Monday, 17 November 2014

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression review

Genius of Modern Music Volume 1 by Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music
After the second world war, the edgy modernism of bebop began to guide Blue Note. Pianist Thelonious Monk’s leadership debut in 1952 introduced classic originals such as Straight No Chaser and Round Midnight. The cover was Paul Bacon’s, who would later create the iconic first-edition design for the novel Catch-22.

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression review – a lavishly illustrated history of the great jazz label
Richard Havers’s book about Blue Note records, with its details of the inspirations and excesses of the label’s major talents, amounts to a history of jazz itself

Peter Conrad
The Observer
Sunday 16 November 2014

A blue note is a flattened or – in the terminology of jazz – a “worried” note, which dips below the major scale to vouch for the intensity of an emotion; Blue Note is a record label which, since its foundation 75 years ago, has recorded the bluest and most worried jazz performers. Shaded by nocturnal melancholy, blue is the preferred tonality of their music. A classic album by Miles Davis was called Kind of Blue, and Blue Note later recorded the guitarist Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue, attuned to the mood of a moonlit sky seen through the glare of urban streetlights.
Blue Note Jazz Classics Vol 1 Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet– Jazz Classics Vol 1
Blue Note’s first records were launched in New York in March 1939 by German-Jewish emigre Alfred Lion. Photographer Francis Wolff, an old Berlin friend who escaped the Nazis, joined Lion in October. Their first releases featured the earliest jazz stars, including New Orleans sax pioneer Sidney Bechet.

Uncompromising Expression, the phrase from Blue Note’s mission statement that Richard Havers applies to his lavishly illustrated history of the label, also serves as a definition of jazz. Duke Ellington actually proposed renaming the music played by his band, because “jazz” to him was a smutty synonym for having sex. He preferred to describe his repertoire as “the American Idiom, or the Music of the Freedom of Expression”.
Miles Davis Volume 1
Miles Davis – Vols 1 & 2
Miles Davis was trying to kick heroin and kickstart his career in 1952 when these sessions began. The trumpeter was tiptoeing closer towards how jazz after bebop might sound. John Hermansader created the cover with his assistant Reid Miles, who would later become Blue Note’s most celebrated designer.

Yet as Havers explains, that American idiom – used, like abstract expressionist painting, as propaganda for go-getting Yankee liberties during the cold war – owed its preservation on records to a Berliner. Blue Note was founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, the son of a Jewish architect who settled in New York in 1933 after fleeing from the capital of the Third Reich. Lion slept rough at first in Central Park, and when he could afford to rent a room immediately installed a Victrola gramophone to play the jazz records he bought on excursions uptown to Harlem.

In Hitler’s Germany, jazz was reviled as Negermusik, a savage un-Teutonic din. Escaping to America, Lion heard in bop, boogie-woogie and honky-tonk a rowdy proof of his adopted country’s impromptu, endlessly self-renovating energy. That faith persisted at Blue Note even after he gave up control of the label, and it was proclaimed all over again in 1986 by Spontaneous Inventions, a collection of “vocal gymnastics” in which Bobby McFerrin teamed up with the manic Robin Williams, who scatted, rapped and wordlessly burbled through a track called Beverly Hills Blues. The result was not so much spontaneous invention as demented free association.
A Night at Birdland by Art Blakey
Art Blakey – A Night at Birdland
Blue Note hired gifted designers, but co-owner Francis Wolff’s subtle photographs of musicians on and off the bandstand also forged the label’s instantly recognisable style. This 1954 set by drummer Art Blakey introduces the urgent gospelly “hard bop” sound, which became a Blue Note speciality.

Lion became, as Havers says, an “evangelist” for America’s home-grown music, with jazz as his gospel. Among the bands he recorded was Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, who adapted the “funky church stuff” of black religion to preach on behalf of the blues. Another Blue Note pianist offered a mystical revelation: Lion regarded Thelonious Monk as “the holy grail of jazz”, and said he was proud to be “the first to put his radical and unorthodox ideas on wax”, which makes it sound as if recording was a way of trapping spirit in material form. Like the pianist Andrew Hill, Havers enrols Monk’s later followers in a holy order that Hill himself punningly entitled the New Monastery. Many Blue Note musicians played at a triangular den in downtown New York called the Village Vanguard; with the same sense of jazz as a sacred calling, the pianist Jason Moran has called it “the place where Mohammed and Moses and Jesus walked!”
Page One by Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson – Page One
Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s 1963 leadership debut revealed his sinewy Sonny Rollins-inspired phrasing and improv fertility – as well as the soulful, bluesy sound that even got him hired by Blood Sweat and Tears. A 23-year-old McCoy Tyner was on piano, and Henderson’s Recorda Mebecame a jazz standard.

Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures
Cecil Taylor – Unit Structures 
Blue Note advanced its commitment to the 60s avant garde, and Reid Miles’s cover nailed matters again in catching the scalding moment-to-moment intensity of pianist Cecil Taylor’s music. Taylor was steeped in modern classical music and jazz, and an implacable logic steered his most feverish flights.

Monk considered all musicians to be “subconsciously mathematicians”, and Lion was proud of Blue Note’s intellectualism. Cecil Taylor’s first album for Blue Note was entitled Unit Structures, and presented itself as an experiment in Einsteinian physics, with “time measurement as isolated matter abstracted from mind”: no matter how syncopated your steps are, it’s hard to dance or even tap your feet to a demonstration of the relativity theory. An album led by the percussionist Tony Williams drummed out a more metaphysical plaint. The liner notes claimed that Williams’s timpani, woodblocks, maracas and triangle made audible a cosmic uproar: “Everything which the universe has given life has a right to that life and a right to propel into that life all the values it can.” Remember that next time a neighbour turns up the volume of a boom box at three in the morning.
Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue
Blue Note was so confident, so good at doing the right thing, that the co-proprietor could see his famous photos shrunk to postage stamps – with designer Reid Miles popping some hip typographics in their place. Guitarist Kenny Burrell beautifully balanced soul power and elegance in this sensuous session.

