The Blue Note Quintet
Photo: Blue Note Records

The Blue Note Quintet Make Musical Magic in Berkeley

All-star modern jazz collective the Blue Note Quintet hit the road to honor the classic label’s 85th anniversary by carrying the creative vibes forward.

It’s a rainy Saturday night here in the People’s Republic of Berkeley on 3 February, but the heavy weather isn’t impacting attendance at the Cornerstone. The club in downtown Berkeley usually hosts rock, pop, punk, or reggae shows, but they’re mixing it up with what promises to be a high-level jazz show from the Blue Note Quintet, and the event is sold out. 

Pianist Gerald Clayton is the musical director, joined by alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, drummer Kendrick Scott, and bassist Matt Brewer. How many attendees are familiar with each of the players in the quintet is questionable, but there’s an illustrious vibe that comes with gathering under the Blue Note umbrella to celebrate the iconic jazz label’s 85th year in the recording business. Some attendees wonder whether the band will perform some Blue Note classics from decades gone by in tribute or go for their own thing as Blue Note artists typically do. But it seems like a win-win scenario either way.

“The visionary young voices of jazz have long been the lifeblood of Blue Note Records, and the Blue Note Quintet continues the tradition of rising stars on the roster joining forces to celebrate the label’s unparalleled legacy,” says a label press release.

There have also been questions about the show being presented under the “Jazz is Dead” moniker, which had some local Deadheads thinking of the band Jazz Is Dead, which performs jazzy instrumental arrangements of Grateful Dead songs. But no, this is the recording and production entity out of Los Angeles that sponsors a diverse array of modern jazz explorations (including some dynamic playlists on Spotify.) Blue Note Records also host an array of extensive playlists on Spotify, which makes it easy for curious listeners to explore the label’s rich history. 

The label seems to be experiencing a 21st-century renaissance under the guidance of impresario Don Was, who joined Blue Note as Chief Creative Officer in 2011 and then became President of the label in 2012. Was has also been back on the road as bassist with Bob Weir & Wolf Bros since 2018, so he’s not just sitting in a high-rise office somewhere as the stereotype of record label execs might suggest. This is a musician’s musician with his finger on the pulse of the modern musical zeitgeist, so there had to be some thought in tapping Clayton as musical director for the Blue Note Quintet.

“Blue Note has been such a wonderful home for the community, for incredible musicians, for creativity, for all these years,” Clayton acknowledges in the press release. “You can’t help but think about all those masters, all those heroes that you’ve grown up listening to. To get a chance to pay tribute and try to carry some of that essence forward is truly just an honor.”

The Cornerstone might have seemed like an odd venue for a jazz show like this since it’s mostly a standing-room situation with just a few tables here and there. But they’ve got a fan-friendly staff and a stellar selection of California craft beers in the main bar, along with a smaller bar inside the concert hall for those who don’t want to go back and forth. Once the show starts, it’s hard to feel like wanting to sit down anyway because these guys are going for it. 

It’s almost hard to believe this isn’t a quintet that’s been playing together for years because they sure sound like they’ve got long-time chemistry on a series of flowing jams. The tone science skill level of Wilkins, Clayton, and Ross seems at times to solo all at once while the quintet maintain a harmonious sound that borders on mesmerizing. Scott also seems like a soloist on the drums, ala Art Blakey, using percussion dynamics to help push the ebb and flow of the jams. He and Brewer are dialed in throughout the 90-minute set as the quintet gel repeatedly to generate a vibrant collective sound that feels greater than the sum of the parts.

The crystal clarity of the sound system is another factor that seems to call for more jazz shows at the Cornerstone. Under-attended rock shows have had acoustic problems at times due to the high ceiling. Still, there are none of those issues when the room is full, such as tonight (or when Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe brought their funky acid jazz jams to the Cornerstone on a glorious Monday night last April for a hot aftershow party after Phish had torched the Greek Theater.)

Between tunes, Clayton drops sound bites from classic jazz musicians that seem sort of like what Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts might sound like if he’d been a jazz musician. These jazz philosophers include Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Chick Corea, and Duke Pearson.

“You have to get strong with your own viewpoint,” one of them says regarding what an individual musician thinks sounds beautiful to themself instead of guessing what the masses might want to hear. Another soundbite speaks to playing “the greatest music that we could come up with” and how the people responded. A compelling quote toward the end of the set speaks of how “To be in the moment is the micro DNA of eternity”. This is what great improvisational music has always been about – being in the moment. Thus it’s no wonder how pioneering jazz improvisers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane became significant influences on the psychedelic rock scene of the 1960s, which also valued improvisational prowess. 

Clayton offers a word at the end, “for the ghosts of Blue Note”, that has paved the way before then, encouraging the audience to “Continue to do what you do and go home and multiply.” This sentiment for further procreation from the fans with the good taste to be present mirrors the words from another memorable Bay Area tour stop in an election year tour. It was Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam addressing the audience at the Shoreline Amphitheater (about 45 minutes south of here in Mountain View) on Halloween night of the year 2000 to “Vote and make babies.” 

This war-torn world gone mad would surely be better off if there were a wider appreciation for the cutting-edge talents of the great jazz and rock improvisers, those with adventurous spirits who seek the magical moments that can only arise from taking chances instead of playing it safe with the same set every night. But the flip side is that artists like those that comprise the Blue Note Quintet might not stand out like they do here.