition and the guitarist referring back to the melody plenty. It is the recording's longest cut — a centerpiece.

A word about Loueke, who seems to be just about everywhere in the music these days. I saw him last month in a small club with the Chick Corea/Steve Gadd band, and it was intriguing to see how he manipulates his sound through a digital interface, not a traditional amp. The result is that he is a chameleon in the band, using various synthesized sounds to adapt to every situation differently — he gets a funky wah here, a piercing lead there, a wash of overtones somewhere else. What he rarely sounds like is a guitarist playing, clean or distorted, through an amp. I miss the feeling that the instrument has its own weight and set of vibrations.

That is a quibble, however, in light of the rich pleasures of Our Point of View, which provides 90 minutes and 11 tracks of bracing contemporary jazz. Few all-star bands will sound this integrated or full of focus. This direction for jazz — infused with both the dance rhythms of a new generation and the melodic/harmonic daring of our nation's great legacy of black music — is powerful and powerfully stated here.






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.