Courtesy of Blue Note Records

The Blue Note All-Stars: Our Point of View

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.

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.