I recently went to the Whitney Biennial, which serves as the longest-running critical review of American art. The exhibition began in 1932 as an invitation-only event to promote the best works by the country’s most vital creators. This year’s show was less than inspiring. The masterpieces displayed in the museum’s permanent collection by Modernists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, and Alexander Calder left the new stuff in the dust, aesthetically speaking. But really, what else could one expect? Hopper, O’Keefe, and Calder belong in the pantheon of American art and are among its greatest exponents. No one can successfully compete against such genius.
Something similar is happening with the Blue Note Re:imagined series. Blue Note Records is one of the most hallowed, if not the most revered, label in modern jazz. It’s the home to legendary musicians and classic recordings by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and dozens more. Two years ago, the company opened its vault to a group of younger English artists to put their spin on the material. Many people celebrated the promotion of fresh and innovative musicians, but no one seriously thought they were the equals of past masters.
The second set, Blue Note Re:imagined II 2022, has just been released and again showcases a diverse cast of young contributors drawing inspiration from past masterworks. The 16 cuts feature a host of British soul, R&B, and jazz artists, including Yazz Ahmed, Conor Albert, Parthenope, Swindle, Nubiyan Twist, Ego Ella May, Oscar Jerome & Oscar #Worldpeace, Daniel Casimir, Theon Cross, Maya Delilah, Kay Young, Venna & Marco, Reuben James, Binker Golding, Cherise, and Franc Moody performing new interpretations of Blue Note tracks by Donald Byrd, Chick Corea, Grant Green, Chico Hamilton, Bobbi Humphrey, Norah Jones, Joe Lovano, Thelonious Monk, Marlena Shaw, and Wayne Shorter. While Blue Note’s intentions are good, the material varies in quality. Again, what else could one expect? The original talent presents a highly competitive bar.
That said, one can use the set as an investigative tool into current musical trends and learn about new artists who may go unheard of otherwise. Those looking for masterpieces should look elsewhere. But the curious-minded can find much to plumb here. There’s everything from the avant-garde tuba explorations of Theon Cross’ take on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” to the soft consoling sounds of Parthenope’s version of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” to Maya Delilah’s bouncy rendition of Cassandra Wilson’s jazzy cover of Neil Young’s folkie “Harvest Moon”. The variety of musical styles highlighted serves as the album’s greatest asset and is perhaps simultaneously its most significant flaw.
Listening to the songs in the order presented can be a jarring experience as the shifts from mellow to uptight can be sudden and without purpose, like playing one’s record collection on shuffle. That’s true for both the original material that hails back from the 1940s to the 21st century, as well as the contemporary artists whose styles range from mellow Urban Fire to discordant experimental jazz. The best way to appreciate Blue Note Re:imagined II 2022 is to listen to the individual tracks on repeat before moving on to the next. That allows one to understand the particular artists’ strengths without a context that otherwise may be disorienting.
Choosing the best cuts is a matter of individual taste (De gustibus non est disputandum). That said, certain tracks do stand out. Contemporary jazz fans would admire Binker Golding’s blustery version of Joe Lovano’s “Fort Worth” and Yazz Ahmed’s wind-swept take on Chick Corea’s “It”. Vocal music fans may prefer the adventurous Nubiyan Twist’s rendition of Donald Byrd’s “Through the Noise (Chant No.2)” and Kay Young’s sensual offering on Marlena Shaw’s “Feel Like Making Love”. Soft jazz lovers would go for Ego Ella May’s smooth adaptation of Chico Hamilton’s “The Morning Side of Love” and Daniel Casimir ft. Ria Moran’s timorous update of Wayne Shorter’s “Lost”. The most audacious piece would be Oscar Jerome & Oscar # Worldpeace’s radical update of Grant Green’s “(Why You So) Green With Envy”.
Blue Note Re:imagined II 2022 may be more like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates than a collection of greatest hits. The mix of styles offers more of a sampler than a thematic anthology of what’s happening now or an exploration of roots. While today’s artists may not be the equal of past masters, the record still has plenty to offer.