The expressiveness of Lion’s musicians demanded lengthier recording sessions and longer-playing records: he favoured 12-inch, not 10-inch discs because, as he said, “these guys need more room to stretch out”. He may have been a little too indulgent towards his self-willed virtuosi. These evangelical messengers and monastic pianists came to rely on drugs as fuel for their instrumental fantasias, and Havers’s chronicle, despite its emphasis on the contribution of “musical searchers” like Wayne Shorter, can’t help noticing a succession of tormented lives and premature deaths.
At the Golden Circle by The Ornette Coleman Trio
Ornette Coleman Trio – Live at the Golden Circle
Blue Note took a chance with these live recordings from Stockholm. Saxist Coleman was a controversial figure who rejected the bebop tenets associated with the label, and the music was uncompromisingly wild. But Down Beat magazine voted it 1966 record of the year. This is free-jazz empathy at its best.

A sorry conclusion comes with the fate of the trumpeter Lee Morgan, who dispensed “soul jazz to the max” until in 1972 he was unsoulfully gunned down at the age of 33 by his commonlaw wife during a gig at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village. His wounds were superficial; Havers primly omits to mention that he bled to death on the floor because the ambulance was reluctant to venture into the lawless no-go area where Slug’s was located. Not all jazz clubs were as stylishly avant garde as the Village Vanguard.
The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder
When acid jazz hit dancefloors in the 1990s, trumpeter Lee Morgan’s funky 1964 blues theme The Sidewinder made a comeback – but it was big from the start. Alfred Lion pressed fewer than 5,000 copies at first, but he soon upped the numbers and the tune made the single charts.

Despite Lion’s admiration for “American vitalism”, jazzmen like Morgan proved to be rather too freely expressive and uncompromising for their own good. Shaw called music the brandy of the damned, and it’s all the more addictive if combined with heroin and cocaine. Blue is the colour of lush, sensual midnight, and also of a bleary, bruised, hungover dawn.

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression is published by Thames & Hudson.

Blue Train by John Coltrane
John Coltrane – Blue Train
That Francis Wolff shot of John Coltrane – pensive, self-absorbed, maybe imagining an elusive sound yet to be made on a saxophone – showed how Blue Note artwork could bring a musician’s interior journey into view. Blue Train, from 1958, foresaw the breakthroughs Coltrane would make in the 1960s.

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression review – classics in single measures
(Blue Note)

John Fordham
The Guardian
Thursday 13 November 2014

Jazz listeners expect their heroes to play the long game, so a box of 75 singles tracks from jazz’s most famous label might sound almost frivolous. But for all its memorable (and memorably designed) albums, Blue Note has always been in the singles business – heavyweights like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane released them, and creative idiom-colliders like Robert Glasper and Derrick Hodge reach out to new audiences via downloads today. 
Black Radio by Robert Glasper Experiment
Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio
Pianist Glasper calls Blue Note a “unique and very special family”. The appeal of his deep jazz awareness to the cognoscenti, and his direct line to a 21st-century hip-hop audience, reflects Blue Note’s legacy and its enduring instinct for keeping a finger on the pulse. 

This five-CD set is a companion to Thames & Hudson’s glamorous book of the same title, and Glasper, Hodge, Jason Moran and others star in a Blue Note celebration at the London jazz festival on 22 November. This box isn’t aimed at old jazz hands, but offers newcomers a wealth of succinctly delivered diversity. 
Empyrean Isles by Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles
Herbie Hancock was the biggest star Blue Note launched, his 1962 debut, Takin’ Off, showing he was a rare blend of improv genius and hitmaking songwriter. Empyrean Isles came two years later, with the 24-year-old boldly mingling hard bop, funk and free-jazz on just four long tracks.

Sidney Bechet’s shimmering, snarling 1939 version of Summertime, Monk’s stuttering, skidding, three-minute Thelonious, and Herbie Hancock’s ever-irresistible Watermelon Man are among 60 or so jazz classics, and if the final disc’s sweep across classic funk and contemporary pop has some lightweight moments, charismatic newer recruits such as Glasper, Bobby McFerrin, Cassandra Wilson and Gregory Porter make sure there aren’t that many.

Mode For Joe by Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson – Mode for Joe
Current Blue Note president Don Was discovered jazz through this title tune as a teenager. He says the“conversational” call-and-response exchanges were what turned him on. Saxophonist Henderson, a key contributor to many Blue Note sessions, inimitably blended hot and cool.

Come Away With Me by Norah Jones
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
Jazz sales slumped in the late 1960s, Alfred Lion sold up, Francis Wolff died, and Blue Note hibernated under various owners. But, as always, jazz came back. New boss Bruce Lundvall and producer Michael Cuscuna imaginatively revived the label for a new public in 1985, and Norah Jones’s 25m-selling album in 2001 secured the future.

Bop glasses ad featured in  Uncompromising Expression: Blue Note: 75 Years of The Finest in Jazz by Richard Havers
Bop glasses ad
The 1940s bebop movement was a hipster subculture and a musical revolution. Rejecting 1930s swing’s commercialism, beboppers sought tougher technical challenges, weirder chords, fusions with 20th-century classical music and intellectual respectability. Berets, goatee beards and specs became the uniform.

If only...

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